In the Valley of the Shadow of Death: Plague and Sacrifice in Eyam Village
Mompesson’s Well (1665).
The story of Eyam is not related to the history of surgery per se, but it is related to the history of disease, and man’s enduring struggles against it.
It begins in a little village in Derbyshire, just outside of Sheffield, on a typical day in September, 1665. George Vicars, the local tailor of Eyam Village, received a package from London. It was a consignment of cloth for his shop. Upon inspection, Vicars noticed that the cloth was damp, and so hung it before his fire to dry. Little did he know that this particular piece of cloth was carrying fleas that had been infected with bubonic plague.
Vicars was dead within a week.
The plague quickly spread around the village, claiming 23 lives within a two month period. Panic broke out and soon, villagers began making preparations to flee Eyam for healthier surroundings. It was then that two local clergymen, William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley, decided to make a last stand in an attempt to stop the plague from spreading to neighbouring villages.
In a joint sermon, the two men pleaded with their fellow townspeople to recognise that it was their Christian duty to remain in Eyam until the pestilence had passed. Moved by the clergymen’s words, the village decided to make the ultimate sacrifice: they sealed themselves off from the rest of the world while plague raged within their village.
In order to do this, villagers created a stone boundary around Eyam. No one was allowed in, and no one was allowed out. People from surrounding communities brought food and clothing to the disease-ridden village. They would leave their goods on the stones and pick up their payment from a well filled with water and vinegar, which would disinfect the coins [pictured above].
Within Eyam, the plague was unrelenting, killing people arbitrarily over the next 14 months. No one was untouched by tragedy, including Elizabeth Hancock, who inadvertedly brought the disease back to her farm after helping to bury a fellow villager’s body. Within a week, all 6 of Elizabeth’s children, as well as her husband, had died. Not wanting to put anyone at further risk, Elizabeth took on the task of burying her entire family by herself.
By August, two-thirds of Eyam’s population had died from the plague, including Mompesson’s own wife, Catherine. The cemetery had become so full that the dead had to be buried in nearby gardens and fields. The dwindling congregation, which grew smaller every day, began holding service outside in an attempt to stop the rampant spread of the disease. There, in the open air, they prayed earnestly to be delivered from the suffering God had seen fit to cast upon them.
By November, the plague had finally subsided. Of the village’s 350 original occupants, only 90 survived. However, it is not the statistics which are extraordinary in this story, as these are fairly representative of plague mortality rates during this period. Instead, it is the villagers who are extraordinary. They stopped the spread of plague through their courageous, selfless act, and in doing so, ceased to be nameless victims in this horrific epidemic.
No one in the surrounding area contracted plague during this time.