The small English village of Eyam has popped up periodically in the news of the last few months, but the behavior of its inhabitants during a bubonic plague outbreak in 1665–1666 has long been remembered as an example of a community sacrificing for the greater good. When the plague reached the small Derbyshire town, carried from London (which was then in the grips of the Great Plague) in a box full of tailor’s cloth patterns, legend has it that the people of Eyam quickly and voluntarily decided to isolate themselves to keep the disease from spreading further through the north of England. Until the outbreak had passed in the fall of 1666 —by which point 259 of Eyam’s 330 residents had died — they maintained a self-imposed cordon sanitaire, preventing people from entering or leaving the village and thereby successfully containing the plague.
As has been pointed out by Patrick Wallis among others, there is no clear evidence the village of Eyam chose to quarantine itself:
None of the original sources... mentions the village choosing its own quarantine. They instead note the success of that isolation and the leadership it demanded. That is not surprising, from the perspective of the period. By the 1660s quarantine was a well-established public health technique, but it was something enforced by the state, not enacted by public-spirited communities — in part because, for some, the temptation to break out was always too strong.
Indeed, there appears to be evidence that at the outset of the outbreak some wealthier residents of Eyam fled, erecting new houses in neighbouring valleys, or had their children sent away (as did village leader Reverend Mompesson himself).
The romanticised story of Eyam’s self-isolation appears to have first been enshrined by the eighteenth-century poet and Eyam-resident Anna Seward and later reinforced by William Wood’s 1848 book The History and Antiquities of Eyam — with its “minute account of the great plague, which desolated that village in the year 1666”.
It was Wood, in keeping with the Victorian habit of championing the stoicism of strong leaders, who made saints of the Reverend Thomas Stanley and the Reverend William Mompesson — two clerics in Eyam whose “magnanimous conduct” (the decision to contain the plague within the village) he credited with “the salvation of the surrounding country”. And it was the popularity of Wood’s book that helped lead to the official recognition of the heroism of the townspeople with annual memorial services and plaques placed on house fronts, rather arbitrarily it seems, commemorating where the victims had once lived.
None of this suggests, of course, that the people of Eyam were unheroic or that they did not, under their own steam, take measures to prevent the plague from spreading. Wood’s The Histories and Antiquities of Eyam contains enough quotations from eyewitnesses to suggest that the townspeople acted bravely and that Stanley and Mompesson were compassionate leaders. “The condition of the place has been so sad”, Mompesson writes in a letter written not long after the plague had passed, “that I persuade myself it did exceed all history and example”.
But what one sees above all in Wood’s pages is the appeal of what are very likely myths, such as the ballad-like story of a girl called Emmot and her fiancé, “a youth named Rowland, who resided in Middleton Dale, about a mile south-east of Eyam” — and who had to stop visiting Emmot once Eyam closed itself off. As one might expect, Emmot is eventually stricken by the plague, though it’s many months before poor Rowland, who’s had to stay away from the village, learns of her death. “Rowland wept as he left the tenantless dwelling”, Wood writes; “his dreadful apprehensions were verified; and until death closed his eyes at a great age, he frequently dropped a tear to the memory of his once lovely Emmot”.
The idea that a small community would, inspired by its right-minded leaders, draw a circle around itself “marked by particular and well-known stones and hills; beyond which it was solemnly agreed that no one of the villagers should proceed, whether infected or not”, as Wood memorably describes the making of the cordon sanitaire, is powerful. Whether or not the cordon was self-generated, or imposed by outside forces — or, as seems most likely, a combination of the two — Eyam’s history speaks directly and saliently to our situation today.