A few months ago, with what now appears to be an uncanny and uncomfortable prescience, we began a workshop in the Derbyshire village of Eyam. The village is one of those pretty places of old stone and cottage gardens… but it is best known for its response to the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665.
The plague arrived in the village from London in a bale of flea-infested cloth and swiftly infected the tailor who had ordered it and his assistant, killing them both. This was at the time of the Great Plague of London… the last time bubonic plague reached epidemic proportions in England and during what is now known as the Second Pandemic. The pandemic had begun in China in 1331, with devastating global effects in the days before modern medicine, killing hundreds of millions over the centuries of its periodic resurgences. The Great Plague of London killed at least a hundred thousand people in the city during the eighteen months between its onset in 1665 to its end around the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The little village of Eyam, knowing the devastation that the disease would wreak should it spread throughout the north, chose to place itself in strict quarantine, cutting itself off from neighbouring villages completely and holding their socially distanced prayers in a field until the disease had run its course, killing a tragic proportion of the villagers.
Their sacrifice… a true sacrifice that was chosen, not imposed… saved uncountable lives at the cost of their own. Mothers buried their children, whole families were wiped out and plaques around the village today commemorate both their lives and their deaths.
We had called the workshop weekend ‘Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear’ and our aim was to show that fear can be both destructive and positive… and can, when faced, lead us to places and experiences of which we may not have thought ourselves capable. The village of Eyam was a perfect place to start.
Today, the village derives much of its income from tourism based upon its role and sacrifice during that dark time. The tragedy has not been allowed to sink into the memory of the land, but is kept raw and alive in all its shocking detail. It is an unsettling place, especially with its chocolate-box appearance contrasting against its history. Almost all of our companions on that weekend felt the deep and long-held pain and darkness that hangs over the village like a sticky pall.
Helen Jones was with us and shared an account of the weekend on her blog. Of her experience at Eyam she wrote:
“As we neared the old church I was finding it difficult to breathe, a weight on my chest. Another member of the group felt the same way – there seemed to be no explanation for it. I was struggling against surging emotion, like being at the centre of a storm, despite the bright sunshine.”
I know from the numerous emails and phone calls that I have received over the past few weeks that many people are feeling much the same way about the current pandemic and its effects on our daily lives. Unlike the villagers of Eyam, we have few choices, save to obey the measures that have been put in place in an attempt to control the spread of a disease we do not yet fully understand, know how to cure or even prevent. Many feel helpless, the continued and profound uncertainty of ‘what next’ is affecting the majority of us. For many, there is fear for themselves, their loved ones, their incomes and security. For some, it is the sense of isolation and the lack of human contact that is hardest to bear, while for others loneliness weighs heavy on their hearts.
There are so many mixed emotions, from gratitude to those who work tirelessly to help those afflicted…and to those, like shop assistants and refuse collectors, whose jobs pass largely unnoticed. There is anger… both from those who disagree with policies and restrictions and from those whose fear makes them react badly to the proximity or actions of other human beings. As the situation changes daily, the messages we are being given can seem to contradict themselves and on the silent streets, the world seems to be holding its breath. Few things seem to be within our control at the moment…and even the experts in whom we repose our trust seem unsure and conflicted about the best way forward.
“Eyam is a place that makes its living from death, the sad history of the place drawing tourism from far and wide. But is it healthy to constantly relive such an episode? Places hold the energy of events that happen there – such as the warmth experienced in a happy home, or the sombre cold at sites of torture and death. Despite all the doubtless peaceful years that Eyam experienced, both before and after the plague, it has allowed itself to be defined by the events of that awful time and, while of course it’s important to remember and honour the deeds of the villagers who sacrificed everything for the sake of the larger community, the relentless focus on that time makes it difficult for the energy surrounding it to dissipate.“
For those families across the world who have lost those they love, grief is inevitable, especially in this heartbreaking time when many cannot even hold a hand, say goodbye or lay their loved ones to rest with dignity and love.
For the rest of us, though, one thing we can do is decide, right now, whether or not, or how, we choose to be defined by events. There will be no ‘quick fix’ to this pandemic, both families and economies will be affected for a long time to come. We can choose to spend the rest of our lives looking back, mourning better days and maintaining the dark aura of hurt and fear, or we can take a positive stance, seeing the possibilities inherent in any challenge that allows us to move forward.
Do we choose to come out on the other side of this tragic time to find a world that feels as oppressive and fearful as the plague village of Eyam, where old tragedy defines life in spite of beauty? Or do we seek the opportunities for hope, positive change and appreciation of all that is dear to us and beautiful in this world? The future is up to us.
Helen Jones’ account of her weekend with the Silent Eye in Derbyshire can be found here:
The Silent Eye’s account of the weekend, along with the history and stories of the places we visited and a little insight into the lessons they might share can be found here: