Perspective is never easy.
Nestling in Derbyshire's beautiful Peak District, the small village of Eyam lay quietly unaware of what was about to hit it; and propel it into the annals of history for ever.
London -160 miles away - existed in most minds only through talk in the MIner's Arms ale house with stories from the occasional travelling merchant.The Pestilence as it was known had struck London earlier in that year of 1665, but it was hardly the first epidemic England had experienced. To the villagers this may well have looked like one more fanciful tale.
London and Eyam were worlds apart. That is, until 355 years ago, when a simple bundle of fabric & second-hand clothing from the City brought Eyam out of its rural slumbers; crashing into a world of horrifying contagion and infection.
Eyam's patient zero was a lodger living with the local tailor. In the late summer of 1665 the tailor's residence received a consignment from London. Within a couple of weeks the lodger and most of the household were dead, and by the end of that year almost 50 other villagers had also died.
It is thought that the folds, linings and pockets of the tunics and knickerbockers in the London delivery were infested with plague-carrying rat fleas. No science, however, existed then to explain such things. The sweet scent of contagion was one of the common signs of plague, and drawing the correct conclusion from what almost certainly was the wrong evidence helped convince Eyam that the disease was likely transmitted through proximity to a smell in the air around them. Fleas were not suspected.
That winter Eyam’s epidemic seemed to be a over. However as more rats and more fleas re-appeared in the warmer weather of the following summer, the dreaded plague returned with a vengeance.
By all accounts surrounding areas were unaffected, but how could the spread be halted? In the absence of any other authority locally the role of what we now call ‘the science’ was probably taken by the village Church.They may have heard of 'The Plague Orders' already in place in London; and Christianity after all had a track record with plagues: the Bible was full of them.
From the mid summer of 1666 - a full nine months after the first fatality, with the death toll now rising daily and the epidemic probably at its peak - no villagers were to pass beyond boundary stones set half a mile outside the village centre. A type of cordon sanitaire was belatedly installed. Provisions were left at the boundary by outsiders, principally through the support of the Earl of Devonshire on the Chatsworth Estate. Some tried to flee, there were reports of quarantine breakers being rebuffed by force. The social and religious pressures must have been stark set against the basic human instinct of self preservation.
The more well-off locals had already long since managed to move elsewhere when the outbreak first arrived. Even the resident vicar had dispatched his two small chidren out of harms way to relatives in North Yorkshire; but poorer folk probably felt trapped. There was no such thing as being furloughed: those who could do so just had to keep on working as best they could.. Nobody talked of the 'R-number', there was however a belief that if the village could go four or so weeks without a reported plague death, then the pestilence, still believed to be airborne, would have likely evaporated . . . . be spent.
They were so close to being right . . . . but they reckoned without fleas.
Eyam was decimated: 260 villagers died of the plague. Estimates of mortality ranged between a third and two-thirds of all the inhabitants. People being kept together would have not only confined the spread but also intensified it.
Eyam’s experience does nothing to help settle today's coronavirus dilemma between ‘herd immunity’ and ‘flattening the curve’. Herd immunity however was arguably what finally ended this epidemic; but at a terrible cost. The village, its survivors immune, could safely come out of their 22 weeks of isolation . . . . and the rest of the region could breath a sigh of relief.
Remarkably Eyam’s dire plight went largely un-heralded for well over a hundred years until it was taken up by moralisers and poets for its lessons in heroism and 'the greater good'. Today visitors to our lovely village see the 'chocolate box' cottages themed with their information plaques and suppose in a rather sanitised way that this tragic story is neatly closed; lessons learned.
The suffering and tragedy of 17th century Eyam deservedly attracts reverence of course, particularly from the existing locals who show such collective faith in their ancestor's story.
Nevertheless understanding history - any history - is never as straightforward as we might want it to be.There is always fog to remind ourselves that nothing is ever black and white.
Today, and perhaps more than ever before, the objectivity of the Eyam plague story is overwhelmed by a sea of subjectivity.The limited primary evidence, the rhetoric, the bias, the motives, even the conclusions all too easily blur into one.
Perspective is never easy.
The Plague Doctor in Schools
Suitably adapted for Key Stage Two children.
The Plague Doctor visiting the classroom as
part of your school Plague project is a must.
An hour of clever, interactive fun without the
inconvenience and cost of visiting Eyam . . .
or as an irresistable prologue to your visit to
the Plague village. When kids are laughing
and are curious; they are learning.
Please book early - these educational sessions are in high demand