In an English Plague Village cover

In an English Plague Village


Every year, tens of thousands of people visit the Derbyshire village of Eyam, drawn by stories of its catastrophic plague and the heroic response it elicited.
Listening lists - from Franz Liszt to Camille Saint-Saëns - complete with program note references and videos - are included.
Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. As always on the blog unless indicated otherwise, the photographs are mine.

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In an English Plague Village

Our book on the Peak District in England’s Midlands says of Eyam that “it will forever be known as the ‘plague village.’” As the story goes, the plague arrived in Eyam in 1665.

In the house now known as the Plague Cottage . . . then occupied by a travelling tailor, who inadvertently introduced the plague to Eyam in a parcel of flea-infested cloth from London. The rector of Eyam, William Mompesson, persuaded most of the inhabitants to stay and seal off the village, even though many died from the disease. . . . [Simon Kirwan, Peak District Villages, pp. 44-45]

A plague cottage

Today, that particular Plague Cottage’s front garden is festooned with garden gnomes. I wondered they were meant to ward off tourist taking photographs. Whether or not, it certainly worked with me, but here’s another one that I did photograph.

The plague in Eyam is also the subject of a recent 40-page scholarly paper debunking at least some of the narrative that’s been handed down. In “A Dreadful Heritage: Interpreting Epidemic Disease at Eyam, 1666-2000,” one of a series of “Working Papers on The Nature of Evidence: How Well Do ‘Facts’ Travel?,” Patrick Wallis writes

Eyam is an epicentre of Europe’s plague heritage. Every year, tens of thousands of people visit the Derbyshire village, drawn by stories of its catastrophic plague and the heroic response it elicited. The story they are told – of a self-imposed quarantine preventing disease spreading to the surrounding area – is an exemplary narrative of a selfless community under strong, positive leadership.

But although the plague of Eyam . . . is one of the most famous outbreaks of epidemic disease in British history, the narrative is largely a fiction; produced not by doctors, but by poets, writers, and local historians.

With only scant contemporaneous accounts on which to draw for confirmation, the popular imagination easily took flight. The study follows the trajectory of the Eyam plague narrative over time:

Accounting for Eyam’s presence within the popular narrative of English history might not seem difficult; the horror of the village’s epidemic is bluntly argued by the record of mortality in its parish records.

Stained glass window in St. Lawrence Church depicting plague scenes

But trauma is no guarantor of historical respect or interest, and Eyam did not become instantly regarded. Indeed, it was almost forgotten in the eighteenth century. Since then, the story has been frequently retold in poems, novels and plays. There are even three musicals, a children’s television drama, and at least one folk song. [citation]

Over the course of that trajectory, Mompesson was deposed from his status of romanticized hero, a man of “clerical wisdom and morality leading an unlearned, rustic flock appear repeatedly,” until the late 20th century arrived, and with it, more skeptical accounts, which

. . . reached [a] highpoint in . . . 1995, [when] the writers of Eyam: A Musical translated the plague into a pop-opera with a social conscience. Unusually, they represented Eyam as a working-class mining community, with lives shaped by hard and dangerous work and strong ties which echo the troubled English coal mining towns of the 1980s and 1990s. Old tropes are inverted or discarded. The villagers take a dismissive, even hostile, attitude to their new rector until near the end of the plague. Some blame him for bringing the disease. Mompesson’s arguments about isolation fail to convince them and, in a singular reversal of earlier accounts, the decision to isolate the village almost goes to a community vote. [citation]

Eyam View Farm

Eyam is, in point of fact, a lovely village, and, thanks to British friends who’d spotted it, the village provided all of us a congenial home away from home.

Eyam Hall (from back garden)

Among the village’s charms is Eyam Hall, which the Wright family bought soon after plague times. They’ve been in residence ever since, until, in 2013, the current complement of Wrights decided to downsize and lease the Hall to the National Trust. “[T]heir tiny but cosy new home is only yards away from the hall, which is a comfort to them both.” [citation]

Perhaps the best part of visiting Eyam Hall, aside from its pretty garden, were the docents who stood in each room, primed with entertaining stories for any willing listener. An intriguing portrait of a self-possessed young woman yielded a tale about the origin of the phrase “an arm and a leg.” Her portrait contained both arms—in contrast to many others on the wall. Why? Well, according to the tale (which is, apparently, of dubious merit), if you wanted your appendages included in your portrait, you had to pay a lot more.

Listening List

Franz Liszt, Totentanz, S. 126 (1847–53 (1st version), 1864 (2nd version)

Instrumentation: Piano and Orchestra (piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in A), 2 bassoons + 2 horns (in D), 2 trumpets (in D), 3 trombones, tuba + timpani, percussion + strings)

Excerpt from program notes:

There are contrasting versions of the story concerning Liszt’s inspiration for Totentanz. Some, including at least one biographer, claim that Liszt was motivated by a 14th century fresco he saw while visiting the city of Pisa, a work known as The Triumph of Death. It has also been posited that the he met his muse in a series of illustrations by Hans Holbein with the more pertinent title of The Dance of Death (or Totentanz).

Whatever the case, Mediaeval Europe was obsessed with everything related to death and Romantic Era Europe was obsessed with everything related to Mediaeval Europe so macabre source material like Holbein’s work and the Pisa fresco would have been abundant and of timely interest during Liszt’s day.


Camille Saint-Saëns, Danse Macabre, Op. 40 (1874)

Instrumentation: Orchestra: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns (2 natural, 2 chromatic), 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, xylophone, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, harp, violin solo (scordatura (G, D, A, E♭)), strings

From program notes:

The dance begins at the stroke of midnight (perhaps Halloween) in a graveyard. Listen for the 12 strokes of the distant bell quietly tolling in the harp right at the beginning.

The skeletal dancers are represented by the xylophone’s brittle, bony sounds as they mimic back to the violin a response to his theme. Soon the skeletons arise from their graves and begin dancing to the devil’s unearthly tune.


Bonus Tracks: Eyam: A Musical, by James Atherton