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Eyam, The Plauge Village
While on a holiday this past summer in Derbyshire UK I had the amazing honor of visiting the village of Eyam. The amazing history of this village just about had me in tears. I had never before felt such a real connection with history as I did in Eyam. In Eyam history is not just facts and figures in a book and the stories of individuals is both moving and emotive.
In 1665 a flea infested bundle of cloth was delivered to the tailor George Viccars. This cloth was from London and within a week George Viccars was dead. The plague quickly spread through the house, claiming the lives of Viccars two stepsons, his employer and his closest neighbors. The outbreak of plague or 'the black death' spread throughout the village of Eyam, taking the lives of whole families and households. Inexplicably some lives were untouched by the plague and others recovered.
Eyam Plague victims were hero's
In the light of how little was understood of how this (or any) disease was spread and the fatality rate from infection I find it amazing that the villagers took to a self imposed quarantine. There were indeed many who fled the village early on, those with money and families to turn to outside of the village, before the decision was made to impose a quarantine.
The stories of individuals during this quarantine is poignant.The Reverend William Mompesson, with the support of his predecessor, the less fashionable Puritan Reverend Thomas Stanley together instigated and implemented this quarantine. The Reverend William Mompesson did try to send his family away first but his wife refused to leave him alone in the face of this nightmare. The children were sent away to visit family and the Reverend and his wife stayed to help the village. Katherine Mompesson became the 208'th victim and died in her husbands arms on August 25th, just a couple of months before the cold autumn of 1666 extinguished the disease. It was known that she had fallen ill when she commented the the air smelled sweet, the first sign of the plague. She told her husband to leave her but he refused.
One story tells of a woman who broke the quarantine to visit the nearby village of Tideswell on market day. When she was identified she had to flee home under a hail of stones and missiles. She did not try to break quarantine again.
Another story tells of a woman in the throws of the plague who consumed an entire jug of bacon fat and recovered. Yet another story is of Mrs. Hancock who buried her husband and six children in the space of just eight days but who herself survived the plague without falling ill.
My favorite story is of the lovers. Emmot Sydall from Eyam and Rowland Torre, from a neighboring village. Cucklett Delf was their secret meeting place where they would call to each other from across the rocks of the river (or amphitheater, accounts vary online, in Eyam it is told that they called from across the river) until Emmott Sydall herself feel victim to the plague.
Eyam Quarentine saved lives
It is evident that the quarantine taken by the villagers of Eyam greatly reduced the chances of the illness spreading and saved the lives of many of the villagers from the neighboring villages. The lives they spared is uncountable but could easily be counted into the thousands. The biblical edict 'Greater love hath no man then this, that a man lay down his life for his friends' was their motivation and to their great honor it can be said they did indeed possess this greater love.
The provisions for this quarantine were vigilant. Food and other supplies where left at the outskirts of the village from the surrounding villages and even from a local Nobleman. The villagers of Eyam were eager to pay for these goods and would leave coins in fast flowing water or vinegar.
The other provisions taken where to hold the church services in the open air to reduce the chance for the infection to spread. Only Cathrine Mompesson was buried in the church cemetery, fear that the plague victims would spread the illness to the bodies of those who died of other causes and thus spread to their families was great. The right to a burial in consecrated ground was sacrificed and the dead where buried near their homes. Oddly, the village gravedigger, in spite of handling and burying upwards of 250 plague corpses never fell ill himself.
The self sacrifice these people made may well echo well into the future as the survivors descendants are now of major interest to scientists. A CCR5 gene mutation called 'Delta 32' can be found in a significant number of direct descendants of the plague survivors. This mutation appears to be very rare and it has been suggested that the Delta 32 mutation if inherited from both parents may provide immunity to HIV/AIDS.
The Plague today
You may not realize this but the Bubonic Plague has not gone away and still exists today. The World Health Organization still records hundreds of cases each year. Thankfully with modern medicine the plague is now treatable and controllable but it is well known to still exists in the fleas of certain animals from Asia to the American Southwest.
If a serious outbreak of plague where to hit your community would you quarantine yourself? Knowing that you were quarantining yourself in close proximity to the illness? Or would you flea and hope to escape the illness, taking the risk that you may just spread it? I personally hope this is a question I never actually have to answer.
I would like to wrap this up by saying that our visit to Eyam was enjoyed by all of us. The kids loved finding the houses of the plague victims and survivors, it made the piece of history really real for them and as for us grown up's, we were just about in tears reading the various stories of brave individuals. I highly recommend that if you are visiting near Derbyshire that you visit the village of Eyam on your holiday!