Year of Wonders is a 2001 international bestselling historical fiction novel by Geraldine Brooks. Inspired by the true story of Eyam (pronounced eem), a small village in the rugged hill country of England, it tells the story of the fateful plague year of 1665-1666. Anna Firth, a young housemaid of about 20, is the narrator. She works a few hours a day at the rectory for the Reverend Michael Mompellion and his wife, Elinor.
When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to the isolated village, Reverend Mompellion asks his parishioners to commit to isolating Eyam from the other towns by a vote. No one could leave, and no outsider could enter, hoping that isolation would stop the spread to the village and accelerate the end of the disease. (Sound familiar?)
Each household would periodically make a list of supplies they needed. Those lists, together with payment, would be secured by the parish stones, which marked the gateway to the village. The pastor would arrange for a trusted outsider to retrieve the lists and fill the supplies for the plague village. That person would then deliver the necessities to the stone marker to be picked up by Reverend Mompellion and distributed. It sounded sensible, and all the villagers voted and agreed.
At first, the villagers trusted in God as instructed by their pastor, but neither their faith nor isolation lessened the disease or hastened its leaving. The plague dragged on, and as death reached into every household, frantic parishioners turned from prayer to distrust of each other to meanness and greed.
People abused each other and stole from the dead. As the bodies piled up, the gravedigger charged exorbitant prices to bury them. Ultimately, superstition and fear bordering on madness resulted in the villagers turning on the two healers/midwives in the village by hysterics who accused the women of witchcraft.
Although Anna also experiences terrible personal loss from the plague and has very little education, she has a fierce will to help salvage the rapid disintegration of her community.
She is surprised to discover that Elinor Mompellion knows a great deal about natural remedies. Using the raw materials found in the midwives’ cottage, Elinor agrees to teach Anna how to read and interpret the books on healing arts in the rectory library, making her an unlikely heroine and healer in this story.
This book is about learning, love, and renewal amid a young woman’s struggle to survive against a background of incredible suffering. It also presents a historically accurate microcosm of the 1665-66 plague year as it lays waste to a small village.
I dare not say more about the plot, as it takes some mighty twists and turns that some might say belies belief. You could guess for a very long time, and you wouldn’t see that ending coming.
There are many shocking details yet to discover in this book, so I hope you decide to read it. The author’s exhaustive historical research on this subject and the beautiful, descriptive prose make it worthy of your time.
Relevant Articles and History
History credits Eyam’s quarantine and subsequent sacrifice with sparing neighboring towns from the plague. No one is exactly sure what the original population was or how many the epidemic killed, but one estimate is 430 survivors from a population of around 800. Eyam and the Great Plague of 1665 – History Learning Site
“A study of a 1665 outbreak of plague in the village of Eyam in England’s Derbyshire Dales—which isolated itself during the outbreak, facilitating modern study—found that three-quarters of cases are likely to have been due to human-to-human transmission, especially within families, a much bigger proportion than previously thought.” Greig Watson (22 April 2020). “Coronavirus: What can the ‘plague village’ of Eyam teach us?”. BBC News.
An article titled History of the Black Death: The Plague, 1331-1370, compiled by Alice M. Phillips of the University of Iowa, was most informative. I did copy below her list of preventions and cures thought to be valid at the time and some facts about the plague doctors. hosted.lib.uiowa.edu/histmed/plague.
Some medieval cures and preventive measures for the plague:
- Plague is a scourge from God for your evil deeds—by scourging yourself with a whip, like a flagellant, then God has no reason for scourging you with plague.
- Apply a mixture of tree resin, roots of white lilies, and human excrements.
- Bathing should not be avoided and be done with vinegar and rosewater—alternatively in your own urine.
- Drink the pus of lanced buboes.
- Quarantine people for 40 days (quarantine comes from Latin for 40)—first done in Venice in 1348.
- Place a live hen close to the swellings to draw out the pestilence, then drink a glass of your own urine twice a day.
- Grind up an emerald and drink it in wine.
- Ingest snakeskin, bone from the heart of a stag, Armenian clay, precious metals, aloe, myrrh, and saffron.
- Roast the shells of newly laid eggs and grind them to a powder—add Marigold flowers and treacle—drink in warm beer every morning and night.
THE PLAGUE DOCTOR COSTUME
The plague doctor costume consisted of an ankle-length overcoat, a bird-like beak mask filled with sweet- or strong-smelling substances, along with gloves and boots. The mask had glass openings for the eyes. Straps held the beak in front of the doctor’s nose, which had two small nose holes and was a type of respirator. The beak could hold dried flowers (e.g., roses or carnations), herbs (e.g., mint), spices, camphor, or a vinegar sponge. The purpose of the mask was to remove bad smells, thought to be the principal cause of the disease. Doctors believed the herbs would counter the “evil” smells of the plague and prevent them from becoming infected. The costume included a wide-brimmed leather hat to indicate their profession. They used wooden canes to point out areas needing attention and to examine patients without touching them. The canes were also used to keep people away and to remove clothing from plague victims without having to touch them.
Spring 1665: Great plague of London begins, killing between 75,000-100,000 of London’s population of 460,000.
September 2-5, 1666: The Great Fire of London kills most rats and fleas carrying the disease. For additional facts on the Great Fire of London, click the link: The Great Fire of London (thegreatcoursesdaily.com).
In 2011, Steven Salzberg, a Biomedical Engineer at Johns Hopkins, writes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensalzberg/2011/09/02/the-black-death-is-dead-
“Even in ancient and medieval times, people thought the plague was caused by rats, but the true cause wasn’t discovered until 1894 when Alexandre Yersin of France and Kitasato Shibasaburo of Japan finally traced it to a bacterium now called Yersinia pestis, which is transmitted by fleas, which in turn are carried around by rats.”
The plague kills all of its hosts, even the fleas. This is how:
“The bacteria multiply inside the flea, sticking together to form a plug that blocks its stomach and causes it to starve. The flea then bites a host and continues to feed, even though it cannot quell its hunger, and consequently the flea vomits blood tainted with the bacteria back into the bite wound. The bubonic plague bacterium then infects a new victim, and the flea eventually dies from starvation.” Yersin, Alexandre (1894). “La peste bubonique à Hong-Kong”. Annales de l’Institut Pasteur. 8: 662–67.
Salzberg goes on to say: “…. the original plague, the Black Death, has never returned. Why not? The likely explanation is just this: the Black Death was simply too deadly to persist. Evolutionary theory tells us that a pathogen that kills all its victims will eventually run out of victims, leading to its own extinction. The plague bacteria needed to evolve into something less virulent, and that seems to be what happened. A bug that doesn’t kill its host is far more successful evolutionarily. (Just look at the common cold, which we can’t seem to get rid of.”)
Year of Wonders was published in 2001, not last year or this year, so the author wrote the book with no possible correlation to what is happening today. But, since we are in the middle of our own annus horribilis or plague year, I thought this book a good choice to introduce just now.
The book chronicles the horrific plague year of 1665-66 and how the inhabitants of a small village coped initially, then later on when it became a full-blown epidemic. The villagers of Eyam had their own Dr. Fauci of sorts in Reverend Mompellion, who gave reassurance and instilled calm in his flock, instructed them on common-sense measures to avoid getting sick, directed them to love thy neighbor, and above all, place their trust in God and pray.
The reverend created a plan of action for the inhabitants to quarantine in the village, facilitating to some extent contact tracing. He arranged for supplies to be delivered remotely outside the village gate on a stone outcropping, like Instacart or Shipt today. It seemed like a good strategy. The parishioners were all on board, especially after being told it would only take 2 weeks to stop the spread. (a little satire here)
However, the disease did not respond to the villagers’ best efforts to lessen the disease; instead, it became their worst nightmare. Everyone knew someone who succumbed to it; and often, entire households were wiped out.
People became angry. Prayer wasn’t helping, and they no longer believed in Reverend Mompellion’s master plan. Love thy neighbor went out the window. It was now every man for himself. Unity gave way to divisiveness. Neighbors became suspicious of one another.
Healers who had always dispensed proven and effective natural remedies to the community were now accused of conspiring with the devil and bringing the plague to the village. Before the onset of the epidemic, those women were respected and beloved members of the community. They helped deliver their children and saved many women and babies from dying during childbirth.
However, some exhibited the best of humanity in 1665. The book’s main character, Anna Firth, is an example of someone who found the strength to rise from her bed and carry on, doing good works, tending the sick at great danger to herself, and easing suffering where she could.
Catastrophic events tend to bring out the best and worst in human nature. That was true in 1665 as it is today and likely has been the case since man first walked the earth. It should be no surprise then that some of the behavioral responses to these two deadly diseases, which occurred 356 years apart, are similar.
Fast forward to 2020 and our pandemic. Despite no vaccine, we revered our healthcare workers who worked almost around the clock in hospitals, risking their lives and taking precious time from their own families to minister to critical patients. We called them heroes; we clapped and cheered for them every day.
Only one year later, we forgot how good it feels to be grateful – and kind. Now, rather than revered, many of the same nurses and staff are reviled by those whose aim is to divide us by fomenting suspicion and irrational fear. In America, we no longer hang people or burn them at the stake for living their lives as they choose; but expelling people from their jobs and treating them as social pariahs may be a pretty good start to destroying this basic freedom.
History always repeats itself. As the Wisdom book, Ecclesiastes says in 1:9: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
A case in point is Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay on civil disobedience. Thoreau describes the experience of being put in jail for one night when he refused to pay his poll tax as a protest against slavery.
Thoreau opens Civil Disobedience saying, “That government is best which governs least,” and he speaks in favor of a government that does not intrude upon men’s lives. Government is only an expedient — a means of attaining an end. It exists because the people have chosen it to execute their will, but it is susceptible to misuse.
Although it is a different time and a different grievance, his sentiments are relevant today.
“I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.” ― Henry David Thoreau, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
We cannot change the world; however, we can refuse to let conflicts outside our orbit disturb our peace. I credit my brother Mark for teaching me that. By focusing our efforts on what we can change, as the beautiful Serenity Prayer from AA suggests, we can, with practice, restore balance and harmony in our lives.
Practice kindness. It makes us happier. It really does.
Thank you for reading to the end,