Eyam & The Plague

by Dee
Dee

Dee

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Eyam is about half an hour by bus from Sheffield. I came to the knowledge that Eyam is not far away from Sheffield and after online research on how to get there, I decided to take a one-day return trip to Eyam. Scroll down to read stories of the pretty English village and the plague that ravaged it in 1666. 

Eyam's Main Road

Finding Eyam

It’s time for a bus ride. I decided to realise the anticipated trip to Eyam on August 20, 2009. Why was it an anticipated trip? I have been here in Britain for nearly a year, studying about dead bodies, and the topic of Black Death appeared quite a lot in papers and articles I read, in class, and discussions. I kept putting off the date of departure because schoolwork is killing me. I am in the middle of typing up my thesis, which I hope to complete by early September. A trip to Eyam, away from all those books and bones would be advantageous. Change of scenery, people said.

What is a trip without Mbak Rini? Of course, I asked her to join and luckily she said yes. She needed the time out from her demanding dissertation writing as well. We also wanted to enjoy the last bits of summer that we can have before the leaves start to change colours. We depart from Sheffield Interchange at around nine in the morning. It’s a little bit of a relaxed trip that we don’t have to wake up at dawn, and we can match our arrival to when shops, restaurants, and museums are open.

Turning right at A623 from Stoney Middleton, we arrive at Eyam. The bus stopped smack-bang in the middle of the village, in what is called The Square. I love the English and their descriptive namesake of places or location, e.g. Church Street—I am most definitely will be expecting a church somewhere on or nearby the street. I’ve come armed this time with spots to visit in Eyam. You could say I made ourselves a detailed itinerary to get through the day. We also prepared ourselves with assortments of savouries we bought at Greggs. Yes, people. I love Greggs. Under the pretext of “sustaining energy”, we decided to bring food that can fit our bags and preferably not to purchase additional lunch. We learnt that from Whitby and Scarborough. Now, I think we got enough Greggs to sustain the whole Eyam.

The Village of Eyam

Eyam is recorded in Domesday Book as Aiume, with its land belonging to King William. The Domesday Book noted that Aiume had twelve villagers and seven smallholders with two ploughlands and five men’s plough team.1 The first on our—or rather—my itinerary is St Lawrence Church, the parish church of Eyam. The first recorded rector began his ministry in Eyam in 1250. The building itself dates from Saxon times. 

My eyes were quickly drawn to the sight of a huge Celtic cross in the churchyard, making mental notes “things that make England, England. This darling dates back to 8th century but there’s no backstory available to accompany the date. Perhaps, like any other high cross, it served its function as a preaching cross. Nearby the cross lies the grave of Catherine Mompesson, the wife of Reverend Mompesson. He’s the leader of the village during the plague.

I have always loved old architecture, particularly churches and its yard. I was lucky that I live nearby one back in Sheffield, though it is of a much younger period than I’d wanted it to be. Churchyards are hauntingly mesmerising. It gives me a certain type of tranquillity and soothing feeling. Perhaps, because I hang out with dead people seven days a week, I describe death as soothing. By dead people, I did not mean ghosts but those skulls and skeletons in the lab. Now, I’m surrounded by the history of dead people in Eyam.

Black Death in Eyam

There are two major outbreaks of bubonic plague in England. The first was in June 1348 with the first known case originated from Weymouth (Dorset). By autumn 1348, the disease had spread to London and the whole country by 1349. The bubonic plague returned to England in 1361-62 and occurred intermittently throughout the 14th-15th century. 

Before it died down, bubonic plague played its last act in the Great Plague of London in 1665-1666. If the 1348’s outbreak was brought in via Gascony to Dorset, the second one, I guess, emerged from the unsanitary living conditions in London with the earliest cases in the area recorded from a parish called St-Giles-in-the-Fields.

Seeds of the plague came to Eyam by means of trading. Alexander Hadfield whose cottage is located next to St Lawrence Church was the local tailor. He ordered a bundle of new fabrics from London and it is believed that the package was ridden with fleas. George Viccars, his assistant, opened up the damp package and he became the first casualty in Eyam. 

As the disease progressed, people seek leadership from Reverend Mompesson and Thomas Stanley who then decided that they need to quarantine themselves. That decision actually helped prevent the disease from spreading to other villages in Peak District and beyond. People of Eyam only asked to be supplied with bread and other necessities and merchants will leave the items in a marked rock.

St Lawrence Church recorded 273 people died from the bubonic plague. The museum guide told us that in some cases, a whole family perished from it. Elizabeth Hancocke had to bury her husband and all of her six children by herself in one week period. She herself was spared from the disease. 

There’s a plot in Riley’s Field containing the graves of the Hancocke family. We contemplated to go to Riley Lane and see the graves ourselves. But then I thought, perhaps let’s just leave them to sleep peacefully this time. I don’t know why with the Hancocke’s case, I couldn’t treat them like any other cemeteries I visited or human remains I handled. This feeling is inexplicable.

Our napak tilas of the plague village consists of visiting houses of notable members of the community during the plague year. Bubonic plague stayed in Eyam for fourteen months, by the way. Cleverly, Eyam placed green placards everywhere, including in front of each house recorded with plague victims. 

And so we “met” the Hawksworths, the Hadfields, the Thorpes, the Lydgates, the Willsons, the Sydalls, and much more. There is a knot in my stomach reading all of those placards. It feels very different as an archaeologist to put names and place and history into the realm of existence. The skeletons in my thesis bear no placards, but they were living people before they got to my desk. This trip turned grimmer than I expected.

Little Things Eyam

Walking through the village, I noticed a banner announcing of a well-dressing event. I got curious about well-dressing. What is it? Why do you dress wells? With salad dressing? With clothes? I’m such an ignorant foreign person. In an attempt to reduce my ignorance, I did a little bit of research as I’m writing this post, about well-dressing. 

I found out that well-dressing (or well-flowering) is an event closely associated with the areas of Peak District (Derbyshire) and Staffordshire. Oh, I think I got it now. Water, in any human civilization, is always considered as an essential element because we need water to live.

At this point, my wildest guess based on this premise was that well-dressing is related to an act of giving thanks to or asking for blessings from water sources available in a settlement. That’s just my guess, though. 

Sadly, I have no picture of a well being dressed up. All I have is the banner announcing the event, which I will put up in this post. You see, I know I will not have the chance to visit other Peak District villages to collect more photographs of a well-dressing event. 

Instead, I turned to my postcard swapping community and requested some postcards with well-dressing pictures on it. Still, I did more reading. In Derbyshire, well-dressing is a festive event celebrated from May to August—the perfect reason why I saw this banner in Eyam as it is August. A well-dressing is a wooden board coated in clay and decorated with flower petals to make images or words or patterns.2

One other small thing caught my eyes when we pass by the Eyam Hall Craft Centre. A village stock. Mind you, coming all the way from Indonesia, I have never seen a real-life stock before. I couldn’t help but chuckle on the thoughts of what type of people were condemned to be put in that stock in Eyam. What atrocities did they do? Fun fact: the last recorded use of stock in the United Kingdom was in 1872. Free knowledge from Wikipedia.

I can envision myself living in a village that looks like Eyam, spending afternoons in that tea room. The village is so quiet and I love quiet. Everything is within walking distance and people are really nice. Perhaps, they’re used to tourists but they are genuinely nice—at least during my visit. We didn’t spend too much time in Eyam. Sadly, our break from dissertation writing must come to an end. I am going to say it one more time: I can envision myself living in a village such as Eyam and if I were given the option to stay, I would. It’s cold, yes. But it’s Britain, it’s not Lombok and sunny beaches.

On the bus ride home, I felt like I have accomplished something: I visited Eyam. Maybe to feel a little bit more connected with the historical background of a notorious event in the country I live in temporarily. But I feel I understand a little bit more about the plague ravaging Eyam three hundred years ago. I know now how close-knit this community is, how the proximity of houses may have helped the plague spread faster. 

I saw and paid respect to Catherine Mompesson and others who died in the plague. Back in my flat, trying to write this piece, it’s a little bit confusing. I wanted to use my usual template of a history-laden piece but writing another rendition about Black Death seems redundant. I wish I could approach the theme of Black Death from an osteoarchaeological perspective. But I guess, for the time being, I should be content that I have been to Eyam.

All Hallow’s Eve, 2020

This piece of writing read very differently in the year of our pandemic. Yes, we have a pandemic going on right now. I was working through the old posts and found this piece of writing. But re-reading this piece, the knot in my stomach churns stronger. Nobody in our lifetime thought that we’d experience a pandemic. But there are lessons learned, which is why I keep going back to history for everything in life. This method has yet to fail me. 

We are on our seventh month into our pandemic and I have to say we haven’t handled it better than Eyam. Perhaps modernity brings upon the gift of personal rights and a certain type of wokeness to go against instinct that when something contagious is happening, the best thing you can do is to isolate. When the peak passed, precautions must be put in place and obeyed. But the word “obey” seems to make 21st-century human cringed and then cry “violations of rights”.

People in 1666’s Eyam weren’t enriched with technologies and gadgets. They just go with the most sensible and reasonable thing to do during an outbreak: isolation, hygiene, social distancing. These three words are repeated frequently these days. Are we going to get out of this pandemic victorious? If not victorious, at least we survive. Wear your mask, stay within a safe distance from each other. We’re lucky this is not (yet) a zombie plague, which if that’s the case: sharpen your blades.

References

1. Powell-Smith, Anna. Eyam: Domesday Book. Open Domesday.

2. Rosemary, Shirley, 2017. Festive landscapes: the contemporary practice of well-dressing in Tissington, Landscape Research, 42(6): 650-662. DOI: 10.1080/01426397.2017.1317725

Further readingEvery published & available Black Death related books, journal articles, memoirs, etc. 

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