Year of Wonders

“Year of Wonders”: not this past twelve months living with the virus but the title of a novel about the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, which was devastated by the plague for fourteen months, beginning in September 1665. Geraldine Brooks’ novel is a fictionalised account of those fourteen months.

If you like well-researched historical novels this is a good one.

Why the title? The author explains that it comes from a poem by Dryden entitled Annus Mirabilis (Latin for “Year of Wonders”) which reflects on the year 1666 – the year of the fire of London, an outbreak of plague in London, and war with the Dutch. Apparently Dryden called it a year of wonders because he was amazed things weren’t much worse than they were.

It remains to be seen how we will look back on Covid-19.

The experience of Eyam has attracted a lot of attention from medics and others seeking insight on how to deal with our current plague.

The novel was published in 2001 – long before Covid-19 – but the story it tells has some parallels with the story we’re living now. (I’ve only read the novel – I haven’t researched the history, so my observations are based on what the novel says.)

  • They practised social distancing, learning to stand apart from people in public spaces
  • There were people who constantly put their own lives in danger to tend to the sick and the dying
  • There were some who took advantage of the crisis to line their own pockets, like the man who (following the death of the parish’s gravedigger) charged families exorbitant prices for digging their loved ones’ graves
  • In the absence online shopping or click-and-collect they left notes in a hollowed-out stone at the edge of the village to let people know what they specially needed
  • They abandoned meeting for worship in church and gathered (socially distanced) in the open air instead.

There is one huge difference between their experience and ours. We keep people out of our home/community/town/region/country to protect ourselves from infection; they took the decision – under the guidance of the Rector of the parish – to keep people out of their village to protect other people from infection.

Can we imagine any community or country taking that decision now? It’s worth pondering why that seems so unlikely.

This being the seventeenth century, the question “Where is God in all this?” loomed large. There was a widespread assumption that the plague was specially sent by God as a punishment for people’s sins. The tragic result was that some people decided they must atone for the sins of the people by self-flagellation: going without sleep and food and beating themselves viciously with whips. The Rector was dismayed by this, but even he (in the novel if not in historical fact) turned out to believe that it’s up to us to atone for our sins, with tragic consequences (which I will not spoil the novel by revealing).

Do we have to atone for our sins? How would you do that? How would you atone even for a careless harsh word? If you can’t do that, how would you atone for murder?

Reading Year of Wonders has reinforced for me the foundational truth of the Christian gospel: Christ died for our sins.

Atonement is his work, not ours. If we try to take on ourselves what only he can do, we make a terrible mess.

Published by markphilps

Came to faith at university while studying Russian. Brief career with the BBC. Married to Caroline. Ordained in the Church of England. Thirty-five years in parish ministry. Now retired and doing some writing.

2 thoughts on “Year of Wonders

  1. Finished a pilgrimage trail in Derbyshire, which we did with the Lings 3 years ago, at Eyam. Rachel

    Sent from my iPad



    1. We went there once when we were in Nottingham – lovely part of the world but I don’t remember much about Eyam: we had no personal experiences of plagues then…


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