Eyam Plague Village

Gravestones at Eyam. No, the skull and crossbones are not a ‘reminder of the plague’ Tony Bacon/Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been following John Campbell’s YouTube channel since early on in the current COVID-19 pandemic. He does a good job of science communication, but something he mentioned recently had me reaching for my internets. He claimed that in the great plague of 1665-6, the villagers of Eyam in Derbyshire had selflessly quarantined themselves to protect their neighbours and suffered disproportionately. Most retellings (notably Wood’s 1859 ‘The History and Antiquities of Eyam’) link those two facts, emphasising that people opted to get sick and die rather than spread the disease. I hadn’t heard of Eyam, but the claim is widespread, and there’s even a museum dedicated to the event. It’s so widespread that it’s essentially now an accepted fact. It’s no surprise that this evidence of the capacity for altruism in the face of infectious disease was wheeled out during the current pandemic, including by the BBC. This is quite a nuanced one. The village certainly did suffer from the plague, and there was a quarantine. However, Patrick Wallis’ 2005 article ‘A dreadful heritage: interpreting epidemic disease at Eyam, 1666-2000’ (he’s written a more accessible summary for The Economist as well) shows that there is really no evidence that this was voluntary in any meaningful sense. Instead, as elsewhere in England, restrictions were imposed by those in charge, and neither the village’s isolation nor its high death toll (36% of the population, in line with the average mortality for the British Isles) were particularly unusual. Even the museum (which owes its existence to this traditional story), today gives accurate mortality figures (previously wrongly estimated at more than half the population) and explains that it was the local religious authorities who were responsible for the lockdown rather than the ordinary folk. The story of the supposedly willing sacrifice of the population only emerged some two hundred years after the fact and only became more mythologised over time (complete with made-up love story!). In Wallis’ words:’ 

“Only a limited body of contemporary evidence survives, the principal artefacts being three letters by William Mompesson, which powerfully convey the personal impact the death of Catherine Mompesson had on him, and, in passing, mention some of the villagers’ responses. There is a copy of the parish register, made around 1705. Finally, there is the landscape of the parish, with its scattering of tombs. Two of the earliest accounts claim indirect connections through their authors’ conversations with the sons of Mompesson and Stanley. Beyond this scanty body of evidence, a voluminous body of ‘oral tradition’ published in the early nineteenth century by the local historian and tax collector William Wood provides the bulk of the sources.”

Mompesson, the rector, wrote three letters, which don’t mention anything about villagers volunteering for a cordon sanitaire. In one of them Mompesson describes the suffering of his fellow villagers and does describe anti-plague measures – the ‘fuming and purifying’ of woollens and burning of ‘goods’, ‘pest-houses’, and of course prayer – but there’s nothing on quarantine, voluntary or otherwise. Early printed accounts confirm that one was put in place, with provisions supplied by the Earl of Devonshire. They praise the behaviour of Mompesson and/or Stanley, his unseated nonconformist predecessor (who had remained in the village) in keeping inhabitants from leaving (even though Mompesson sent his children to safety) but again there is nothing about the residents choosing to sacrifice their freedom for the greater good (the greater good). The community spirit element of the story doesn’t enter the picture until 54 years later when Richard Mead updated his ‘Short Discourse Concerning Pestilential Contagion’ (8th Ed., 1722, see here) with this account:

“The plague was likewise at Eham, in the Peak of Derbyshire; being brought thither by means of a box sent from London to a taylor in that village, containing some materials relating to his trade…A Servant, who first opened the foresaid Box, complaining that the Goods were damp, was ordered to dry them at the Fire; but in doing it, was seized with the Plague, and died: the same Misfortune extended itself to all the rest of the Family, except the Taylor’s Wife, who alone survived. From hence the Distemper spread about and destroyed in that Village, and the rest of the Parish, though a small one, between two and three hundred Persons. But notwithstanding this so great Violence of the Disease, it was restrained from reaching beyond that Parish by the Care of the Rector; from whose Son, and another worthy Gentleman, I have the Relation. This Clergyman advised, that the Sick should be removed into Hutts or Barracks built upon the Common; and procuring by the Interest of the then Earl of Devonshire, that the People should be well furnished with Provisions, he took effectual Care, that no one should go out of the Parish: and by this means he protected his Neighbours from Infection with compleat Success.”

The information is pretty sound, coming from the rector’s son and so within living memory, and is much more plausible than a more ‘grassroots’ motive. Of course, the source is likely to emphasise his own father’s role, but the bottom line is that the actual primary sources are few, and none suggest that the villagers took an active role. As Wallis puts it: 

“The leadership of Stanley and Mompesson, respectively, is praised, but there is no hint or romance, tragedy, or even of distinction accruing to the rest of the community.”

He also suggests that the few villagers with the means to do so probably fled (certainly Mompesson ensured that his two children left and tried to persuade his wife to). The majority  could not afford to leave and at this period likely wouldn’t have friends or family elsewhere that they could go and stay with. They were also being provided with supplies to encourage them not to leave. This leads me to what I think is the key to whether you regard this one as myth or reality; the extent to which the quarantine can be seen as voluntary. The contradiction of a ‘voluntary’ quarantine that was actually instigated by those in charge is highlighted by this contradictory phrasing from the website;

“…Mompesson and Stanley, the Rector of Eyam at that time [sic], who had persuaded the villagers to voluntarilly [sic] quarantine themselves to prevent the infection spreading to the surrounding towns and villages.”

I suppose the quarantine was ‘voluntary’ insofar as they didn’t nail people into their dwellings, but this wasn’t standard practice in the countryside anyway as far as I can tell. This was done in towns and cities where too many were infected to quarantine them in pest-houses or hospitals, and the risk of escalating infection was too great not to do it. Personally, I don’t think you can meaningfully call what happened at Eyam ‘voluntary’. The people of Eyam were most likely just doing what they were told and, as noted above, had little other option. This aspect of the situation isn’t that different (save the much worse fatality rate of plague) from that in countries today where lockdowns have been put in place due to the current pandemic. Yes, these have a legal basis, as did period quarantines in urban centres, and we can at least admit that Eyam’s quarantine was voluntary in that it was not governed by any formal law, and there’s no evidence that force or the threat of it had to be deployed. However, the same is true of the recent lockdowns in England; aside from a handful of fines, there has been no enforcement and, in the vast majority of villages, very high levels of compliance. The same was true in the 17th century; people mostly did what they were told and in any case had little other option. For this reason I think praising Eyam’s population for not (other than some more well-off people, including Mompesson’s own children) breaking their lockdown is akin to praising modern English people for not breaking theirs. Indeed, we may get lip service gratitude from our governments for complying, but we are (rightly) not hailed as heroes. Obviously I’m not comparing the fatality rates of the two diseases, just the power relationships at play. The rector of a parish held a great deal of sway at that time, and going against his wishes in a matter of public health would have been bold. Finally, and something that Wallis doesn’t seem to pick up on, is that (as I mentioned above) Mompesson explicitly mentions ‘pest houses’ in the context of them all being empty as of November 1666. These would have been existing structures identified for use to house and attempt to care for anyone diagnosed with the plague. No-one placed in one of these houses would have been permitted to leave, for the good of the uninfected in the village. Thus although those yet to be infected could in theory try to leave the village (although, where would they go?), anyone visibly afflicted certainly could not. Those free of plague would have even less reason to leave, as they weren’t being asked to live in the same house as the infected. 

Overall, I think Eyam is an interesting and important case study (especially the rare survival of 17th century plague graves in the village) and, as Wallis capably shows, a reflection of changing knowledge and opinion on management of infectious diseases. In the 20th century the ‘meme’ shifted from heroic sacrifice to tragic ignorance. Quarantine and isolation didn’t work, and Eyam was proof. We are now witnessing another shift back toward quarantine as a viable measure and, along with it, a reversion to the narrative of English people ‘doing the right thing’ in the face of deadly disease. However we reinterpret their fate to suit ourselves over time, the people of Eyam were just some of the many unfortunate victims of disease in the 17th century, no more or less heroic than any others.