Eyam is a small town in Derbyshire, England, but those familiar with the history of the plague know it well. When the Black Death arrived there in 1665, the people of Eyam stayed and cared for their own, shutting themselves off from the outside world. While most people wanted to run for the hills, Eyam became a plague quarantine to stop the spread of the disease, choosing to die to save others in their district from the same fate.
The bacteria that caused the Black Plague came from central Asia, where it traveled along the route of the Silk Road, reaching Europe by 1347. Spread by fleas that lived on rats that frequently boarded merchant ships, the Black Death quickly burned through 30-60% of the European population in the fourteenth century. After it first arrived in Europe, it stayed, ebbing and flowing from small outbreaks to pandemic levels until the nineteenth century.
When the plague reached Europe at the end of the 1340s, it entered at many locations, contributing to the high death toll. It reached Italy in January 1348, and from there, spread to northern Europe by June of that year. When it reached England, there were continuous outbreaks over the next four centuries, reaching its highest points in 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625, 1636, and again in the Great Plague of London of 1665. It seemed like the plague would never go away.
Despite the plague’s constant presence in Europe from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries, we know now that it is transferred through bites from fleas and rats infected with the plague virus, not through human to human contact. We also know that the plague didn’t continuously survive in Europe for those four hundred years. It would kill off the rodents that carried it, and another outbreak in Asia would move through the Silk Road and come to Europe through trade routes and start the spread all over again.
The study of medicine and science came to a halt in the Middle Ages, so there was little scientific knowledge to go on. People in the medieval world thought there was a religious reason behind the mass devastation of the plague outbreaks. They saw it as God’s punishment for their wickedness. It is easy to see why. Most people who contracted the plague died from it. If you came into contact with anyone who had it, you usually died, too. It was known to wipe out whole families and entire neighborhoods, rarely sparing anyone.