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The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics to have occurred in human history, killing as much as 60% of Europe’s total population. The bacterium yersinia pestis is now known to have been the cause of the pandemic. The mechanism by which Y. pestis was usually transmitted was established in 1898 by Paul-Louis Simond and was found to involve the bites of fleas whose mid-guts had become obstructed by replicating Y. pestis several days after feeding on an infected host. This blockage results in starvation and aggressive feeding behaviour by the fleas, which repeatedly attempt to clear their blockage by regurgitation, resulting in thousands of plague bacteria being flushed into the feeding site, infecting the host. [1] The initial outbreak took place 1346-53 but plague broke out again and again in smaller pockets for centuries afterwards.

In England the last widespread outbreak was the Great Plague of London of 1664-66. Although the outbreak is now thought to have been on the wane by the end of the summer of 1666 there are still many who would argue that the Great Fire of London (September 2nd to September 5th) did much to halt the spread of disease and cleanse the capital of infection.

Today, the 31st of August, a ceremony is held annually in the quiet and picturesque village of Eyam, in Derbyshire in the East Midlands of England. Eyam’s Plague Sunday service has been held for more than three-hundred years now and commemorates the settlement’s own devastating, heartbreaking, yet self-sacrificing brush with the Black Death.

Rector William Mompesson

In late August 1665 the tailor of Eyam, George Viccars, received an eagerly awaited package from London. Some accounts say that it contained a normal bail of cloth, others go further and claim that the fabric had been specifically ordered for a bridal gown. Within six days of laying the cloth out in his shop the tailor was dead. The fabric had brought the plague with it from London. By the end of September six others – all Viccars’ neighbours – had also died. Not knowing or understanding about the outbreak in London, the villagers began to worry that some kind of curse was being visited upon them – the howling of spectral Gabriel Hounds, the appearance of white crickets, and cows straying into the church all being cited as ill omens. By the end of April 1666 seventy-three villagers had died and many were gathering their belongings in preparation for flight.

In May the young rector of Eyam, William Mompesson, called a village meeting. Although the exact nature of the disease was not known, Mompesson and others understood enough to recognise that it was passed from person to person. He told his parishioners that theirs was the only village in the whole of the county in the grip of the Black Death and that if they were to flee they would only spread the disease and cause others to die. That day the people of Eyam agreed to enter into what we would now call quarantine – a voluntary isolation from all others – until all sign of the plague was gone from the village.

Arrangements were made for supplies to be delivered. The Earl of Devonshire’s men would take food to the village’s southern boundary stone, to be collected as soon as they were at a safe distance. Other provisions were left at Wet Withens stone circle on Eyam Moor, and at a Holy Well – now known as Mompession’s Well – at which coins were left in payment in the belief that the water would cleanse them of contamination. Holes were drilled in a stone, named the Coolstone – still extant – into which vinegar was poured and other coins were left in the belief that the vinegar would sterilise them. In order that Sunday service continue without the parishioners getting too close to each other, Mompesson chose the grassy slopes of a natural amphitheatre – nearby Cucklett Delph – or an outdoor venue for his sermons.

The Eyam Plague lasted fourteen months and claimed two-hundred and sixty lives – the rector’s wife Catherine Mompesson among them – but not one person outside of the village contracted the disease. [2]

Today in Eyam a procession will troop through the village – many dressed in 17th century costume – singing Onward Christian Soldiers. They will make their way along an ancient track to Cucklett Heath and seat themselves there upon the grass where hymns will be sung and a sermon given, just as it was in the plague years. [3] [4] Mompesson’s Well will be dressed, and flowers left on the grave of Catherine.

[1] G. Christakos, Interdisciplinary Public Health Reasoning and Epidemic Modelling: the Case of Black Death (シュプリンガー・ジャパン株式会社, 2005), pp. 110–14.

[2] Marc Alexander, The Companion to Folklore, Myths & Customs of Britain (Sutton Publishing, 2002) pp. 87-89

[3] http://www.eyam-church.org/Eyam_Plague.html

[4] http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/eyam-plague-service/