A dreadful heritage: interpreting epidemic disease at Eyam, 1666-2000
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 in 1666 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. Eyam’s ongoing celebrity is indebted to a combination of literary effort and contemporary events. During the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a tradition was established, manipulated, and reshaped to fit changing literary and historical fashions. The construction of the Eyam plague story offers an unusually clear case study in the social and intellectual dynamics of the creation of heritage and history. This paper examines the process by which this narrative emerged and was repeatedly reconstructed over three centuries, and its subsequent transformation into a prominent part of English heritage. Through this close focus we can trace in some detail what Raphael Samuel called the “imaginative dislocations which take place when historical knowledge is transferred from one learning circuit to another.”
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