It is 1665. Excitement at the announcement of a betrothal for the merry villagers of Eyam, Derbyshire is short-lived following reports of a travelling tailor falling ill – not from just any illness, but the Great Plague. In this instance, the bubonic plague sweeps its last deathly wave across England, escaping major cities to reach the unsuspecting provincial population. BBC Radio 4 Extra’s Greater Love voices the terror of its sickening grasp, providing an example of the hopeless misery endured.
As the final, far-reaching instance of the 400-year scourge of the Second Pandemic – not escalating to the extent of the pandemic termed the ‘Black Death’ – the villagers possess a ready fear of the plague. Futile attempts to control its effects seal the fate of Eyam’s inhabitants, coming into contact with the infected and taking insufficient care when handling the bodies of the deceased.
Pious interpretations of the black bile indicate a Satanic hold on the victims as divine punishment for sins, with prayer the only attempt at a cure. Those without the resources to flee Eyam must stay in their houses in the village to take their chances. But who will bury the dead? And what will happen to households where only children remain?
Greater Love reveals the denial and secrecy, internal divisions and blind panic that drove communities to the brink of destruction throughout the early modern period. Even extending kindness to strangers must be given a second thought with the cause and symptoms understood only through speculation. As one infected house becomes two and precautions heighten, the outlook appears bleak for Eyam, and for England.