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Bubonic plague was so deadly an English village quarantined itself to save others

A cottage in Eyam, England, where several victims of the bubonic plague lived. (AP Photo/Alina Hartounian)

It was called the Black Death. And it was far deadlier than coronavirus.

As governments around the world impose quarantines to prevent the spread of covid-19, it is worth remembering the extraordinary story of Eyam, England, the Derbyshire village that faced an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the 17th century.

In September 1665, George Viccars, a tailor’s assistant in Eyam, unloaded a bundle of flea-infested blankets from London. Bubonic plague had recently broken out in the capital in the latest wave of a centuries-long pandemic that swept throughout Europe and the Middle East, killing millions.

Within a week, Viccars was dead. Panic set in. Six weeks after the outbreak, some 29 Eyam residents had died.

The parish staggered through the winter, with the number of deaths dropping. In May, there were no deaths at all, and the villagers believed the outbreak was over. But the disease had mutated. “Instead of having to contract the disease by a flea-rat-flea human cycle of infection” says local historian Francine Clifford, “it got into the lungs and became pulmonary.”

As summer rolled around, the plague made a blistering return.

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By June 1666, Eyam’s newly arrived rector William Mompesson realized the need to contain the disease and began to formulate a quarantine plan. Eyam lay on an important trade route between Sheffield and Manchester; if plague got into those cities, thousands would die. But this was England in the wake of a religious civil war, with the Crown restored just five years earlier. So Eyam residents were skeptical of their new priest and remained loyal to the Mompesson’s Puritan predecessor, Thomas Stanley, who was living in retirement on the edge of the village.

Mompesson persuaded Stanley of his plan, and, despite their religious differences, they called a meeting in the parish church and appealed the crowd to voluntarily isolate the village. Believing they faced near-certain death if they remained but could cause the death of thousands if they left, the residents of Eyam agreed.

A quarantine cordon was established with a one-mile radius marked by a ring of stones. For 14 months nobody went in or out of the village. Food was left at the boundary stone by nearby townspeople in exchange for gold coins submerged in vinegar, which villagers believed would disinfect them. The death-rate skyrocketed.

During its seclusion, Eyam suffered. Bodies piled up; families were instructed to bury their own dead on the outskirts of town.

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One woman, Elizabeth Hancock, buried six of her children and her husband inside a month. Mompesson himself described the village in one of his letters: “My ears have never heard such doleful lamentations. My nose has never smelt such noisome smells, and my eyes have never beheld such ghastly spectacles.” His wife, Catherine, died on August 25, 1666. It was, he said, “a Golgotha; a place of skulls.”

Measures were taken within Eyam to limit cross infection. Sermons were held outside, bodies were no longer wheeled through the street and some villagers left their homes to camp on the surrounding hills. “It was extremely foresighted of them,” says Clifford, “because that’s not the way things were normally done.”

In all, 260 of Eyam’s estimated 800 residents perished during the quarantine, more than double the mortality rate of the Great Plague of London. But Mompesson and the villagers’ self-sacrifice had worked. The plague never spread to nearby towns and, 14 months later, in November 1667, the quarantine was lifted.

“It was very successful because nobody outside the village ever contracted the disease,” says Clifford, who has lived in Eyam for 36 years.

In 1842, William Wood, one the Eyam survivors’ descendants, wrote in a history of the village: “The immortal victors of Thermopylae and Marathon have no stronger claim to the admiration of succeeding generations than the villagers of Eyam; who in a sublime, unparalleled resolution gave up their lives — yea: doomed themselves to pestilential death to save the surrounding country.”

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