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18 June 2014
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Myths and Legends
Living with the plague

What was a plague death like?

Black rats - plague carriers
© Courtesy of Derbyshire County Council Cultural and Community Services
The dreadful nature of a plague death helps shed light on the horror faced by Eyam’s villagers who agreed to live alongside the plague. Both the bubonic and pneumonic strands of the plague flourished during the Great Plague. The bubonic caused vomiting, a high fever and extreme pains in the limbs. Buboes (swellings) also formed on the lymph glands, sometimes growing to the size of an egg, and eventually bursting.

Daniel Defoe in 'A Journal of the Plague Year' advised draining the plague from the victims; the buboes were often cut open or burned: “The Pain of the Swelling was in particular very violent, and to some intolerable; the Physicians and Surgeons may be said to have tortured many poor Creatures, even to Death.” The pneumonic plague ran through the blood, producing extreme fluctuations in the body’s temperature, often resulting in a coma.

Because religion was at the centre of 17th Century English village life, there was a great belief the plague was a punishment for sin. Thus people sought divine forgiveness through prayer and repentance in the hope they would be spared. Its causes and cures unknown, a variety of medical treatments were tried. Many believed bad air created mass infection and therefore when windows were closed, rosemary and incense were burned to ventilate homes, whilst fires roared in the streets in the vain hope of clearing the infected air. Naphy and Spicer in ‘The Black Death’ describe how it was a requirement for bakers to keep their hot bread inside until the loaves had cooled to avoid the smell.

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The Plague Year 1665 - 66
Black Death: Political and Social Changes
Eyam Museum
Peakland Heritage
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