It is said that history repeats itself, and those who do not learn from it are the ones doomed to repeat it. Well, as 2020 has proven, we are all seemingly repeating history with a plague outbreak. While the current pandemic is global in scale and spread very quickly throughout the world, earlier plagues had a more limited geographic reach. Today, we have the benefit of understanding germs and have much better medicine and medical technology at our disposal—but we still have quite a fight against this new virus, just like people had against the plague. Agecroft Hall was originally built around 1500 in England where it stood through many plague outbreaks. It was rebuilt in Virginia in the early 20th century, where it is currently standing through another outbreak, bringing its history full circle.
An outbreak of a disease requires governments and leaders to step up and take control by implementing rules and regulations to stop the spread of the disease and keep their citizens alive and healthy. This is just as true today as it was during plague outbreaks in medieval and early modern Europe and England. For that reason, it is easy to see similarities between past and present. For example, the most common advice handed out to people was to avoid the sick, which is still great advice today. During outbreaks of plague in England centuries ago, everyone had to make sacrifices for the common good—be it isolation, restricted movement, prohibitions on large assemblies, or the closing of entertainment sites. Not surprisingly, local economies stuttered when an outbreak was confirmed. Public funds had to be handed out to help people survive, just like the stimulus checks mailed out to American citizens. People facing medical and economic challenges became greatly concerned for themselves, their families and the unknowns, which led to great stress and anxiety. To combat the plague, towns and villages attempted contact tracing, getting in touch with anyone the sick may have encountered and putting them in quarantine in their homes for 30-40 days. (Luckily, we only have to quarantine for 14 days if we come into contact with an ill person.)
England, where Agecroft stood for over 400 years, had a reputation for being quite ruthless, quarantining entire households in the event of a single family member contracting the disease. Even with strict controls, the plague often devastated towns and cities. The closest large town to Agecroft Hall in England was Manchester. While now a rather large city, back in the 17th century, the Manchester area had only about 3,000 inhabitants. It incurred a large plague outbreak in 1604-1605 in which 20%-25% of the entire population died of the disease. City officials halted christenings, weddings, and other large gatherings. Starting in June of 1605, travelers entering the area had to have a certificate of heath stating they were free of the disease. A tax was levied to help citizens, and in August 1605, over 1500 payments were made to people from the tax collections. The last case from this particular outbreak occurred in November of 1605. It took about 20 years for both the population and the commerce in the area to fully recover from this bout of plague.
One very interesting case to look at is the village of Eyam, in Derbyshire, about 45 miles southwest of Agecroft’s original location. In 1665, the plague was raging in London (in fact, this is referred to as the Great Plague of 1665), and it came to Eyam by way of flea infested cloth shipped from London to the town’s tailor. By the time the plague was done with Eyam, 260 people died in a town with a population of just 500. Things were working against the citizens of Eyam, it was an extremely hot summer which lead to an active flea infestation resulting in five or six people dying daily. One woman, Elizabeth Hancock, buried six of her seven children as well as her husband in a span of eight days. And she had to physically bury them herself as there was no one else to do so. While this was a horrible situation to be in, the townspeople, not without some pushback, self-isolated. No one left the town after June of 1666. Nearby villages and aristocracy kept Eyam supplied with food and necessities that they would leave at a rock that was a safe distance from the village. By quarantining themselves, and seemingly resigning themselves to certain, painful, deaths, the townspeople of Eyam sacrificed for the greater good of the neighboring towns and manors—there were no other outbreaks of the plague in that area in 1666. And although all these restrictions were implemented to curb the plague and save lives, people in early modern Europe did not like the constraints on their civil liberties either or the expansion of local and state governmental power any more than some Americans do today.
Despite all the similarities to our current situation, there were some important differences with medieval plagues, most notably in medical knowledge, care, and technology available. We have the advantage of knowing what causes COVID-19. Doctors and scientists are already developing successful ways to treat the sickest patients, and there is promising research for a vaccine to protect us from the disease in the future. In the medieval times, however, people did not know what caused the plague. In fact, it was not discovered until the late 1800s that the plague was transmitted through infected fleas. Instead, people often thought that plagues were caused by a divine scourge, and so sumptuary laws were put into place to refine people’s manners and behavior. Others blamed miasma, a dirty, foul air, for causing the disease. It was believed that miasma could be thwarted by a variety of scent based defenses such as carrying bunches of herbs, wearing perfumes or a vinegar-soaked mask, shooting off your gun to clear the air, and lighting bonfires throughout the city. Now, we can use things like bleach or simple soap and water to clean our hands and any high touch areas, but in plague times, people were told to burn anything and everything a sick person had come in contact with, including clothes and bedding – people’s most basic possessions. Often wealthier citizens fled crowded, disease-ridden cities for their country homes at the first hint of a plague outbreak to avoid the possibility of quarantines and losing their expensive household items
As you can see, medieval plagues in England forced changes in behavior. The current pandemic is no different. Agecroft Hall & Gardens is currently closed due to COVID-19, and when we re-open, we realize the world will be different. This may be scary, but it is also an exciting time for us to take a look at our practices and to create a new way to present our history, our collection, and our story to the public. We look forward to welcoming everyone safely back to our beautiful site, whenever that may be.
Kelsey, Holly. “Sovereign and the sick city in 1603.” Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Blog. 23 August 2016. www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/blogs/sovereign-and-sick-city-1603/
McKenna, David. “Eyam plague: the village of the damned.” BBC News. 5 November 2016.
Slack, Paul. “Responses to Plague in Early Modern Europe: The Implications of Public Health.” Social Research. Vol. 55, No. 3, In Time of Plague (Autumn 1988), pp. 433-453.
Wallis, Patrick. “Eyam revisited: lessons from a plague village.” 1843 Magazine. 16 April 2020.