Friday, August 28, 2009
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With strong convictions, an infected township decided to reside in the confines of their village for more than a year so their citizens would not spread the bubonic plague. This Sunday, pilgrims will gather near the English village of Eyam for a service of remembrance. During 1665-1666, Eyam’s population of 500 plus suffered the loss of half their friends and family.
In the 1300s, bubonic plague’s first recorded victims were in China’s Gobi dessert. Bubonic plague, contracted from rats and fleas, traveled from that region aboard trading ships. A PBS special “Secrets of the Dead” said “In October of 1347, a Genoese ship fleet returning from the Black Sea -- a key trade link with China -- landed in Messina, Sicily.” To the horror of dock workers “most of those on board were already dead, and the ships were ordered out of harbor. But it was too late.” From there, the killer disease spread to Europe and before it subsided an estimated 25 million died.
Again, in the 1660s the bubonic plague raged and killed 100,000 in London, a sixth of the population. In September of 1665 a batch of fabric was sent from London to the village of Eyam in Derbyshire. Local tailor George Viccars took the damp fabric infested with fleas into his home and hung it by the fireplace. Within four days he died and soon other villagers caught the disease. A few families panicked and fled north, but the town turned to Rector William Mompesson, who urged a self-imposed quarantine to prevent the disease from spreading to nearby villages. The noble villagers agreed.
For 14 months no one went beyond the town boundaries. Neighboring villagers left food at Mompesson’s well and coins of payment were left in the water. Church services were held outdoors to avoid clusters of people meeting together. Families buried their deceased in garden plots and back yards. Ironically the local grave digger, even though he buried many, survived. Mrs. Hancock of Riley buried her husband and six children within eight days.
Bubonic plague can turn into pneumonic plague, affecting the lungs and then the disease spreads from human contact. The plague oppressed the villagers for over a year and on November 1, 1666, the last victim died.
The rector’s wife Catherine Mompesson nursed the ill and dying for nearly a year and then she was among some of the last to contract the disease and die on August 25, 1666. Plague Sunday is celebrated the last Sunday in August and this year, as in the past, a red rose entwined wreath will be laid upon her gravestone.
Some believe a children’s nursery rhyme commemorates the plague and describes the disease and the fatalities: “A ring-a-ring of rosies / A pocket full of posies / A tishoo! A tishoo! / We all fall down.”
After the scourge was over the first outsiders ventured into Eyam where they expected to find a ghost town, yet miraculously half the population had survived. The abovementioned PBS special details how researchers traced and located direct descendents of Eyam plague survivors. Researchers hoped to find these folk to be carriers of a protective gene. They did find such a gene and for more information check out the PBS site.
Now, the medical community is preparing to protect the earth’s population from the less deadly h1n1 virus, and many ordinary citizens will also have opportunities to serve those who get this flu. If the flu is contracted, we can follow the good people of Eyam’s unselfishness and avoid exposing others.
Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). He described a premier love, a love superior to self; a love lived out in a hamlet some 350 years ago.