The English village of Eyam...and the plague

Leigha Offline

During the bubonic plague outbreak, the residents of Eyam (voluntarily) quarantined themselves, in a remarkable act of self-sacrifice, to prevent the spread of the plague. Just to be clear, I'm not advocating for another lock-down; simply found this story moving in terms of one village's selfless decision in response to a tragic situation. PS - I stumbled on this video looking for something else, and liked the silent story-telling aspect of it that I kept watching... but, didn't expect the story about Eyam. I've never heard this story before.
C C Offline

"...the residents could still receive the food and supplies they needed. The villagers established a system of boundary stones around the village’s periphery, boring holes into the rocks and leaving coins soaked in vinegar – they believed it acted as a disinfectant – in the holes. Merchants from surrounding villages would collect the money and leave bundles of meat, grains and trinkets in return."

Curious that they knew substances like vinegar were antiseptic, over two hundred years before germ theory was finally vindicated. But that goes with the many anti-contagion practices that were around since ancient times. In 1546, Girolamo Fracastoro hypothesized that diseases were the result of seed-like agents that were transmissible by contact with infected items; but miasma theory continued to be the favorite explanation well into the 19th-century. 

Below is the 2005 research paper that was skeptical about the details of the popular Eyam account, asserting such instead developed and was embellished over time. In the 1960s, the traditional livelihood of mining and footwear manufacture ended for the community. That's when Eyam started promoting itself as a plague village to attract tourism. (Similar to Roswell, New Mexico capitalizing on its UFO legend.)

A Dreadful Heritage: Interpreting Epidemic Disease at Eyam, 1666-2000

EXCERPTS: . . . although the plague of Eyam in 1666 is one of the most famous outbreaks of epidemic disease in British history, the narrative is largely a fiction; produced not by doctors, but by poets, writers, and local historians. Eyam’s ongoing celebrity is indebted to a combination of literary effort and contemporary events. During the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a tradition was established, manipulated, and reshaped to fit changing literary and historical fashions.

The construction of the Eyam plague story offers an unusually clear case study in the social and intellectual dynamics of the creation of heritage and history. This paper examines the process by which this narrative emerged and was repeatedly reconstructed over three centuries, and its subsequent transformation into a prominent part of English heritage.

[...] Today, the plague of Eyam in 1666 is one of the most famous outbreaks of epidemic disease in British history. Accounting for Eyam’s presence within the popular narrative of English history might not seem difficult; the horror of the village’s epidemic is bluntly argued by the record of mortality in its parish records. But trauma is no guarantor of historical respect or interest, and Eyam did not become instantly regarded. Indeed, it was almost forgotten in the eighteenth century.

Since then, the story has been frequently retold in poems, novels and plays. There are even three musicals, a children’s television drama, and at least one folk song. Yet, like London’s ‘Great Plague’ of 1665 – in fact a less severe outbreak than the epidemics of 1603 and 1625 – the events at Eyam were not all that they seem, and certainly not all that is remembered or commonly retold.

The account given above brings together the bare bones of the version that was popularised in the nineteenth century and which survived for much of the twentieth century. But these bones have themselves been re-arranged and sometimes added to or discarded, while the flesh of the story built upon them has been moulded into even more varied forms. This paper examines the process by which this narrative emerged and was repeatedly reconstructed over three centuries and its transformation into a prominent part of English heritage.

[...] Eyam’s ongoing celebrity is, as I show, indebted to a combination of literary effort and contemporary events, particularly, but not exclusively, involving the threat of disease, during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During this period a tradition was established, manipulated and reshaped to fit changing literary and historical fashions, while the fabric of the village itself was adapted to suit the tourist trade on which it became increasingly dependent.

In some ways, Eyam’s history might be compared to that of the ‘Great Plague’ of London, which also owes much of its notoriety to literary investment, particularly Daniel Defoe’s History of the Plague Year (1722), written at a time when an epidemic in Marseilles made it seem almost inevitable that plague would again reach London. However, while Defoe wrote of events still just within living memory, Eyam did not find its amanuensis until the mid-eighteenth century.

Then, after a period of near neglect, its story was gradually constructed in a number of different kinds of text, from verse to guidebook. [...] That the story of the plague of Eyam did not become widely disseminated until so long after the event allowed it to develop without the influence of a dominant ‘authentic’ interpretation from the time of the epidemic itself.

One further significant consequence of the chronological lag between event and narration was that accounts of Eyam were carved into shape after the threat of plague, at least, had to an extent retreated. The immediate justification of actions against plague, and the power and reputation of those involved, was no longer the issue. Appropriate responses to epidemics and disease did continue to be an issue in the retelling and reception of the Eyam story, but they run in parallel with other significant issues, particularly regarding local and national identity, the nature of heroism, and the nature of leadership in a community.

Recovering the history of the changing representation of Eyam plague over the late eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries is a complex challenge involving the consideration of multiple texts over a long period...


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