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17th Century Villagers Sacrificed Their Lives to Save Others

The need for quarantine today to contain the spread of the coronavirus has reminded historians of a certain small village named Eyam in 17th Century England. The Black Plague or Black Death ran in various forms from 1347 to 1665 and killed at least 25 million people in Europe and anywhere from 75 million to 200 million worldwide. The symptoms were “flu-like” after an incubation period of 3-7 days.

In September 1665, a tailor’s assistant brought a bunch of flea-infested blankets from London. Soon many of the estimated 800 residents of Eyam were perishing from the disease. Eyam’s rector, William Mompesson, along with the previous rector, decided to quarantine the village to contain the disease. Eyam lay on an important trade route between two prominent cities, and if the current plague was brought to those cities, many more would die. Together they persuaded the villagers to voluntarily self-quarantine.

According to eyewitness accounts:

A quarantine cordon was established with a one-mile radius marked by a ring of stones. For 14 months nobody went in or out of the village. Food was left at the boundary stone by nearby townspeople in exchange for gold coins submerged in vinegar, which villagers believed would disinfect them. The death-rate skyrocketed. ... One woman, Elizabeth Hancock, buried six of her children and her husband inside a month.

To limit infections within Eyam, church services were held outdoors and some villagers left their homes to live outdoors nearby. By the plague’s end, 260 of Eyam’s estimated 800 residents died, more than double the mortality rate of the plague in London. “The villagers’ self-sacrifice had worked. The plague never spread to nearby towns and, 14 months later, in November 1667, the quarantine was lifted.

An Eyam survivors’ descendant wrote in a history of the village that succeeding generations of Eyam villagers should admire their ancestors: “who in a sublime, unparalleled resolution gave up their lives — yea: doomed themselves to pestilential death to save the surrounding country.”

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