Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Ring a ring Roses: We all fall down

By Malcolm Potts

Some nursery rhymes capture a moment in history. The “ring a roses” refers to the apple sized swellings, filled with blood and pus, characteristic of the 'Black Death.' Death could occur in hours: “We all fall down.” In a series of pandemics, the Black Death killed half the population of Europe.

As an octogenarian who might not survive Covid-19 if I become infected, I am grateful for the science-based restrictions that Governor Newson has placed on all of us. Of course, some aspects seem tiresome, but if I feel sorry myself then I take myself back to Eyam, a place I have visited several times. It is a quintessential English Village in the middle of Derbyshire, 160 miles north of London. It has a charming church, a friendly public house, and well manicured flower gardens. But Eyam has something extra. Many of the houses have a little plaques spelling out the names of someone who died in 1666.

The Black Death was spread by rat fleas. In 1666, the tailor in Eyam received a bundle of cloth from London carrying fleas infected with the lethal bacterium called Yersinia pestis.. Within a few days several people died of the plague.

The villages turned for help to the vicar, the Rev Mompresson, and to Thomas Stanley, a Puritan. They had been at loggerheads over theological minutiae, but they came together with a bold policy: quarantine the whole village. No one was to leave. Church service had to be held in the open with people standing well apart from one another - sound familiar? Neighboring villagers placed food on a large rock and Eyam villagers left coins washed in vinegar - not quite as good as today’s alcohol wipes - but it seemed to do the job. No other village in the county of Derbyshire had a single death.

We worry about how long the current restrictions will last. Eyam had to endure 14 months quarantine, and for much of that time people went on dying. The village paid a terrible price for the self-imposed quarantine. Only 83 people out the pre-plague population of 350 survived those 14 months of horror. The saddest plaque outside a house refers to Elizabeth Hancock, who saw her husband and six children die in eight days.

The people who put their lives at risk to save others, over three centuries ago, were illiterate farmers. They had no central heating, no running water, no phones, and no microwaves to make life easier.

I think, I am going to stop feeling sorry for myself.