The bubonic plague in Eyam

JMS Pearce
Hull, England, United Kingdom

 

William Mompesson, priest in Eyam
William Mompesson

In medicine most instances of outstanding acts of heroic human courage relate to individual patients or to their attendant doctors, nurses, and caregivers. Here is a unique example of the collective self-sacrifice of a tiny rural community, which probably saved the lives of thousands.

The year is 1665. The Great Plague or Black Death swept through London. Within seven months, 100,000 Londoners (20 per cent of the population) were dead. Many fled the capital.

In Eyam, a tiny Derbyshire village, a bundle of cloth ordered by the local tailor George Vicars came in from plague-ridden London. It was riddled with fleas, the vectors of plague. Vicars died one week later on 7 September 1665. The nature of plague was unknown. Bacteria had not yet been discovered nor had the varied mechanisms of spread of infectious and contagious ailments been established, although its ability to spread from person to person was recognized. However, plague was dreaded since it was known to kill the majority of those afflicted.

Between September and December 1665, forty-two Eyam villagers died. In the spring of 1666, the newly appointed Anglican priest, William Mompesson (1639–1709) (Fig 1) and the unpopular Puritan Thomas Stanley took the unusual step of effectively imposing quarantine. Mompesson successfully persuaded the locals of the necessity for these dire measures aimed at preventing spread to nearby villages and towns. Church services were held outside so that people did not catch the plague from each other; no burials were allowed in St. Lawrence’s churchyard for fear of catching the plague from the corpses; and no one was allowed to enter or leave the village of Eyam.

Mompesson warned that if they agreed to stay confined there was a high risk of death; but he assured them he would remain with them, willing to sacrifice his own life rather than see nearby communities wiped out by spread of the plague. A boundary stone was placed at the edge of the village. Here, money was exchanged for food and goods left on the stone by neighboring villagers and by the Earl of Devonshire at Chatsworth; the local well was filled with vinegar to “sterilize” any coins or goods that came in or out of Eyam. In this way Mompesson set an extraordinary example of self-sacrifice by effectively sealing off the villagers from contact with the surrounding areas despite the certain knowledge that many would die.

His wife Catherine tended many of the dying, but on 22 August 1666, they went for a walk and Catherine spoke about the sweet smell in the air. She died the following day, aged twenty-seven.

Plaque outside a cottage in Eyam
Plague cottage

Of an estimated 350 inhabitants,1 260 died. But the disease did not spread. It remained confined to Eyam. On 1 November 1666, farm worker Abraham Morten was the last of Eyam’s 260 villagers to die from bubonic plague.

Mompesson survived and was to move in 1669 to work in Eakring, Nottinghamshire. Mompesson’s Well, The Boundary Stone, and Riley’s Graves commemorate their heroic actions. Plaques detailing the deaths can be seen on the walls of several of the cottages in Eyam to this day. (Fig 2)

The nursery rhyme Ring a Ring of Roses refers to the rash that looked like rose-colored rings; the “pocket full of posies” were scented herbs to counter the foul stink of the buboes; and “a tissue a tissue we all fall down” indicates the sufferers falling dead.

 

Quarantine

In Leviticus 13:46 it is stated: “All the days wherein the plague shall be in him he shall be defiled; he is unclean: he shall dwell alone.” Quarantine was introduced in 1377 in Dubrovnik, where every person with plague had to be taken out of the city into the fields, there to die or to recover. The first plague hospital (lazaretto) was opened by the Venetian Republic in 1423 on the island of Santa Maria di Nazareth. In the 1660s quarantine derived from the Italian quarantina giorni, the period a ship suspected of carrying contagious disease was kept in isolation, literally “for the space of forty days.” Quarantine from about 1523 was also a period of forty days in which a widow had the right to remain in her dead husband’s house and lands. The English word quarantine from Latin quadraginta was first coined in 1617.

 

Endnotes

  1. Variously stated as between 300 and 800 inhabitants

 


 

JMS PEARCE, MD, FRCP, is a retired Consultant Neurologist and author.

 

 

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