If you lived in the idyllic village of Eyam in England in the final years of the seventeenth century, and you woke one glorious morning to a warm breeze caressing your light cotton shift, and you smelled the sweetest aroma you could imagine, you were well and truly doomed.
As you were probably not a trained medical professional or even a soothsayer with a set of rotting rabbit’s feet hanging off your belt, you didn’t necessarily know that your internal organs had begun to rot away inside you, and that that was what you were smelling, in contrast to our own pandemic, where you would have rotted away in a non-olfactory, carefree way.
But you would soon know that not everything in your country garden was as rosy as you would’ve hoped, as the faint airs of the deadly rhyme find your ears on the cool morning breeze.
A pocket full of posies
A tissue, a tissue
We all fall down.
This last bout of the Great Plague was particularly severe, and hundreds of thousands of victims could tell you that had they not suffered prolonged and agonizing deaths while trying to recite the full list of Charles II’s mistresses in a vain attempt to keep the hovering scythe at bay.
While Old Rowley was rutting merrily away in a triple alliance with the Swedes and the Dutch, the village of Eyam was in trouble.
After a London merchant had sent his ex-wife and her new lover a 'surprise' roll of material for their favorite wing-back, and with it a host of hungry Cockney fleas, Eyam had succumbed quickly to the ravages of their own deadly pandemic.
Eyamers had abdominal pain while relieving themselves on their worm-eaten wooden jakes, severe diarrhea as they supped their pottage, dizzying nausea and vomiting during a game of Fox and Geese, a hot fever while indulging in one of Playford’s country dances, subsequent exhaustion from all that dancing, and finally shock, as they started to bleed uncontrollably from orifices previously not orifices. Then they turned gangrenous-black all over and promptly died.
It wasn’t pretty, the Plague.
After two hundred or so villages had expired, including, some would say thankfully, the annoying fustilarians and fopdoodles who always fringed any seventeenth century enclave, Eyamers, led by their courageous minister and community leader, decided to take matters into their own hands.
And so, one sunny Derbyshire morning, as the cock crew loud and the turkeys gobbled with delight at the prospect of seeing-in the new year whole, the villagers laid out boundary stones around the entirety of their settlement, and faced whatever the Plague had to offer the well, the sick, and the almost-dead.
In doing this, the villagers were essentially isolating in an even higher level of lockdown; removing any contact with anyone outside of their extended bubble, and finally closing down all the meeting places that the villagers were trying to pretend didn’t spread plague. Like schools, salons, and food delivery services.
In money-holes cut into the boundary at regular intervals, vinegar-soaked coins were left to garner periodic supplies from passing merchants, and keep the spread of the rampaging pandemic at bay.
But, like today, not everyone was enamored with this quarantine plan.
Tryphena Hatt (which is a good seventeenth century moniker, and shall serve us well as her real name has unfortunately been lost over the years), for example, was not a happy Eyamer.
Feeling peckish, and after months of self-isolating with rancid-smelling, past-their-sell-by-date, maggoty parents, Tryphena grabbed her indispensable and headed to Tideswell, about five miles away. She didn’t know anyone there, and hoped no-one would know her either, so she could shop freely without being reported and fined.
She walked toward Foolow first, where she ate some berries and met a monk, then on to Wardlow where she ate a monk and met some .. I’m kidding, I’ve no idea what route she took or who she met, but she got herself to Tideswell in time for a warm pint of cock-ale.