A walk through England’s plague village

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This essay was first published on Medium, 6 July 2020.

A photo of Kaitlyn (tall white woman) standing between a red telephone booth and a red post box, her hand resting on the top of the post box. She's wearing a long brown coat with a fur-trimmed hood, a scarf tucked into her coat, black trousers, tall brown boots, and a grey tweed cap. It's a wet day. In the background you can see the Eyam Tea Rooms sign.
The author in 2008, grinning next to a red English phone box and a red English post box, around the corner from Eyam Tea Rooms. Yes, I’m wearing a tweed cap. | © Kaitlyn Blythe 2008

2008

I’d never heard of Eyam before I visited Derbyshire one late autumn, glorying in the russet, gold and green of the changing trees by the River Derwent. I was driven around by a friend, a Derby local who’d grown up sledding down those hills when they were covered in snow. I was only in northern England for one day so she was trying to show me as much as possible. After we’d seen Chatsworth House (at my insistence — it was Pemberley in 2005’s Pride & Prejudice!), my friend showed me the rest of the local sights.

It turned out Derbyshire’s tourist attractions were a bit less Mr Darcy and a bit more grimdark. As we tootled along tiny leafy lanes in her car, my friend pointed out a seemingly average cliff above us: “That’s Lover’s Leap.” A romantic name. She continued casually that it was notable because in Georgian times people would try to die by jumping off there. Oh. We drove on to our next stop, which I was informed was “lunch at the plague village”.

Eyam is a cute place — I’m sorry to the descendants of tough grizzled lead miners, but it’s so cute — nestled in rolling green hills, rustling trees and pale stone walls. It could literally be the village from Untitled Goose Game. You’d expect to see a groundskeeper in a flat cap chasing a horrible goose who’d stolen his prize tulip. It was jarring, then, to see on the side of the cottages lists of names, families who had died there. The village is pocked with green plaques reminding passers-by of the sacrifices that were made.

1665

During the summer of 1665, a London merchant sent a package of cloth samples to Eyam’s tailor. Within weeks, everyone in the tailor’s household had sickened and died. 1665 was the year of London’s Great Plague, when the Black Death wiped out a fifth of the city’s population. We now call it the bubonic plague, and we know more about what causes it and how it is transmitted. The cloth sample probably had infected fleas from London folded into its layers, carrying the disease. 1600s England did not have the benefit of this knowledge. Eyam’s residents were not sure how, but they knew a deadly contagious affliction had come to their village.

A two-storey stone cottage with white square windows and grassy front yard. A large green plaque with white writing on it says “PLAGUE COTTAGE”.
A plague cottage in Eyam. | © Kaitlyn Blythe 2008

Eyam famously agreed to quarantine themselves to prevent any further spread of the infection. By the time their outbreak was over, almost a third of the village’s population had died. Families were wiped out. After the stonemason passed away, people had to engrave their own headstones. One villager, Elizabeth Hancock, lost her six children and husband within one week. There was no one left to help her bury them. She would have tied rope around their feet, to avoid contact with the infectious bodies, and dragged her family members one by one to a nearby field, digging the graves herself.

Eyam is embedded in myth for its 17th-century sacrifice. Its border stones — set up in a perimeter about half a mile out from the village — are now a tourist attraction. A detail that stayed with me years after my stroll through the village’s history was the holes in the stones, and the vinegar. During the quarantine, Eyam residents had relied on food parcels delivered by people from surrounding villages, who would drop the packages at the border stones. In return, the quarantined would leave coins soaked in vinegar, which they believed to be a disinfectant, in holes bored into the stones. Somehow, amid the stories of horrific death, it was the leaving of the disinfected coins that stuck with me the most — the payment for what should have been charity, and the attempt to protect their benefactors from contamination.

Eyam was in lockdown for fourteen months. For over a year, they had no crops from their farms and no income from mining work. Without outside help, those who survived the plague would have died of starvation. It’s possible that Eyam’s neighbours didn’t have purely selfless motives for leaving parcels of meat and grains; they presumedly did not want starving plague carriers escaping the village in desperate search of food. There is a story of a woman leaving Eyam to travel to the nearby village of Tideswell, and being met with ire once people realised where she was from. The Tideswell residents “pelted her with food and mud, shouting “The Plague! The Plague!””, wrote Eleanor Ross for the BBC. You could take a cynical view that Eyam’s and their neighbours’ actions were purely driven by selfish motives: Eyam feared retribution and their neighbours feared their contagion. If the coins hadn’t appeared at the border stones, maybe the food parcels would have stopped coming. But the vinegar, to me, speaks of Eyam’s higher goal: to protect. To contain the infection. Fearful Tideswell merchants could have sanitised the money themselves once they’d received it, but the boundary stone exchanges tell a more wholesome story: of an understanding that their fates were interconnected and equally important.

Eyam’s quarantine measure was not imposed by a militarised force or guarding presence; it was achieved by a public health leader (Mompesson) allying with respected community leaders to explain the situation and gain social acceptance.

While there were external inducements to stay inside their boundary, Eyam’s quarantine was by all accounts a group choice. BBC’s Eleanor Ross wrote, “Although some villagers tried to leave, it appears that most of Eyam’s townsfolk stoically accepted their plight and made a pact with God to remain.” It was newly arrived rector William Mompesson who identified the necessity for quarantine. However, he could not convince the village on his own, being so new to his post. In an “uneasy alliance” with the very man he’d replaced, his ousted predecessor Thomas Stanley, Mompesson was able to convince the village that they had a duty to prevent spread of the disease, accepting a high death toll for themselves in the process. This didn’t occur as soon as the plague hit Eyam — they had a season of sickness, then a month-long lull in plague-related deaths. It was what we would now call “the second wave” that spurred Mompesson into action, as local Eyam historian Francine Clifford explains:

“It was June [1666] and the deaths started to go up again … It was then William Mompesson realised that it was going to get a heck of a lot worse before it got better. He knew if he didn’t stop people leaving the village in panic, it would spread to the villages and the towns. If it got to Sheffield or Manchester, it would be back to the London proportions.”

Eyam’s quarantine measure was not imposed by a militarised force or guarding presence; it was achieved by a public health leader (Mompesson) allying with respected community leaders to explain the situation and gain social acceptance. The rector did use his privileged position to send his children away before the village locked down, but he also stayed and faced the same fate as the people he’d guided into quarantine. (Mompesson lost his wife to the plague during the lockdown.) The boundary stones were markers that any person with the ability to could have walked past. But the villagers didn’t. They stayed in place, listening to the death groans of their neighbours and knowing they could be next, only walking out to the boundary stones to leave coins soaked in vinegar.

2020

I can’t help but think of that vinegar while I soap down my groceries. I’ve been in self-imposed (at first, then later government-mandated) quarantine in my apartment for about four months. So far, nothing on Eyam’s fourteen-month stint, but it’s anyone’s guess how long these measures will be necessary. I self-isolate out of fear for my health, but also out of fear of unknowingly transmitting COVID-19. I need grocery deliveries to survive, but I regularly ask myself if it’s ethical to sequester in safety while demanding that delivery drivers put themselves at risk. At least we have online payment so there is no need to touch money. I tell myself that, if it came to it, I would soak coins in vinegar (or rather, isopropyl) for those drivers. I wonder if I would have had the strength to stay in Eyam.

While we shelter from this coronavirus (in my case, in Melbourne, where people are already returning to public life despite no halt in infections), it’s tempting to think of this as a brief anomaly in our lives that will soon be crushed by the might of modern medicine. Like the Black Death that plagued Eyam in the 1600s, this will also disappear eventually, right? Well, in researching this essay, I was met with a gruesome surprise: the plague never fucking went away. The disease known historically as the Black Death (more scientifically as a bacillus named Yersinia pestis) is still killing people. It still infects 1,000–3,000 people worldwide every year. In 2017, Madagascar’s Ministry of Health reported 2,348 new cases of the plague to the World Health Organisation. Tests found Yersinia pestis, the same plague that, in the 14th century, wiped out a quarter of the world’s population. The same bacteria that plagued London and Eyam in the 17th century. In fact, as I publish this, a new outbreak is being reported in Inner Mongolia. Most patients survive now, thanks to antibiotics and better sanitation, but people still die of the plague.

When I was a kid in history class, we were taught about the Black Death as a historical anomaly, spread by rats in gross medieval conditions. Then it was updated that we’d blamed the rats a little too hastily — it was actually the fleas riding on the rats. Now, due to newer evidence excavated in the past decade from an old English plague cemetery, scientists believe that the disease had to have been airborne to have spread so rapidly. (Most likely helped along by the fleas and the rats, so they’re not entirely off the hook.) The plague takes three forms: bubonic (the most common form, with the tell-tale buboes), pneumonic (transmitted through airborne particles, and the most infectious), and septicemic (infecting the bloodstream). This information, added to the fact that I’m now living through a new pandemic, has given me greater empathy for terrified, confused medieval villagers. They had no idea what the plague was or how it was spreading. Spirits? Acts of God? Medieval doctors thought the plague was caused by corrupt air, and since the Black Death was at least partially airborne, this is as close as you’re going to get to a modern understanding of contagion for a society that hadn’t heard of germs.

Apparently some medieval Christians would kill cats, thinking this would prevent the Black Death because cats brought the Devil in with them. Their reasoning was superstitious, but we know now that animals can transmit the plague, so breathing in airborne droplets from a cat’s breath could indeed have infected people in the Middle Ages. They actually weren’t that far off, it turns out. In current-day United States, Yersinia pestis is common among mice, squirrels and other wildlife. Colorado residents are often warned about plague outbreaks in local prairie dog colonies. In May 2019, a couple died of the bubonic plague after eating infected marmot meat from the Denver area. The plague wasn’t even brought to North America until 1900, on rat-infested steamships — the same year it hit the shores of Sydney, Australia, via shipping trade, leading to the municipal response of killing an estimated 44,000 rats. Australia then saw 12 outbreaks of the plague over the next 25 years. So, rats do actually have a lot to answer for.

Whatever its precise cause of transmission, the Black Death has been infecting humanity (and other species) for thousands of years. For several centuries it resurfaced as an epidemic every few generations. It never died out — just diminished and became a part of human life. We developed antibiotics and better hygiene practices, minimising the disease’s harm. But the plague still survives and spreads, taking two new continents as recently as a century ago. And there I was walking through the village of Eyam in 2008, comfortably thinking the Black Death was from a very different and faraway time.

Viral epidemics are not left behind in our past (as we now know too well), nor are the self-sacrifices of villages locking down to prevent further spread. Reflecting on Eyam’s history in the context of the COVID-19 virus, The Telegraph (UK) writer Joe Shute remembered the bravery of West African villagers in the face of the Ebola virus:

“In late 2014, I visited Liberia during the height of the worst Ebola outbreak in history which ravaged West Africa, claiming more than 11,000 lives. As well as the capital, Monrovia — placed on lockdown like cities in China — I visited villages where whole families had quarantined themselves in their homes to protect the wider community, and one by one were gradually succumbing.”

Eyam’s official website says of its history, “The action of the villagers in staying in the village is almost unique and makes the village the place of significance that it is.” In 1665 England, the Eyam residents’ foresight and courage was remarkable, and arguably what prevented the country’s northern regions from seeing the same devastating scenes happening in London at the time. At the height of Ebola, West African communities saw the same incredible bravery, only six years ago.

On 15 March 2020, three days into the current coronavirus pandemic, The Guardian wrote, “Eyam’s story remains a powerful example not only of how diseases are transmitted — then as now via trade routes and centres — but also of how successful social immobilisation can contain outbreaks.” Social immobilisation remains one of the few tools humanity has against viral epidemics. Quarantine may have been what finally slowed down the Black Death in Europe. Stopping a pandemic is a community effort — if one person had broken Eyam’s pact and transmitted the plague outside the village bounds, the Black Death could have claimed thousands more lives. They were protecting the north, like fantastical watchmen on a giant ice wall. Except the story of their heroism contains no dragons or aristocracy, only exhausted villagers watching their loved ones sicken and die around them.

When I visited Eyam, I was twenty-two years old. I had three worst fears: that the severe neurological illness I experienced in my teens would return; that there would be some kind of global apocalypse; and that I would lose my family. I am now thirty-four. The neurological disease I’d feared returned a few months after I walked through Eyam; perhaps it was already growing in my body while I shivered at stories of historic sickness and death. I’ve been disabled and chronically ill since. And, while perhaps not quite final enough to be apocalyptic, the Global Financial Crisis hit weeks after I learned about those vinegar-soaked coins. Main streets shuttered while stock markets crashed. Autumn of 2008 turned out to be maybe the last time I was even a little bit carefree. As for family — a little over a year ago, I watched my father die a painful, drawn-out death after years of surgeries, radiation and chemo. The rest of my family: estranged. So, not to be too dramatic, but it sort of seems like my worst fears came true. I’m frankly astonished to still be here. Life since I walked through Eyam has felt regularly world-ending.

This year we are facing loss on a global scale. Most crucially, loss of life — but also loss of health. Loss of family. Loss of prospects. Loss of stability. Loss of safety. It might feel like your world is shrinking to fit inside suffocating walls. In May, the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s emergencies director Dr Mike Ryan said: “[T]his virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities, and this virus may never go away … HIV has not gone away — but we have to come to terms with the virus.” In the same video conference, WHO epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove advised, “We need to get into the mindset that it is going to take some time to come out of this pandemic.” COVID-19 is here now and we have to change to accommodate it. There may never be a vaccine. The Black Death didn’t go away with a vaccine — it actually never went away at all — but it was controlled with changes in lifestyle, rapid diagnosis and administering of antibiotics, and careful monitoring of outbreaks. It doesn’t wipe out a quarter of the world’s population anymore (although I feel like I’m tempting fate by saying that). As I write this, global COVID-19 cases have exceeded 11 million, and the pandemic has killed half a million people (that’s confirmed cases; the numbers could be much higher). The loss is overwhelming. There has never been a coronavirus pandemic before, and there is so much we don’t know about this virus or how it transmits; COVID-19 was only discovered six months ago. I still feel like a 1665 European: bewildered, terrified, not sure whether petting neighbourhood cats is safe or if microwaving my mail is something I should be doing.

Sometimes I’m tempted to cope with this overwhelming situation by imagining my quarantine as noble, like Eyam’s, with myself and my friends as protagonist survivors covered in glory at the end. As if there will be a happy ending to this struggle, as if there could be winners. But a pandemic is only tragedy. Eyam knows this, with its solemn plaques on the sides of houses, remembering heroism by listing the names of the dead. We remember because without them, who knows how many more mass graves could have been buried across England. I wonder, in a year, if their sacrifice will still seem uncommon.