As official advice urges people to self-isolate if they suspect they have had contact with coronavirus, let’s consider what happened long ago in the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, in the English Peak District. When I was a child I learned the rhyme: “In sixteen hundred and sixty-five, Not a soul was left alive, In sixteen hundred and sixty-six, London town was burned to sticks.” In a nutshell it sums up that period of history.
In 1665, London was devastated by the Great Plague, the last major manifestation in England of the bubonic plague. In the city, the doors of any houses where someone had the plague were marked with a large red cross and the words "Lord have mercy upon us". A watchman was stationed outside to prevent anyone from leaving for nearly six weeks. (The word quarantine comes from the Italian quarantina, or 40 days.)
As the deaths mounted, men were sent round the streets at night with handcarts, ringing a bell and crying, “Bring out your dead!”
It was a ghastly job, with those who did it likely to contract the plague themselves, through handling the diseased bodies.
Efforts were made to contain the spread of the plague, but they were tardy, piecemeal and poorly enforced
At the first signs of the plague, those with means fled the city and headed for the countryside.
Inevitably, many of them carried the seeds of plague with them. King Charles II and his court decamped to Oxford, leaving the lord mayor behind to cope.
On April 30th,1665, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary, “Great fears of the sickness here in the City it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all!”
Efforts were made to contain the spread of the plague, but they were tardy, piecemeal and poorly enforced.
And so a bundle of cloth was sent from London to the small village of Eyam, some 160 miles north.
The tailor who unwrapped it might not have noticed the fleas nestled in the folds, but they were there, and it was these rat fleas that carried the death-dealing infection. Within a week, the tailor’s assistant, George Vicars, was dead and others in his household began dying.
The villagers turned for guidance to their ministers, the Rev William Mompesson and the Puritan Thomas Stanley, and these men, having prayed for guidance, found it their duty to prevent the disease from spreading to other Christian souls.
With assurances that it was God’s will, the villagers agreed to stay put and each family undertook to bury its own dead. On the outskirts of Eyam, certain stones, or plague stones, were designated as places where food and medicine could be left, paid for by coins soaked in vinegar, which was thought to disinfect them.
There was an element of chance in it all. Elizabeth Hancock, who buried her six children and her husband, all in the space of eight days, remained healthy
For spiritual sustenance, the villagers would meet in an outdoor space, a natural amphitheatre called Cucklett Delph. There the preachers exhorted them to trust in the Lord and to rejoice at their noble sacrifice which would surely meet its reward in heaven.
Over the course of 14 months the village remained in isolation, with no attempt made to escape.
The number of those who died is disputed, but the church in Eyam records that 273 individuals were victims of the plague.
Curiously, there was an element of chance in it all. Elizabeth Hancock, who buried her six children and her husband, all in the space of eight days, remained healthy. And Marshall Howe, who handled many of the diseased bodies and assisted in burying them, also survived unharmed.
The heroic stance of the villagers of Eyam is commemorated every year on the last Sunday in August.
The site of the Riley graves, so called after the farm where the Hancock family lived, is now under the care of the National Trust.
And on Plague Sunday, the tabletop grave of Catherine Mompesson is venerated with a wreath, as a mark of respect for her staunch support of her husband.
She died, alas, a short time before the plague was pronounced to be gone.
Can we imagine such concerted actions being taken in our own times?
For now, we must watch and be vigilant.
And in better times, some of us might visit Eyam as a tribute to those altruistic villagers of the 17th century.