Covid-19 echoes lesson taught by Eyam in the 1665 battle with the Black Death

The Covid-19 crisis is a powerful reminder of how the inhabitants of the Derbyshire village that decided to self-isolate themselves in order to save others.

Between the villages of Eyam and Stoney Middleton, lies a gritstone boulder called the “boundary stone”.

During the 1665-1666 outbreak of the Bubonic Plague, in a famous act of self-sacrifice, the inhabitants of Eyam decided to quarantine themselves, so as to prevent the deadly disease from spreading. The inhabitants of Eyam would come to place money in six holes drilled into the top of the boundary stone, filled with vinegar (believed to kill the infection) in exchange for food supplies and medicine left by their concerned neighbours.

The boundary stone

The Great Plague in Eyam

In August 1665, the Bubonic Plaque (also known as the Black Death) reached the home of village tailor George Vicars, via a parcel of cloth he had ordered from London. As the cloth was damp, it hung out in front of the fire to dry, releasing the plague-infested fleas, claiming George as its first victim, who died of a raging fever on 7th September 1665.

As the number of deaths continued to increase, the village’s newly-ordained priest, William Mompesson, together with his Puritan predecessor Thomas Stanley managed to convince villagers that the only thing to do was quarantine the village, and face almost certain death, rather than spread the plague to neighbouring areas.

The Plague raged through Eyam for the following 14 months, causing at least 260 victims, until 1st November 1666, when it claimed its last victim. By the end of the outbreak, over a ¼ of the local population, amounting to about 1,000 people were dead.

“Social distancing” in 17th-century Eyam, meant not only isolation but also funeral services that were conducted outdoors reducing physical proximity with families forced to bury their own victims in fields and gardens rather than the local graveyard.

Eyam’s selfless villagers, with strong Christian beliefs, showed extreme personal courage and sense of self-sacrifice. Thanks to them, the Plague had been prevented from spreading to other parishes.

Once again, the experience of those villagers has proved to be a rude awakening as families, communities, towns and even countries on a global scale have to tackle the concept of quarantine.

The term originates from the Italian ‘quaranta giorni’, a clear reference to the 14th century practice requiring plague-infected ships from Venice to remain anchored for 40 days prior to landing.

 For modern-day residents of Eyam, the escalating fears provoked by the voracious Coronavirus have caused powerful echoes of those lessons learnt following the imposed self-isolation of those bygone days.

Eyam’s tragic yet courageous story proves to be a clear message to many, remaining an indomitable example not only of how viruses can be transmitted but also how effective social-distancing can actually contain further outbreaks.

A remembrance service is still held every Plague Sunday at Cucklett Delf, on the outskirts of the village.

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