Longhurst: The plague village

During this time of pandemic, many people are worried. They see the hoarding and long lines in grocery stores and wonder if we are in danger of falling apart as a society.


Yet there are also stories of hope; each time someone canceled an event to slow the virus down it was a reminder of how so many were acting out of a strong sense of social responsibility and concern for others.

We need stories of hope to get us through this crisis — from right now, and in the past. This includes the story of the English village of Eyam and how its residents sacrificed their lives to help their neighbors more than 350 years ago.

It happened in 1665, during the time of the Black Death. The tailor in Eyam received a bolt of cloth from London infected with the plague.

Soon, people in the town started getting sick. This included the tailor, who was dead in a week.

Understandably, when the 350 or so residents of the village realized what was happening, they wanted to flee to other towns to get away from the disease.

But Eyam’s Anglican priest, William Mompesson, convinced them not to go. He preached a sermon pleading with them to stay to prevent the plague from being spread to other towns and villages.

He said it was their Christian duty to let the plague stop with them.

He added that if they stayed, he would stay, too, and do everything he could do help alleviate their suffering.

The residents of Eyam agreed with their priest. They decided to quarantine themselves inside their village until the disease had passed. They sealed themselves inside and awaited their fate.

To make sure nobody left or came in, a boundary was made of stones around the village. They arranged with people from other nearby villages to leave food and other supplies on the stones. Money washed in vinegar, which was believed to disinfect the coins, was left for payment.

After a year, the plagued burned itself out. But before it left Eyam it killed more than 250 people, including the wife of William Mompesson. The cemetery was so full that the dead had to be buried in nearby gardens and fields.

According to historians, the brave actions of the villagers prevented the plague from being spread to other places. But it came at a terrible cost.

In a BBC interview, Michael Sweet, a disease specialist at the University of Derby, said the decision by the villagers to quarantine their village “significantly reduced the potential of the spread of the pathogen. Without the restraint of the villagers, many more people, especially from neighboring villages, would have more than likely have succumbed to the disease.”

The current rector in Eyam, Mike Gilbert, said in an interview: “There was definitely the hope of heaven that kept them going, but it was phenomenally difficult to simply face it. It wasn’t a nice way to die. . . . It is almost overwhelming to think what it must have been like. I suspect fear stalked them every day of their lives.”

Today Eyam is known as the “plague village.” Its museum tells the story of that terrible time, and the villagers’ noble sacrifice.

There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend, Jesus said. The people of Eyam knew the meaning of that very well.

John Longhurst is a freelance writer and communications and marketing consultant in Winnipeg, Man.

John Longhurst

John Longhurst was formerly Communications Manager at MDS Canada.

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