We seem to be teetering on a knife-edge with Covid-19.  First it seemed that self-isolation had worked and the spread was slowing, then, after some mindless raves and gatherings on beaches it started to rise again.

There’s a delightful little account of when human behaviour actually help to stop the spread of a plague, in this case, the ‘black death’.  You may know it already, but I only came across it on the History Learning Site [i] when looking up information about plagues.  It’s a true story about about the power of human behaviour in changing events, and it’s about self- sacrifice.

In the 16th century the Bubonic plague was spreading throughout Britain, working its way outwards from London, the main trading centre.  It arrived at the little village of Eyam, in Derbyshire, home to 350 people, in a parcel of material the village tailor received from his supplier in London, which contained fleas.  Within a week the tailor was dead, and a few weeks later another 28 had died.

The villagers were thinking of escaping to the nearby city of Sheffield, but the church Rector, William Mompesson, persuaded them against it, fearing they might spread the plague to the north of England, which had largely escaped the worst of it.  The village decided to cut itself off from the outside world: quarantining themselves even though they knew it would mean death for many of them.

Food supplies were left by outsiders at the village boundary, and cash in payment was put in a water trough filled with vinegar to sterilise the coins.   In this way, Eyam was not left to starve to death, though plague continued to devastate the village.   Rector Mompesson buried his own family in the churchyard.  By the time the plague ended in November 1666, the little village had lost 260 of their 350 people.  Their sacrifice may well have saved many thousands of lives in the north of England.

William Mompesson survived, and towards the end of Eyam’s ordeal he wrote, ‘Now, blessed be God, all our fears are over for none have died of the plague since the eleventh of October and the pest-houses have long been empty.’  We can’t imagine the fear and the grief the villagers experienced, and I hope their sacrifice is memorialised in some way.

What complex creatures we human beings are – our behaviour can bring disaster and help to ward it off.  No wonder the Bible tells us to be good to one another, to encourage each other to show love and do good things (Hebrews 10: 23-25, Ephesians 4:32).

[i] Eyam and the Great Plague of 1665″. HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014. Web

 

Louise Morse

Louise Morse MA (CBT) is media and external relations manager for the Pilgrims’ Friend Society. She is a writer and speaker, and author of books on issues of old age, including dementia, published by Lion Monarch and SPCK. She is a cognitive behavioural therapist, and her Masters’ dissertation examined the effects of caring for a loved one with dementia on close relatives.

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