York's Plagued Past

16 September 2007

Interview with

Sabine Clarke, Oxford University & James Sumner, Manchester University

Sabine -   We've been running an event here, and it's based on a real thing that happened in 1631 when there was an epidemic of plague in YorkChris -   So when you say an epidemic, how big?  How many people were involved?Sabine -   Well, it wasn't in fact one of the worst epidemics which ever affected York, but it was a time when some very draconian measures were introduced to control the plague.  And what the city council, the Aldermen, did at this period was institute a policy of boarding up the infected in their own homes.Chris -   So, crikey, what would have happened to those people then?Sabine -   Well in fact, guards would stand outside their houses and place boards across their doors and windows, and while they would pass the inhabitants of the house some food, they basically waited really until everyone was dead.  It was a way of stopping the plague from spreading.Chris -   But that was quite precient of them, really, to realise you could control a disease like that, wasn't it?Sabine -   Well certainly by 1631 York had had numerous epidemics of plague and over the years, of course, people had learned the best way to deal with these sorts of epidemics.Chris -   Which was to confine people?Sabine -   Yes, in fact other policies, such as building pest houses or hospitals would have been very expensive, boarding up people of course was effective and relatively cheap.Chris -   And in an average city like York in the 1600's, if plague came to town, how many people wouldn't come off so well?Sabine -   About a third of the population could be dead by the end of the plague period, so it could be an extremely serious disease.Chris -   Now James, you're dressed as a priest, so is it your job to bury these poor victims?James -   Amongst other things, yes.  I should explain; My name is Parson Grimsworth, I'm the parson of the parish of St Cuthberts in York, where there's been a severe outbreak of the plague.Chris -   And apart from burying people, what else would you have had to do as the parish parson?James -   I would have gone among them, ministering to them, and preying for the salvation of the city of York.  The plague, I believe, is punishment for the sins of the people of this city.  This is a very rich city full of very idle fellows who spend their time carousing and drinking in the taverns, and gambling down grape lanes...Chris -   And what about in the 17th Century?James -   In the 17th century it would have been pretty much the same.Chris -   So, stepping out of role for a minute, what do you normally do for a living?James -   I'm working on a project on the history of integrated software in Europe, so it's a bit of a step backwards for me.Chris -   Why do you do this?James -   It comes out of work with the British society for the history of science. All of us involved with this project work with the society as part of it's work in educational outreach.  It's useful to be able to develop these things which appeal to children much more immediately than the kind of static lecture presentation would.Chris -   And Sabine, has it been well received?Sabine -   Well absolutely, the children we saw this morning were superb, and thy were in role as part of our production; they were city Aldermen and they were able to ask a number of characters, like our parson and also a doctor some questions, and then at the end of our event they had to make the decision about how to control plague in York.

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