In the depths of England’s Great Plague of 1665-1666, the Derbyshire village of Eyam isolated itself in order not to spread the infection to other villages. Eyam (pronounced “Eem”) is situated in the county of Derbyshire, a few miles south of Sheffield, where I lived as a young boy. My parents dragged my brother and me along on Sunday afternoons on what to me were tedious drives through that craggy Derbyshire countryside. There was talk about the brave Eyam residents, and I’m sure we drove through their village, but I don’t remember it. My images of those Derbyshire villages have melded into a single cluster of narrow streets, stone houses (small but not quite cottages), and cheerful shop fronts.
The Great Plague was centered in London, and though numerous other communities were affected, it wasn’t as nationwide in England as the Black Death had been in 1348-1353. Legend has it that a bundle of cloth delivered from London to Eyam contained a nest of plague-infested fleas.
The dying in Eyam started in September, 1665, paused during the winter, then returned with a vengeance in the spring. All in all, it lasted fourteen months. Wikipedia reports: “… one account states that it [the plague] killed at least 260 villagers, with only 83 surviving out of a population of 350.” The same Wikipedia entry notes that another estimate is of “430 survivors from a population of around 800.” A separate, more general Wikipedia entry on the Great Plague puts the death rate in Eyam at about 33%. Anyway you look at it, the plague was a catastrophe for Eyam. In a village that size, every survivor must have known every victim and been close to several.
The country, and so presumably the village, had already been through tumultuous times. A seven-years-long civil war had culminated in 1649 with the execution of the king, Charles I, followed by the eleven-year republic, known as the Interregnum, when the country was ruled by Parliament and the puritanical Oliver Cromwell. Side by side with civic strife was the ongoing struggle between Puritans, more mainstream Protestants and Catholics. But change is hard to sustain, and the monarchy was restored in 1660. Just five years later, when it seemed things were at long last getting back to normal, the Great Plague struck.
A typically dry Wikipedia paragraph gives a surprisingly moving glimpse of life in Eyam at that time and the remarkable decisions they made and adhered to:
As the disease spread, the villagers turned for leadership to their rector, the Reverend William Mompesson, and the ejected Puritan minister Thomas Stanley. These introduced a number of precautions to slow the spread of the illness from May 1666. They included the arrangement that families were to bury their own dead and relocation of church services to the natural amphitheater of Cucklett Delph, allowing villagers to separate themselves and so reducing the risk of infection. Perhaps the best-known decision was to quarantine the entire village to prevent further spread of the disease.
Though Reverend Mompesson was a young man new to Eyam, he was the village’s leader, while the Puritan Thomas Stanley was a respected lifelong resident but lacked formal authority. The two men apparently set aside their religious, and probably political, differences in order to provide effective leadership. They even set aside religious principles when they required that plague victims be buried outside the church cemetery, even though interment in sacred ground was deemed necessary for the dead to rise to heaven.
Online sources suggest that in the early days, some villagers fled. Indeed, even though Mompesson and his wife, Catherine, stayed behind, they spared their children by sending them away to a safer place. Let me turn that sentence around: Mompesson and his wife, Catherine, sent their children away to safety, but they stayed behind to care for the villagers. In fact, Catherine, though consumptive, nursed the sick and was to die from the plague.
In any event, it seems that once the quarantine was decided on, no one violated it. Such determination in the face of an unseen pestilence. What an act of love for their neighboring villages.
I try to imagine what living conditions were like. Aside from the absence of indoor plumbing, there was no electric lighting at night and no central heating. In May 1666, when Reverend Mompesson issued his instructions, the days would be on the warm side and long, but the hot summer was another matter, as would have been rainy days at any time of year. It’s painful to think of someone feeling miserably ill, too hot, and shunned by practically the whole world. If you were lucky, your family stayed around you, but in that case you had them on your conscience because chances were you’d infect them. Even burying you might lead to them getting it.
Although Geraldine Brooks’ novel about Eyam, Year of Wonders (2014), assumes accusations of witchcraft, I find no indication online that the village blamed witches. Accused witches were scapegoats for terrible events elsewhere in the seventeenth century. (Brooks admits she made up much of the story, including giving Mompesson a new name and a “dark side.”) It seems Eyam’s leaders, at least, didn’t blame any human agent. That’s remarkable in itself. Victims often seek somebody to lash out at. Indeed, some today blame foreigners for bringing COVID-19 to the United States.
Merchants in neighboring villages and towns, including the then tiny Sheffield, supplied Eyam with food and medicine, which they left at stones that Eyam’s residents set up to mark the village’s border. Although people in the seventeenth century are said to have had no awareness of microbes and the nature of infectious diseases, the residents paid for the supplies with coins soaked in vinegar, believed at the time to be a disinfectant, that they left in the boundary stones.
True, the villagers lacked many of the protections and assurances to which we today are accustomed. The concept of a vaccine didn’t exist, and there was no hope of a medical cure being discovered. Indeed, the Black Death, the first bubonic plague to hit England, was hardly a beacon of hope. The measures that Reverend Mompesson convinced his parishioners to adopt suggests he, at least, knew about that and other earlier plagues. Curiously, those measures were eerily similar to those we’re taking in 2020: isolation, separation from others, “shelter in place,” limited group sizes.
Such details bring back what I dimly recall from boyhood. At the time, that era seemed as far away as the farthest foreign country. All disasters did. I’d been born nine years after the end of the Second World War, then the country’s most recent calamity. Even though I reveled in histories, novels and films about that war, I had the sense of security from knowing the end of the overriding story: While vicariously experiencing terrible danger, I myself was safe. It was even more true when it came to the Great Plague. That said, I felt for the victims of those past tragedies. I wondered if I would have had their courage.
Now that I’m in America, in what may be only the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, I haven’t absorbed the full impact of what may befall us. How could I, with so much confusing information and contradictory statements from our leaders?
An example of the seemingly contradictory strictures we suddenly live under: Last week I went for a haircut with a woman who had never done my hair before. On being introduced, I reflexively stuck out my hand. In her Russian accent, which I only partly made out, she laughed and said, “No handshaking, no kissing.” I was embarrassed that I’d let habit take over from the protective measures we must act on now. But as she went to work, she kept touching my hair and face, used instruments I’m sure weren’t sterilized, and breathed close by. At the end, I pulled out some dollar bills from my pocket and handed the tip to her. (Hairdressing salons are still operating in the city as of today.)
There is no failsafe way of avoiding the virus. Simply unpacking groceries puts us at risk. Come home and wash your hands thoroughly. Then take out the items from the bag. Wash hands thoroughly. Leave non-perishables on the kitchen counter overnight, or longer, for any virus to die. But put perishables, such as milk, in the refrigerator, even though the cold temperature is likely to support any virus. Close refrigerator door, possibly infecting the handle. Wash hands thoroughly.
But the guidelines aren’t nonsensical. For all we know, my washing hands the other day, or this morning, or just five minutes ago, has spared myself, my wife and others I encounter.
I’m determined to stay calm and enjoy these preternaturally peaceful days. It’s Laura who has taken on all the anxiety. Thanks to her, we are stocked as well as we could be for the foreseeable future.
The only high-risk factor we fall into is age. Otherwise, we don’t have any of the health conditions deemed even greater risk factors. But we have family and friends who do. Sadly, most of these friends live a cab ride, a train journey or an airline flight away. In a city where travel is discouraged and may soon become illegal, we can only offer them our moral support. Of course, we also have friends in our apartment building. For the time being, we can be a little more concrete in our support for them, if needed, as they can be for us.
I live in two Eyams: the one spread around the city, the country and the world, and the other, close by, of our neighbors. I think of these two Eyams as I watch the daily statistics, the graph’s curve right now turning ever more sharply upward. The news, despite the human-interest stories, necessarily boils down to these statistics. It is in our own Eyams that tragedy, along with joy, will truly be felt.
For the past few days, I’ve been moved by my re-imagining of Cucklett Delph, that sheep-grazed grass clearing in the Pennine hills, and the limestone arch from which Reverend Mompesson and Thomas Stanley addressed their congregation. The spring-warm sun is shining on that gathering of neighbors resolved not to pass the virus along to the villages nearby. They think of themselves, of course, and they are anxious. Some voice anger. But anxiety does not make them waver from their commitment. There they are: families standing twelve feet apart from the other families, or perhaps seated on the ground; each man, woman and child knowing they may already be infected or that the person standing over there might be; taking instruction, gracefully accepting direction and words of consolation.
Now, as it did for Eyam, the world has changed on us. A time for fortitude has arrived.