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.

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