I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
An outbreak of plague devastated London in 1664 and 1665. It arrived in the village of Eyam in the late summer of 1665. The villagers made an amazingly heroic decision to isolate themselves from the outside world in an attempt to stamp out the terrible disease.
Between the 13th and 17th centuries, Europe was ravaged by a series of outbreaks of bubonic plague. An estimated 150 million people died from the disease.
The Centers for Disease Control tells us that “We now know that plague is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis that often infects small rodents (like rats, mice, and squirrels) and is usually transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected flea.”
Symptoms appear within a week of being infected and these are headaches, weakness, and fever. Then, painful black swellings, called buboes, develop in the groin and arm pits. Untreated, the buboes seep blood and pus and the patient’s immune system is overwhelmed. The fatality rate is about 50 percent.
The Pain of the Swelling was in particular very violent, and to some intolerable; the Physicians and Surgeons may be said to have tortured many poor Creatures, even to Death.
The Plague Reaches Eyam
The village of Eyam (pronounced eem) sits in Central England’s Peak District, about 35 miles south of Manchester. In 1665, it had a population of about 350 (one source says 800).
In August 1665, the village tailor, George Viccars, received a shipment of cloth from his supplier in London. Hidden within the folds of the material were fleas in need of a blood meal. As he undid the bundle he became the unfortunate person to feed the fleas. Within a week he died in agony.
The rest of his family and several other villagers suffered the same miserable fate. However, the infections died down during the winter as cold weather caused the fleas to become dormant.
By the spring of 1666, the plague was back in Eyam, and this is where two clergymen step into the picture. Thomas Stanley was a previous rector and William Mompesson the current vicar of the village. Their position put them in place as the natural leaders of the community.
The two men persuaded their flock to isolate themselves from the rest of the country. A stone perimeter was set up around the village and the people vowed not to cross it. For many, the decision amounted to signing their own death warrant.
This action was counter to the steps others took, which was to flee a plague outbreak sometimes leaving sick family members behind. The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio noted during a 14th century pandemic: “Thus doing, each thought to secure immunity for himself.”
It didn't really work as infected people took the disease into new communities.
Death Came to Eyam
People outside the quarantined village brought food and left it at the stone boundary. The villagers left money to pay for their supplies.
Meanwhile, those inside the village watched as the disease took their loved ones.
Eleanor Ross describes (BBC) how “Over the course of eight days … Elizabeth Hancock lost her six children and her husband. Covering her mouth with a handkerchief against the stench of decay, she dragged their bodies to a nearby field and buried them.” Elizabeth and one of her children survived.
In August 1666, Rev. Mompesson buried his 27-year-old wife Catherine. He carried out the many funeral services in the open air, hoping to cut down on passing the infection around. Villagers had to carve the headstones of family members when the stone mason died.
One man, Marshall Howe, contracted the pestilence but survived. He believed himself immune so he was happy to dig graves and bury the dead. His acts were not purely altruistic as he stole whatever trinkets he could from the cadavers. Later, his own family was wiped out and it’s speculated he brought the disease home with him along with the pilfered belongings.
The Mortem family lost 18 members. The last to go was farm labourer Abraham who died in his 20s on November 1, 1666. Two hundred and fifty-nine villagers had passed away ahead of him; Ayem had suffered a mortality rate of almost 75 percent. Reverend William Mompesson was one of the few survivors.
The Isolation Worked
While the village of Eyam was devastated nearby communities escaped the plague. The University of Derby’s Dr. Michael Sweet told the BBC, “Without the restraint of the villagers many more people, especially from neighbouring villages, would have more than likely succumbed to the disease.
“It is remarkable how effective the isolation was in this instance.”
Every year, on the last Sunday in August, a memorial service is held at a place called Cucklett Delf, which is where Rev. Mompressor conducted worship during the time of the plague.
Now, blessed be God, all our fears are over for none have died of the plague since the eleventh of October and the pest-houses have long been empty.
Reverend William Momresson
An early sign that someone had become infected by bubonic plague was that they smelled a sweet odour. One evening, the Rev. Mompressor and his wife were out for a walk and she remarked how sweet the air smelt; the next day she was in the clutches of the plague. Eleanor Ross of the BBC explains that “Gruesomely, the pleasant scent was brought on by a person’s olfactory glands detecting that their internal organs were collapsing and rotting.”
In the absence of medical knowledge most people in the Middle Ages believed that bubonic plague was created by God as a punishment for bad behaviour. To calm God down prayer and penitence were needed. So flagellants paraded through the streets. They flogged their backs with leather whips embedded with sharp metal pieces. They did this three times a day for about a month in one town before moving on to the next community. The bubonic plague proved to be indifferent to the self-inflicted pain of the flagellants.
Bubonic plague still occurs in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Algeria, Madagascar, and, yes, the United States.
Reported Plague Cases by Country, 2010-2015
- “Black Death.” History.com, September 17, 2010.
- “Living with the Plague.” BBC Legacies, undated.
- “Eyam And The Great Plague Of 1665.” C.N. Trueman, The History Learning Site, March 17, 2015.
- “Eyam Plague: The Village of the Damned.” David McKenna, BBC News, November 5, 2016.
- “Eyam Plague Village.” Atlas Obscura, undated.
- “Did this Sleepy Village Stop the Black Death?” Eleanor Ross, BBC Travel, October 26, 2015.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Robie Benve from Ohio on July 27, 2019:
It always amazes me when I think of how many people were swept away by the plague. I find myself wondering how they world would be different now if they survived.
Liz Westwood from UK on July 27, 2019:
The museum highlighted some harrowing stories, such as that of a lady who buried her husband and all but one of her children, who survived because they lived in Sheffield.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 27, 2019:
Hi Liz. I hope I did justice to the courage of the villagers. I cannot imagine such self-sacrifice occurring in today's world and I would probably have to shamefully include myself in that.
Liz Westwood from UK on July 27, 2019:
We recently visited Eyam, so I have read your article with interest. The museum there gave a good account of the events that overtook the village.