The Black Plague was one of the worst catastrophes to ever hit a group of humans. Europe was absolutely ravaged by the disease. Around 200 million people are estimated to have been claimed by what they referred to as the Great Mortality.
This number is only exceeded by The Great Dying, which befell the Native American population. According to estimates, 90% of their population died from the variety of diseases brought over by the Europeans.
One village in England decided to take a logical stand against the Black Plague. While most people would flee in terror at the first signs of Plague in their town, the village of Eyam stood their ground. Their valiant sacrifice stopped the plague from spreading throughout the northern English countryside.
The Black Plague – Bubble, Bubble, Boil, and Pustule
There were three diseases caused by a bacteria called Yersinia Pestis. Once thought to be spread by fleas that normally live on rats, it is now understood that the fleas originated in Mongolia. There they fed upon the Tabargan Marmot. After running out of marmots, the fleas jumped to rats, and once the rats died off people were next on the menu.
First you could get the Bubonic Plague caused large buboes to grow on the upper thigh, in the armpit, and on the neck. Your first signs of Bubonic Plague infection would present similarly to the flu. Headaches, nausea, and vomiting are standard first steps. Next you would develop swollen lymph-nodes that turn black, buboes. Bubonic plague kills around 40-60% of people infected with it. This could develop into the two other types fairly quickly.
The next flavor of plague is Pneumonic Plague. Pneumonic refers to the respiratory system, which means that the Plague took a trip into the lungs. Once there, the Yersinia Pestis bacteria claim squatter's rights and starts renovating. Death by Pneumonic Plague is much quicker, some die within 36 hours of first showing symptoms. Death by violently coughing bacteria-filled blood onto whoever gets too close, infecting them too. Untreated Pneumonic Plague kills nearly 100% of the time.
Finally, we have the worst of the bunch. Septicemic Plague can cause death on the same day that you first realize that you are sick. This flavor of pain is the worst of the lot. Your body rapidly liquifies while your tissue becomes necrotic. Death comes to you as your body practically disintegrates before your eyes. True Horror.
When the Black Plague came to town people tended to react in one of four ways. Rich people would take their money and run. Fleeing to nearby settlements with the plague brewing within them, thus ensuring its spread. Other wealthy people would lock themselves away from society, full self-isolation style.
Poorer folk would take what precautions they could and attempt to go about their lives. Common precautions included carrying around some flowers to prevent bad smells from infecting you, or leaning over an open latrine to overwhelm the bad Plague air with another bad smell. Remarkably, archaeologists have discovered that people would disinfect their hands in bowls of vinegar as well. This is reminiscent of our own behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic of recent years.
The final group would deny the existence of the Black Plague, and instead they would party it up. Good thing that didn't happen this time with COVID-19, right? Nearly all of them would die of the plague soon enough.
Eyam - The Thermopylae of Black Plague England
While the rest of Europe had been dealing with the Black Plague for just over 300 years, the village of Eyam had thus far escaped the wrath of Yersinia Pestis. That is until a local tailor bought a piece of soggy cloth from London in 1665.
London's textiles may have been moist usually, but this time it would hit different. The tailor's servant, George Viccars, hung the soggy cloth up to dry in front of the fire. Soon the whole family would be dead, stricken by the plague. It was the first outbreak of Black Plague in the region.
Eyam is located in Derbyshire, near the market-town of Bakewell, and not far from Manchester city. They potentially had the start of a major outbreak on their hands. If not for the logic of two reverends, one disgraced and the other new, it would have sent a shockwave of death throughout their area.
Thomas Stanley had been the pastor in Eyam for a long time before he was removed for his puritanical beliefs by the government. The people loved him, and he was well-respected in the village. His replacement, William Mompesson, had a hard time fitting in because he replaced a beloved figure.
Stanley stuck around after his dismissal, and when the first signs of plague came to Eyam, he held a meeting with Mompesson. Together they decided that the best course of action was to institute a lockdown. Lockdowns are very effective, as we've seen in recent history, but only if you can get people to stick to it.
The village voted on the lockdown, and it was generally accepted. Markers were put up to identify the boundary over which no villager may step. The local Duke pledged his assistance, and had goods delivered to the village. They set up a bowl filled with vinegar where the villagers would leave money to pay for their goods. Help isn't free, after all.
Villagers instituted social-distancing measures and even opted to hold their church services outside in the open air. Families would stand together, separated from other households to avoid the spread of the disease.
People had to bury their own dead, and were instructed to do so as close to home as possible. The village would survive, but they lost nearly half of their total number to the Black Death.
Elizabeth Hancock lost her husband and six children in the span of eight days in 1666. She had to dig their graves and bury them along. By November 1666, just 14 months after the Plague arrived, it was all over.
Some estimates hold that 260 out of 350 villagers died. Modern estimates point to 430 survivors out of a population of 800. Whatever the case is, a massive portion of the population of Eyam was suddenly gone.
Their sacrifice paid off. Black Plague cases never sprang up in their neighboring villages. All it took was 14 months of watching their loved ones rapidly fall ill and die in agony. Digging multiple graves a week, and even carving their own tombstones after the stonemason died.