In 1722, Daniel Defoe, the author of “Robinson Crusoe,” wrote “A Journal of the Plague Year.” In 1665, the Black Death hit London and England. Defoe was only 5 years old at the time, but drawing on diaries left by an uncle, he wrote an account of the plague that was both horrific and heroic.
The similarities between London’s epidemic then and our pandemic now are startling.
Ignorance about the contagion allowed it to spread (by infected fleas living on rats and humans) when it could easily have been stopped. Newspapers then, as now, kept “bills of mortality” — running tallies of the sick and dead.
Civil and religious authorities would withhold information from the public that didn’t fit their official narrative. Anyone who died from any ailment was listed as having died of the plague.
A lockdown was imposed, and draconian measures were taken; windows and doors of homes in which there were sick people would be boarded up so that no one could get out and spread the infection. This, of course, was a death sentence for everyone in the house — a scenario eerily like the deaths that have needlessly occurred among the elderly in some nursing homes.
All businesses except those deemed necessary to life were closed; the ensuing economic collapse only amplified the misery. The hoarding of food, the peddling of fake cures, etc. was widespread. Dead carts collected the deceased daily and carried them to mass graves.
Such was the horrific, but as I said, there was also the heroic.
In the small English village of Eyam, folks still remember the London plague as if it happened last week.
In the fall of 1665, a box of clothes that contained infected fleas was sent to a tailor in Eyam, thus introducing the pestilence to the town. When people began dying, there was a stampede from the village; people wanted to get away to the windy moors of Derbyshire and socially distance themselves as far as possible from everyone else.
The local rector, William Mompesson, however, realized that flight would only spread the disease. He assembled the townspeople and persuaded them to self-quarantine by citing the words of Jesus, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Mompesson drew a line around the village a mile from its center, and beyond this line no one was to venture. People in nearby towns (notably, the Earl of Devonshire in nearby Chatsworth) would leave food and other provisions on the boundary. Eyam, effectively, became a plague house, shut off from the world.
When the contagion left nearly a year later, 267 had died, and only 83 remained. One of the last to die was Mompesson’s wife, Catherine, who had gone from house to house during the outbreak, ministering to the sick.
For more than 300 years, Eyam’s self-sacrifice has given it a foremost place among the courageous villages of England.
And we think we’ve got it bad.
Kenny Chumbley, a lifelong resident of Rantoul, is a minister, author and publisher.