This 17th-Century British Village Became a Plague Quarantine
This 17th-Century British Village Became a Plague Quarantine

This 17th-Century British Village Became a Plague Quarantine

Jennifer Conerly - July 31, 2017

Eyam is a small town in Derbyshire, England, but those familiar with the history of the plague know it well. When the Black Death arrived there in 1665, the people of Eyam stayed and cared for their own, shutting themselves off from the outside world. While most people wanted to run for the hills, Eyam became a plague quarantine to stop the spread of the disease, choosing to die to save others in their district from the same fate.

The bacteria that caused the Black Plague came from central Asia, where it traveled along the route of the Silk Road, reaching Europe by 1347. Spread by fleas that lived on rats that frequently boarded merchant ships, the Black Death quickly burned through 30-60% of the European population in the fourteenth century. After it first arrived in Europe, it stayed, ebbing and flowing from small outbreaks to pandemic levels until the nineteenth century.

This 17th-Century British Village Became a Plague Quarantine
The Spread of the Bubonic Plague in Europe. Wikipedia Commons

When the plague reached Europe at the end of the 1340s, it entered many locations, contributing to the high death toll. It reached Italy in January 1348, and from there, spread to northern Europe by June of that year. When it reached England, there were continuous outbreaks over the next four centuries, reaching its highest points in 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625, 1636, and again in the Great Plague of London of 1665. It seemed like the plague would never go away.

Despite the plague’s constant presence in Europe from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries, we know now that it is transferred through bites from fleas and rats infected with the plague virus, not through human-to-human contact. We also know that the plague didn’t continuously survive in Europe for those four hundred years. It would kill off the rodents that carried it, and another outbreak in Asia would move through the Silk Road and come to Europe through trade routes and start the spread all over again.

The study of medicine and science came to a halt in the Middle Ages, so there was little scientific knowledge to go on. People in the medieval world thought there was a religious reason behind the mass devastation of the plague outbreaks. They saw it as God’s punishment for their wickedness. It is easy to see why. Most people who contracted the plague died from it. If you came into contact with anyone who had it, you usually died, too. It was known to wipe out whole families and entire neighborhoods, rarely sparing anyone.

This 17th-Century British Village Became a Plague Quarantine
Great Plague of London, 1665. Wikipedia Commons

In 1665, the last major outbreak of bubonic plague came to England. Known as the Great Plague of London, it devastated the overpopulated city for almost two years. Thought to have come from an outbreak in the Netherlands, it killed up to 7,000 people a week and close to 100,000 people overall. There was chaos in the streets of London. The rich and middle-class left the city, leaving the poor and those who didn’t have the means to leave to perish. As the plague spread throughout the city, trade had almost entirely stopped, and businesses were closed.

Eventually, as the disease spread, people were prevented from leaving, whether they were healthy or not. Crosses marked the homes where infected people lived. The homes marked with crosses were barricaded, so even if you weren’t sick, you were sure to die soon. People left their dead family members in the doorways of their homes for the men driving the plague carts to pick up to bring to the plague pits. When the death toll reached its highest point, the pits looked like mountains of dead bodies.

Although the Great Plague was concentrated in London, it spread to other areas–wherever the fleas infected with the disease went. It is believed to have arrived in Eyam, Derbyshire in a box of cloth. Edward Cooper was a trader who lived in the village, and his servant George Vickers was the first person to touch the cloth. Vickers separated the samples and hung them up to dry since they were damp when they arrived. Within four days, he had died of the plague. Others in the household soon died, and Cooper himself was dead two weeks later.

This 17th-Century British Village Became a Plague Quarantine
Eyam Parish Church. The Church houses many records from the plague outbreak. Wikipedia Commons

The people of Eyam were beginning to panic. Another 26 people had died by the end of the next month. The deaths slowed down during the winter months, but by summer 1666, 1/5 of the town’s small population of 360 were dead. Many were threatening to leave the town, which would, according to scientific thought at the time, spread the plague further. The people of Eyam turned to the town’s religious leaders, Thomas Stanley and Reverend William Mompesson, for guidance.

Thomas Stanley, the former rector of Eyam, still lived in the small town. He was a Puritan dissenter who had refused to convert to the Church of England when the monarchy was restored in 1660. Although he lost his position, Stanley remained in the town to train his new successor, Reverend William Mompesson. When the plague broke out, Stanley and Mompesson joined forces to reassure the people of the town. The two men had an interesting idea, one that would take some major convincing.

This 17th-Century British Village Became a Plague Quarantine
Eyam “Plague Cottages”. The group of cottages in Eyam where the plague outbreak is believed to have started. They are now major tourist attractions. Crossbrook Multimedia

Mompesson and Stanley convinced the people of Eyam to stay and help each other, instead of leaving the town and spreading the plague further into the district of Derbyshire and points beyond. How they managed to convince everyone to stay and face certain death is in itself an incredible feat, but they stayed. They established some ground rules to keep exposure to a minimum. Families would bury their dead family members near their homes, not in the communal churchyard. They moved the church’s religious services out of the closed-in church to the open-air amphitheater at Cucklett Delph to give everyone spiritual guidance, but to also allow people to separate the sick from the healthy.

This 17th-Century British Village Became a Plague Quarantine
Boundary Stone. People from neighboring villages would leave food and supplies for the people of Eyam at boundary stones like this one along the outskirts of the village. The people of Eyam would then leave money soaked in vinegar, which was believed to kill infection. Wikipedia Commons

Eyam’s neighbors recognized the efforts that Eyam went through to prevent plague outbreaks to save others. People from neighboring villages would leave food and supplies near boundary stones at the outskirts of town for them. The people of Eyam would then leave vinegar-soaked money, which was believed to kill the infection, on the same boundary stones as payment for the goods. Eyam effectually became a plague quarantine for over a year, closing itself off from the outside world. The town suffered greatly, losing ¾ of its inhabitants. Church records claim that 273 people died of the disease from 1665-1666.

Everyone who lived in Eyam lost someone. In some cases, people survived despite repeated exposure, while in others, whole families were wiped out. A woman named Elizabeth Hancock survived the plague but buried six of her children and her husband within an eight-day period. Marshall Howe, the town’s gravedigger, also survived, although he handled many infected dead bodies in a single day. However, the Reverend’s wife Catherine Mompesson, who spent her last days visiting the sick, was one of the last people who died during the outbreak.

We now know that the steps that Eyam took probably did them more harm than good. By isolating themselves the way they did, they probably increased the number of people that died. Plague still reached other areas of Derbyshire, with many deaths recorded in some areas. This was exactly what the people of Eyam were trying to avoid. Still, we will never know how much worse the death tolls in Derbyshire would have been if Eyam hadn’t taken the steps that they did.

Eyam now owns its history as the “plague village.” Since 1866, the two-hundred-year anniversary of the outbreak, the people of Eyam have celebrated Plague Sunday to honor the dead, and they lay a wreath on Catherine Mompesson’s grave. Eyam Museum has an exhibit that focuses on the town’s plague history. Eyam Parish Church houses many records from the time. The cottages where the outbreak is believed to have started, the boundary stones where people left food and vinegar-soaked money, and the gravestones where people had to bury their dead are now tourist attractions. So, was it worth it? To the people of Eyam, it is.

 

Sources For Further Reading:

History Extra – Black Death Quarantine: How Did We Try To Contain The Deadliest Disease In History?

The Londonist – London’s Seen Much Worse Than Coronavirus: Remembering The Great Plague Of 1665

Villages News – Medieval Village Self-Quarantined For 14 Months To Prevent Spread Of The Plague

History Channel – Social Distancing and Quarantine Were Used in Medieval Times to Fight the Black Death

BBC Travel – Did This Sleepy Village Stop The Great Plague?

Associate Press – Village Remembered For Sacrifice Of Residents During Plague

 

Related:

History Collection – 17 Creepy Details in the Life of a Body Collector During the Bubonic Plague

History Collection – A Plague in the Middle Ages Caused People to Dance Themselves to Death

History Collection – 6 Myths About the Black Death Plague

History Collection -Seven Deadliest Plagues in History

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