It is autumn, 1666, and in the lead-mining village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England, Anna Firth is reflecting on the past year, in which two-thirds of the village’s population had died from the effects of the bubonic plague. Anna is keeping house for Michael Mompellion, the village rector, who has been sitting in his room and refusing food and company since his wife, Elinor, had died. Elizabeth Bradford, the daughter of a wealthy family who had fled the village and the plague, returns and demands assistance from the rector, who rouses from his room only long enough to angrily turn her away.
It is spring, 1665. A journeyman tailor, George Viccars, seeks lodging with Anna. Newly widowed and the mother of two young boys, she welcomes the income, Viccars’s attention to the boys, and his companionship. However, their budding romance ends as soon as it is declared. A bolt of damp cloth, ordered from London, has carried the bubonic plague into Eyam. Soon, Viccars dies; from his deathbed he had encouraged Anna to burn the fabric. The townspeople, however, still insist on claiming their prepaid clothes-in-progress, on which Viccars had been working, thus spreading the infection.
After a late summer respite, the plague reappears. Anna’s sons and the boys of her neighbor Mary Hadfield are among the first to die. The villagers first respond with self-interest. The Bradfords had already asserted, in a dinner-party discussion, that flight from the village was the only sensible response to the plague. Other villagers respond violently, as the Hadfields and other villagers murder Mem and Anys Gowdie, the town’s herbal healers, accusing them of witchcraft. The killers suffer no punishment because no officials will come to the village, and more than half the murderers die of plague within a week.
The Sunday after the murders, Rector Mompellion addresses the village. Supported by his predecessor, Thomas Stanley, a dissenting Puritan minister, Mompellion calls upon the villagers to take an oath to remain in the village and avoid spreading the plague. He presents the plague as an ordeal, a trial that will refine the souls of the village people just as they themselves refine ore into lead. He promises that no one will die alone, and he has obtained a pledge from a nearby earl that the village will receive support and provisions while the plague runs its course. The Bradfords are the only villagers who do not take the oath; they flee immediately, following an angry confrontation with Mompellion.
Anna has been working in the rectory and, after taking the plague oath, she and Elinor Mompellion grow closer. As the deaths spread, the two are pressed into service—first as midwives and then to provide the cures that the Gowdies, the herbal healers, would have offered had they not been killed. While working, Elinor confesses her past to Anna—that she had a lover before marrying Michael and that she had conceived the lover’s child and aborted it with a poker, leaving her unable to have more children. Together, Anna and Elinor study the Gowdies’ herbs and the rector’s medical texts.
As she and Elinor comfort the sick, Anna finds signs of trouble in the village. Some villagers are obtaining charms, at great cost, allegedly from the ghost of Anys Gowdie. Josiah Bont, Anna’s dissolute and abusive father, begins working as a gravedigger, extorting high payments from his clients. One afflicted man insists his wife burn out his bubo, or swollen lymph node, with a hot poker, and another takes up self-flagellation. Townspeople who had stubbornly held Puritan beliefs engage in wild sexual activity.
At the same time, some events are cheering, as villagers come closer...
(The entire section is 1520 words.)