Selfless Sacrifice in a Plague Village

In 1665, the Plague returned once again to ravish Great Britain. There had been outbreaks of the disease, sometimes known as the Black Death, since 1348. But this epidemic was particularly bad. It became known as the Great Plague of 1665, and its effects on London have been extensively chronicled.

This plague outbreak did not just affect the nation’s capital, though. In fact, one of the most touching stories about the Great Plague comes from a small village in Derbyshire, called Eyam. It is a rare tale of bravery and sacrifice during a time in history when such acts were not very common.

eyam-museum.org.uk

In August of 1665, village tailor George Viccars received a package of cloth at his home in Eyam. The bundle had become damp during its journey, so Viccars hung it up to dry over a fire. Unfortunately, this caused the fleas that had been hiding in the parcel to jump off the cloth and start seeking food and warmth.

Within a week, George Viccars was dead, having succumbed to the plague after being bitten by one of the hidden fleas. By the end of October, 36 more people (out of a population of around 700) had died from the illness.

Naturally, many villagers wanted to flee Eyam. Some of the wealthiest villagers did taking the plague with them in some instances. Though the spread of the disease stopped during the winter months, by the spring of 1666 it had returned in force. At this point, two of the town’s religious leaders decided to take action.

Rector William Mompesson and former rector Thomas Stanley joined forces to convince the remaining villagers of Eyam to self-quarantine themselves so they would not spread the plague any further. They ordered people to bury their dead on their own land, instead of the church graveyard to prevent the spread of the plague from the dead bodies. They closed the church and instead held worship services outdoors, where families were told to keep a good distance from each other. And no one was allowed to leave or enter the village until the outbreak ended.

Amazingly, the villagers agreed to this brave measure. People from outside the village took pity on its inhabitants. In awe of their sacrifice, they brought food and other supplies and left them at the boundary marker to Eyam. They also left money in trough filled with vinegar, since vinegar was believed to sterilize items and protect against infection.

Of course, many people died from the Black Death in Eyam during this outbreak, though no one starved. Rector Mompesson had to bury his own wife when she died from the disease. Another woman lost her husband and all six of her children within the span of a week. Altogether, 260 people died in Eyam, and 76 families were affected.

By Christmas of 1666, the plague outbreak was declared over and the quarantine was lifted. The survivors, including William Mompesson, burned everything except the clothes they wore just to make sure they got rid of any source of contamination.

Eyam is still known as the Plague Village today. And on the last Sunday of each August, people gather from miles around to remember the selfless villagers who sacrificed themselves to save their neighbors during a celebration known as Plague Sunday.

Next Article
ADVERTISEMENT
  • Weird Food of the Middle Ages

    People often like to romanticize the Middle Ages, imagining it as a time of knights and princesses, all dressed in elaborate medieval garb. Some even dream about going back in time to experience life during that time, and renaissance fairs and a popular dinner show have capitalized quite well on this obsession. But many people...

    Read More
  • Witches and Alewives: The Historical Connection

    From The Wizard of Oz to Halloween costumes, the archetypal image of a scary witch typically includes a tall, pointy hat, a cauldron, and a broom, among other accessories. But where did this popular conception arise? Many would be surprised to learn that our idea of what a witch looks like is based on the...

    Read More
  • America’s Secret Female President

    Edith Bolling Galt Wilson seemed an unlikely prospect for running one of the most powerful countries in the world. The second wife of President Woodrow Wilson was born in 1872 to a very poor family from the mountains of Virginia. Though she was given a chance to go to college, she dropped out because her...

    Read More
  • The Reality Behind the Legend of the Golden Fleece

    If you are familiar at all with Greek mythology, you have probably heard about the legend of the Golden Fleece. In this story, Jason (a Greek mythological hero) gathered a group of fellow-heroes together. This group became known as the Argonauts because their ship was named Argo, and Jason was their leader. The purpose of...

    Read More
  • Aaron Burr: Would-Be King

    Aaron Burr, one of the United States’ founding fathers and its one-time Vice President, has generally gone down in history as a bad guy because of the duel in which he killed Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury. But for some reason, most people don’t know anything about another chapter in his life...

    Read More
  • Ancient Crocodile Species Identified

    A research team made up of paleontologists from Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Texas has identified a previously unknown species of prehistoric crocodile. The ancient reptile fossils were found in Arlington, Texas, a busy city located right in the middle of the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area. The massive crocodile, which could reach lengths of up to 20...

    Read More
  • The Murder and Lynching that Changed America

    April 26, 1913 was supposed to have been a good day for 13-year-old Mary Phagan. It was Confederate Memorial Day in Atlanta, Georgia, where she lived. She was off for the day from her job at the National Pencil Company. Her plans included stopping by work to pick up her pay and then joining family...

    Read More
  • Female Viking Warrior Grave Identified

    In the 1880s, a Viking grave was excavated in the town of Birka in Sweden. It was obviously the grave of a warrior because it was filled with grave goods signifying as much. Along with weapons, like an axe, arrows, shields, a battle knife, a spear, and a sword, two war horses were also found...

    Read More