• I keep hate-reading plague literature from the medieval era, but as depressed as it makes me there is always one historical tidbit that makes me feel a little bittersweet and I like to revisit it. That's the story of
the village of Eyam.
Eyam today is a teeny tiny town of less than a thousand people. It has barely grown since
1665 when its population was around 800.
Where the story starts with Eyam is that
in August 1665 the village tailor and his assistant discovered that a bolt of cloth that they had bought from London was infested with rat fleas. A few days later on September the tailor's assistant George Viccars died from plague.
Back then people didn't fully understand how disease spread, but they knew ina basic sense that it did spread and that the spread had something to do with the movement of people.
So two religios leaders in the town, Thomas
Stanley and William Mompesson, got together and came up with a plan. They would put the entire village of Eyam under quarantine. And they did. For over a year nobody went in and nobody went out.
They put up signs on the edge of town as warning and left money in vinegar filled basins that people from out of town would leave food and supplies by.
Over the 14 months that Eyam was in quarantine 260 out of the 800 residents died of plague. The death toll was high, the cost was great.
However, they did successfully prevent the disease from spreading to the nearby town of Sheffield, even then a much bigger town, and likely saved the lives of thousands of people in the north of England through their sacrifice.
So I really like this story, because it's a sad story, because it's also a beautiful story.
Instead of fleeing everyone in this one place agreed that they would stay, and they saved thousands of people. They stayed just to save others and I guess it's one of those good stories about how people have always been people, for better or worse.
It gets better.
Here's the thing. One third of the residents of Eyam died during their quarantine, but the
Black Plague was known to have a NINETY PERCENT death rate. As high as the toll was, it wasn't as high as it should have been. And a few hundred years later, some historians and doctors got to wondering why.
Fortunately, Eyam is one of those wonderful places that really hasn't changed much
in hundreds of years. Researchers, going
to visit, found that many of the current residents were direct descendants of
the plague survivors from the 1600s. By doing genetic testing, they learned that
a high number of Eyam residents carried
a gene that made them immune to the plague. And still do.
And it gets even better than that, because the gene that blocks the Black Plague?
Also turns out to block AIDS, and was instrumental in helping to find effective medication for people who have HIV and
AIDS in the 21st century.
Here is a lovely, well-produced documentary
about Eyam and its disease resistance. It's a little under an hour. Trigger warning for
general disease and epidemic-type stuff, but also, maybe it will help you have some hope in these alarmly uncertain times.
28,367 notes >od
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