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Eyam, the Brave Medieval Village That Stopped the Plague

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The true story of the English plague village of Eyam whose people quarantined themselves and saved thousands of lives.

The true story of the English plague village of Eyam whose people quarantined themselves and saved thousands of lives.

An Unremarkable Medieval Village

At first glance, Eyam appears like an ordinary English medieval village, one among the thousands of quaint villages nestled in the countryside.

Eyam (pronounced eem), is a village in the central North of England, about 13 miles Southwest of the Yorkshire city of Sheffield. Eyam which means ‘place between streams’ was been populated since Roman times.

The village during medieval times had a population of 600 people and was known for its lead mining activities. It also had a 14th-century church of St. Lawrence, with an 8th-century Celtic cross in the churchyard. Eyam's quintessential, picture-postcard cottages, ancient church, and the lush green countryside still make it an ideal destination for people wanting to escape the grueling schedule of city life.

However, Eyam has a dark story that is accentuated by a curious feature situated just outside the main village. It is a wall made up of rough flat stones punctuated by small openings in between. The wall tells us the remarkable story of bravery, sacrifice, and final triumph of an entire village over one of the most dangerous epidemics that devastated mankind.

8th Century Saxon cross, Eyam church, Derbyshire, England

8th Century Saxon cross, Eyam church, Derbyshire, England

The Black Death

The Black Death was a plague pandemic that devastated Europe, killing an estimated 25-30 million people.

The disease, caused by a bacillus bacterium, originated in central Asia and was taken from there to the Crimea by Mongol warriors and traders. And it was called black death because it could turn the skin and sores black while other symptoms include fever and joint pains.

And in 1665, the last and greatest wave of the plague (known as the Great plague) hit London. Over the next year, it killed more than 100,000 people – anywhere from a quarter to two-fifths of the population.

From London, the plague spread to nearby surrounding areas and into East Anglia and from there, it reached the village of Eyam. This was the start of a plague that ravaged the village for the next 14 months.

Famous row of cottages in the historic village of Eyam in the Peak District national park. The first victims of a 17th-century plague epidemic died in these cottages.

Famous row of cottages in the historic village of Eyam in the Peak District national park. The first victims of a 17th-century plague epidemic died in these cottages.

It All Started with a Consignment from London

The story of the Eyam plague began with the arrival of a consignment of cloth from London, where the disease had already killed 30 percent of the population. In the London consignment, there were fleas from infected black rats carrying the deadly plague bacteria.

A tailor’s assistant called George Viccars was said to have opened the delivery unknowingly stirring the disease-ridden fleas. Upon inspection, Viccars noticed that the cloth was damp. He hung it before his fire to dry, not realizing that it was playing host to fleas that were carrying the bubonic plague. He became the first of the plague’s victims in the village some 10 days later.

The pestilence, as it was later known, began its brutal surge through the community. Between September and December 1665, almost 50 villagers died and by the following spring, more deaths happened with many villagers on the verge of fleeing their homes and their livelihoods to save themselves.

Old stone near the Eyam in the Peak District. Known as the plague village due to an outbreak in the 17th century. The stone has holes in which money was placed in vinegar as payment for goods left for the villagers.

Old stone near the Eyam in the Peak District. Known as the plague village due to an outbreak in the 17th century. The stone has holes in which money was placed in vinegar as payment for goods left for the villagers.

The Quarantine of Eyam

It was at this point that the newly appointed vicar, William Mompesson came into the picture. He came up with the opinion that it is his moral duty to prevent the plague from spreading to other towns and cities and for that, he needs to quarantine Eyam completely.

But there was a problem. He was not a popular person in the village and he knew if this quarantine has to work, he need to enlist the support of his popular predecessor Thomas Stanley in the hope that, together they could persuade the villagers to carry out their controversial lockdown plan.

Mompesson and Stanley agreed to work together, ignoring the mutual bad blood between them, and jointed conducted a meeting with the villagers appraising them of the importance of the quarantine. The village must be enclosed, with no one allowed in or out. The Earl of Devonshire, who lived nearby at Chatsworth House, also agreed to send supplies if the locals agreed to the quarantine.

It was a long, hard discussion but most villagers finally agreed not to leave the town until the disease had run its course.

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The villagers created an exclusion zone of large flat stones beyond the borders of the village. Meat and grain brought from neighboring villages were left by the stones and, in exchange, the villagers left coins in bowls of vinegar in the hollows of the stones. They believed the vinegar cleansed the coins of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, within the village, untold suffering continued as the disease continued to multiply. Historic stone markers currently around the village indicate that the entire families were wiped off by the disease. People had to bury their own dead. No one was untouched by tragedy.

As a letter written by the venerable William Mompesson says.

“Our town has become a Golgotha----the place of a skull. My ears never heard such doleful lamentations, my nose never smelt such horrid smells and my eyes never beheld such ghastly spectacles”

On 1 November 1666, a young farmer named Abraham Morten took one final, agonizing breath. He was the last of 260 people to die in Eyam. The villagers of Eyam finally stopped the spread of plague by their courageous, selfless actions, and in doing so, ensured that they would not become yet another set of nameless statistics generated by the horrible pandemic.

Eyam teaches us several survival lessons that we can use even today.

The grave of Mary Darby, who died on the 4th September after contracting the bubonic plague, stands at then edge of village of Eyam in Derbyshire.

The grave of Mary Darby, who died on the 4th September after contracting the bubonic plague, stands at then edge of village of Eyam in Derbyshire.

A Good Quarantine Is All About Communication

In medieval England, medical facilities were non-existent. Oxygen was yet to be discovered and doctors still thought that blood was pumped around our bodies by the magnetic force of the moon. The dangers of bacteria and the importance of hygiene were still a couple of hundred years away.

But the villagers made up for all these deficits by effective and regular communication with each other and by showing love, compassion, and togetherness to fight the battle together.

A bad quarantine means people don’t get good information about what they’re doing and don’t have a good rationale for why it’s needed. They don’t have access to basic supplies or health care and don’t have good communication. This is a sure-shot recipe for poor mental health and depression.

Communication is the key that helped the people of Eyam win over the epidermic.

The Riley Graves seen in the field on the left of the road are an important historical site on the outskirts of the 'Plague Village' of Eyam in the Peak District national park.

The Riley Graves seen in the field on the left of the road are an important historical site on the outskirts of the 'Plague Village' of Eyam in the Peak District national park.

Social Distancing Is Mandatory

For residents of Eyam even today, social distancing is an old tried-and-tested concept.

As local historian Ian Smith says.

“In some respects, the villagers were well ahead of their time. They didn’t know what the affliction was, but they reasoned that close contact with other people was how the illness was passing from one to another. In fact, infected fleas had been brought into the village in a bundle of cloth. They recognized the necessary business of keeping apart from other people.”

And in medieval Eyam, “social distancing” in the midst of a plague outbreak meant not only isolation but also included open-air funeral services that reduced physical proximity, and families burying their own dead in fields and gardens rather than the village graveyard.

Mompessons Well in the great plague village of Eyam in Debyshire, UK

Mompessons Well in the great plague village of Eyam in Debyshire, UK

Good Leadership Is Important

Confronted by mounting deaths, the village’s newly arrived priest, William Mompesson, agreed to an uneasy alliance with his ejected popular predecessor Thomas Stanley – to convince villagers that the right thing to do was quarantine the village, rather than spread the plague.

He swallowed his ego and joined forces with the man he hated for the greater good of the village. A great leader, Mompesson, despite losing his wife Catherine to plague, continued to shepherd his flock through the darkness, leading them in prayer in a grassy dell rather than the dangerous confines of the church.

Yes, there are records that indicate that he employed police officials to restrict movement with constables standing on parish boundaries to enforce the quarantine. But this is yet another, quieter form of heroism, but no less courageous.

Leadership is about inspiring people to be their best, not necessarily being the hero and Mompesson fitted the bill perfectly.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ravi Rajan

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