Coronavirus, British quarantine, and the Eyam plague village

As we watch the spread of coronavirus, it’s sobering to remember that when the bubonic plague swept through Europe–this was in the middle ages and later–people (understandably) fled, and some number of them (inevitably) carried it with them to new cities, towns, and villages, helping it meet new people and (in many cases) kill them.

Silly people, you’ll think, even as you wonder if you’d have the strength to take your chances in a plague-hit town. (You’ll notice how neatly I tell you what you think. So neatly that you barely notice I’m doing it.)

Isn’t it good that we’re wiser these days? Because what did countries that were free of the corona virus do when they understood the danger it carried? Why, they evacuated their citizens–or as many of them as they could–along with whatever germs they were carrying. 

And what did Britain do about the possibility that they’d brought the virus home with them? Its first move was to tell them to self-isolate–in other words, to stay home. 

Marginally relevant photo: Pets are wonderful germ vectors. You pet them, you leave your germs on their fur, then–faithless wretches that they are–they go to your nearest and dearest to get petted, because one person is never enough, and they bring your germs with them. This particular germ vector, in case you haven’t met him, is our much-loved Fast Eddie. You’re not seeing him at his fastest.

Could they go out to buy groceries? Well, people do need to eat. But after that, seriously, people, no contact. Except with the people they live with, of course. And with the person who delivers that pizza they ordered, who’ll only be at the door a minute. And of course anyone their families, roommates, and the pizza person come into contact with. 

In fairness, figuring out whether to impose a quarantine isn’t an easy call, and I’m grateful that it’s not mine to make, but if you wonder why the virus has spread you might start your wondering with that decision.

The country moved to more serious quarantine measures not long after, but a newspaper photo of a bus that took plane passengers to a quarantine center shows one person dressed like an astronaut to prevent contagion and right next to him or her (or whatever’s inside the suit) a bus driver dressed in a red sweater, a white shirt, and a tie, without even a face mask–the effectiveness of which isn’t a hundred percent anyway.

As for the tie, I’ve never worn one or figured out how they’re tied, but I do know that germs aren’t afraid of them. Contrary to common belief, they weren’t invented to prevent the spread of infection. Breathe in a germ and your tie won’t be tight enough to keep it from reaching your lungs. 

So what have we learned since the medieval period? A lot about how diseases work, but less about how to contain them than we like to think. The coronavirus isn’t the plague and doesn’t seem to be the flu epidemic of 1917 either, but it’s instructive to see ourselves flounder.

So let’s talk about a village that, when it was struck with the plague, did exactly what it should have done. Heroically.

In 1665, a tailor in the village of Eyam (pronounced eem; don’t ask), in Derbyshire (pronounced something like Dahbyshuh, at least in the Cambridge online dictionary’s audio clip, although I’m sure other accents take it off in different directions; ditto). Where were we before I got lost in pronunciation? A tailor received a bale of cloth from London. It was damp, and his assistant, who was only in Eyam to help make clothes for an upcoming festival, hung it in front of the fire to dry. That woke up the fleas who’d hitched a ride from London.

The plague had already taken root in London and the fleas were carrying it. The assistant, George Vickers, was the first person in Eyam to come down sick.

Between September and December, 42 people in Eyam died of plague. That’s out of a population of somewhere between 250 and 800. Whichever number’s closest to right, that’s a lot of people in a small place, and a lot of them were getting ready to do what people did in the face of the plague, which is flee. The local museum estimates the population as at least 700.

Enter William Mompesson, the village rector, who felt it was his duty to contain the plague. He’d been appointed only recently, and he wasn’t popular. To make the least bit of sense out of that, we have to take a quick dive into English history and religion. I’ll keep to the shallow waters, so stay close.

Charles II–the king who followed England’s brief experiment with non-monarchical government and anti-Church of England Protestantism–introduced the Book of Common Prayer to the English church, and the Act of Uniformity dictated that ministers had to use it. Most of Eyam, though, had supported Cromwell and his vein of Protestantism. In other words, they were anti-royalist, anti-Church of England, and anti-Act of Conformity. So Mompesson represented everything that pissed them off, politically and religiously. 

And Mompesson must have known that, because he approached the man he’d replaced, Thomas Stanley, who was living on the edge of the village, “in exile,” as Eyam historian Ken Thompson puts it. The two of them worked out a plan and in June they stood together to present it to the village: They would, all of them, go into voluntary quarantine. No one would leave. No one would come in. The earl of Devonshire, who lived nearby in the obscenely lush Chatsworth House (although it may not have been quite as overwhelmingly overdone at the time), had offered to send food. 

Mompesson’s wife, Catherine, wrote in her diary about the day they presented the idea to the village: “It might be difficult to predict the outcome because of the resentment as to William’s role in the parish, but considering that the Revd Stanley was now stood at his side, perhaps he would gain the support necessary to carry the day.”

People had misgivings, she wrote, but they agreed. 

August was unusually hot that year, meaning the fleas were more active, and five or six people died per day. The husband and six children of Elizabeth Hancock died within a space of eight days and she buried them near the family farm. And “buried” here doesn’t mean she stood by the grave demurely, wearing clean black clothes while someone else shoveled dirt in. It means that she dug the graves, dragged the bodies to them, and tipped them in single handed. People from a nearby village, Stoney Middleton, stood on a hill and watched but didn’t break the quarantine to help.

Most of the dead were buried by Marshall Howe, who’d been infected but recovered and figured he couldn’t be reinfected. He was known to pay himself for his work by taking the dead’s belongings. Or he was said to, anyway. Village gossip worked the same way then as it does now. There are no secrets, but there’s a hell of a lot of misinformation.

Mompesson wrote that the smell of sadness and death hung over the village. He assumed he would die of plague, describing himself in a letter as a dying man, but it was Catherine, his wife, who died of it. She had nursed many of the sick. Mompesson survived.

By the time the plague burned itself out, 260 villagers had died, giving Eyam a higher mortality rate than London’s. No one can know how many people the quarantine saved, but the guesswork is “probably many thousands.”

Mompesson was later transferred to another parish, where his association with the plague terrified people and initially he had to live in isolation outside the village.

Meanwhile, in our enlightened age, a couple of British-born brothers of Chinese heritage shared an elevator with someone who announced, “We’ll be in trouble if those guys sneeze on us.” Other people who are either of Chinese heritage or who assumed to be report having eggs thrown at them, having people move away from them, and being harassed on the street and online.

87 thoughts on “Coronavirus, British quarantine, and the Eyam plague village

  1. Yes, I also wondered at the wisdom of the British Government telling the thousands of Brits living in China to get out. It’ll spread it, I thought. Yes, its prompted a fair bit of racism against people of Asian descent, and yet the man the press dubbed the “superspreader” who infected 11 people was white. He just travelled a lot. Keep washing your hands!!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Good advice, but hard to follow when you’re out. I was in London for a couple of days, looking around and thinking, Hmmmmmm, maybe this wasn’t a good idea. And thinking we should’ve bought some hand disinfectant, but of course by that time we hadn’t and somehow the thought didn’t drive me to go get any. There’s an odd disconnect, at least in my head, between knowing what to do and actually doing it. I don’t seem to be recognizing yet that this is real.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have a small bottle sanitiser in my handbag and I use it when I am out and about. Heaven knows what this is doing for people with cleaning-related OCD, because as soon as I clean my hands I realise that I have touched my face! Can I stop touching my nose, face, ears etc? Not a chance. I don’t think people in Swansea are especially worried as Lidls had loads of hand sanitizers at the till but my sister says they are sold out in Brighton.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Your experience of not being able to stop touching your face is the same as mine. It’s automatic. It’s odd that I seldom notice other people doing it, but from what I’ve read we either all do it or at the very least most of us do, quite unconsciously.

          Liked by 1 person

            • And I remember seeing a book on manners (no, I wasn’t trying to acquire any, I picked it up out of perverse fascination) that it was rude to touch your face at the table. Initially, I misread it as “touch your face to the table,” which is a prohibition I could actually manage. The idea struck me as so funny that I almost bought it. Then I read it correctly and saved myself some money. But my point was that it does seem impossible.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. There was a TV play about Eyam in the 70s and it made a big impression on me. I wonder if that’s where my fascination with the Black Death originates.

    Last night I saw the (I think) Chief Medical Officer on the news saying that common sense and good hygiene habits will go a long way in preventing the spread of the virus. Sadly, I see a general lack of both.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Coronavirus, British quarantine, and the Eyam plague village – The Searchlight

  4. The hint of sarcasm in your phrase ‘our enlightened age’ is well placed: Brexit may not be to blame for racism, stupidity and insularity but it has certainly encouraged it to flourish. But, having said that, what are we to make of today’s report that the latest case here is a recently-arrived tourist, who took an Uber to A&E after waiting two days for the symptoms to develop further?!

    Liked by 2 people

          • I don’t know if she came with a group, but the question I would ask is why anyone from China would be allowed in at present – not for racism, but on health grounds. So much for the Government’s duty of care to its citizens!

            Liked by 1 person

              • I think there is an argument there: bringing home its own citizens is to protect them, and could be deemed ‘necessary,’ while tourism is discretionary and could be postponed until the virus has gone.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I do see your point. But there’d be a political price to pay–loss of tourist dollars among them. Not to mention retaliation from countries whose tourists it had turned away. Everyone wants to end the spread of the virus, but no one wants to pay a price for it. Cold-heartedly, I don’t think there’s any defense for bringing citizens home when it means risking the spread of the disease.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Yes, there would be that price, but that would apply to every country, and we all have places in our own countries where we could spend our tourism money without risking either catching or spreading the disease. That should only be temporary, anyway. One good reason why I’m glad I’m not running the country and having to make those decisions!

                Liked by 1 person

              • I heard a public health expert talking on Radio 4 about weighing public health against individual freedom and it made me glad it’s not my decision to make. But I do think I’d come down on the side of public health.

                The thing is, we can’t know at this point how bad this will turn out to be. I think governments are hoping for the best and taking half measures.

                Liked by 1 person

  5. I am prepared to believe that ties play a significant part in curtailing the spread of disease.
    I have been to Eyam, and it was noticeable from the illustrations that none of the villagers wore a tie at any time. I however have worn ties and have never caught the plague, not even once!

    I suspect the decline of formal business attire is directly responsible for the spread of coronavirus. One of the people in my office knows the superspreader chap and he never comes to work in a tie… we are all doomed!!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I wouldn’t think it’s too late to make the rounds of the second-hand stores, buy up as many as you can find, and stand at the door passing them out on Monday. A few words of explanation should bring everyone into line. “Guys,” you say, “if you don’t have it–and of course you don’t–they’ll stop the germs at throat level. And it’ll convince the people who do have it to wear them, which will trap the germs below throat level, where they can’t infect anyone else.”

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Most virus outbreaks peak by March. Let’s hope thus one will be no different and will not return next winter.

    I grew up hearing stories of the 1918 Spanish flu. All three of my grandparents who were alive had it. Dad’s mother died but the other two recovered.

    We still hear of outbreaks of the plague. I was in Arizona and there were signs in the parks saying that the squirrels had it and warning to stay away from the squirrels.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ellen, if the Britts or any other foreigners had to walk or leave China by horse & buggy, they’d have died along the way. But, maybe in a forest or on a mountain top, never making it to a village. Blame our enlightened age of rapid evacuation transportation. A sensible post. Always appreciate how you make history interesting to read. 📚🎶 Christine

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Christine. Tales of the plague in Europe left me with pictures of people making it at least to the next village, or maybe several villages along their way, so they might not make it home, but they’d spread the thing all the same. But more slowly, at least. These days it’s practically instantaneous.

      Liked by 1 person

          • If buying & using hand sanitizer is giving in to hysteria, then I give in to it everyday. For me, there’s the threat of any virus whatever I touch out there in the bug ridden world. I have 2 dogs and if people pet them, Yikes! They could leave bad bugs all over their fur. 😳

            Liked by 1 person

            • I’ve used it occasionally if one or the other of us is sick and we’re trying not to pass the germs back and forth. It seldom works. Sooner or later, one of us breathes and the whole carefully built structure crumbles. But I hate the feel of the stuff, and the smell. And for the most part, nothing I catch is that terrible. The occasional cold, and I can’t know how or when or why I was exposed. I’m can’t argue with what works for you, but I’m not someone who can go through the world with that degree of care or distance.

              Having said that, I should’ve been more careful given what we’re in the midst of.

              Liked by 1 person

              • You know, I’m a hand washing, hand sanitizing nurse practitioner. It’s all that training that never goes away. Still, I know what you mean, someone sick, coughing, sneezing in the house, and we’re doomed to get it. I’d look at each situation carefully. Not to belabor the thought, but, I will. Add a few drops of essential oil or other fragrance to the sanitizer. Some have aloe vera. Don’t buy scented ones in the store, they don’t have the 99.99% harmful germ & bacteria kill rate—not as effective. Done belaboring! 🤣

                Liked by 1 person

              • Appreciated–although I don’t buy the scented ones, but they’re still stinky. Sorry, I’ve turned into a fussbudget about about scents. The stores that sell bath stuff and scented soaps make me want to run screaming.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I was the same age and more activist than hippie, but yes indeed. All except the incense, which I did try to like. Honest, I did. I was still young enough to think there was some virtue in that.


  8. As to OG’s comment about the plague in Arizona – it is still endemic (not pan- or epi-) in some of the wilder areas – A few years ago there were disturbing cases of . a Hanta virus spread by rodents that caused lung infections that were killing off some young healthy people.

    If you REALLY want to distract your mind, there’s a work of fiction called “The Cobra Event” by Richard Preston. A friend of mine who is an RN had to finish reading it wearing rubber gloves and hiding it under the bed til she was done..

    Liked by 1 person

    • She can be grateful she doesn’t have my bed–not even the cat can hide under there.

      The thing about the bubonic plague these days is that it’s treatable, so it can be endemic without being pan- or epi–which I’m sure you know. Don’t mind me, I’m just pontificating. I do remember the hanta virus, but I don’t remember hearing why it fell out of the news. Did it burn itself out? Did it just stop being news?


      • I did a search of Lord Google – there are New world and Old World hantaviruses – they are still around, still capable of causing serious illnesses -but apparently once the medical community got a handle on it it – like the plague – became a little less mysterious. Also – many of the US cases were on Indian reservations…so the size of the audience may have something to do with it. (Ya think ?)

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve seen enough of the world to believe that if hanta virus is mostly affecting people on the reservations, it’s not the size of the audience but its nature–as in its lack of political clout, so what the hell, the powers that be (who, heavens above, couldn’t possibly be racist) can shrug and move on.

          And if I sound cynical, I suspect I’m not nearly cynical enough these days.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. If the germs are male, they will certainly fear the tie. It’s probably why the guy’s wife died but he survived. We know way more about how these things spread, but now that’s they’ve upgraded from ox cart to economy comfort, we still don’t prepare for it any better. The good news is we can treat things more effectively. The bad news is people still sit around saying “it’s just a bad cold” until they’re about to die.

    Thanks for the history lesson. I love the education I get here.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. One of my nerdy interests is pandemics and epidemics of interesting diseases and it was Eyam that got me started. I read the play ‘The Roses of Eyam’ when I was 8 or 9 and that got me hooked on bubonic plague. I read every book on the history of plague that my library had in its catalogue and then the books on other diseases and I have not stopped reading or listening to podcasts about troubling diseases since. I finally visited Eyam about a decade ago now. I dragged my husband and kids around all of the relevant sites, including those graves that poor Elizabeth Hancock dug.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Throw into the mix the fact that the numbers being ‘reported’ are significantly underestimated due both to certain government’s reluctance to ‘lose face’ and an abominable lack of test kits in countries where it’s spreading like wildfire, and the scenario gets really … worrisome.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I read a novel based on that true story, it was very compelling. We went out to a Chinese restaurant here in our small town the other night. People have been avoiding them although we have very few cases so far in Australia. Some have had to close their doors and others are struggling,

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve heard that about Chinese restaurants here as well. People really–okay, I don’t want to say or believe that we’re hopeless, but we sure do get stuck in some stupid, destructive, racist, idiotic ruts.

      Did I miss any adjectives there?

      Liked by 1 person

  13. So did anyone notice the name of the coach company that the Government sent to bring the citizenship home? The name was horsemen and they sent four coaches. So we now have the four horses of the apocalypse?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Debra. It’s a moving story, although not an entirely comforting one. My partner’s observation–and I think she’s on the right track–is that their ability to self-isolate had a lot to do with the power of the group in a small place. In this case, it worked for the good. It doesn’t always.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I remembered my special friend, who is really so special, I couldn’t forget him. When he flew to the UK from visiting the Philippines (and stayed with me, yeeee!) for four months, he went to Derbyshire and I kept on asking how it was pronounced. Since he is from Blackburn, Lancashire, his northern accent even more made it difficult for me to notice the pronounciation. Yeah, it was like “dahrbysher” but I am more interested in him pronouncing “Yaarksher” (Yorkshire) than Derbyshire. Hahaha, I so love the UK. :)

    Liked by 1 person

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