The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics to have occurred in human history, killing as much as 60% of Europe's total population. The bacterium yersinia pestis is now known to have been the cause of the pandemic. The mechanism by which Y. pestis was usually transmitted was established in 1898 by Paul-Louis Simond and was found to involve the bites of fleas whose mid-guts had become obstructed by replicating Y. pestis several days after feeding on an infected host. This blockage results in starvation and aggressive feeding behaviour by the fleas, which repeatedly attempt to clear their blockage by regurgitation, resulting in thousands of plague bacteria being flushed into the feeding site, infecting the host.  The initial outbreak took place 1346-53 but plague broke out again and again in smaller pockets for centuries afterwards.
In England the last widespread outbreak was the Great Plague of London of 1664-66. Although the outbreak is now thought to have been on the wane by the end of the summer of 1666 there are still many who would argue that the Great Fire of London (September 2nd to September 5th) did much to halt the spread of disease and cleanse the capital of infection.
Today, the 31st of August, a ceremony is held annually in the quiet and picturesque village of Eyam, in Derbyshire in the East Midlands of England. Eyam's Plague Sunday service has been held for more than three-hundred years now and commemorates the settlement's own devastating, heartbreaking, yet self-sacrificing brush with the Black Death.
In late August 1665 the tailor of Eyam, George Viccars, received an eagerly awaited package from London. Some accounts say that it contained a normal bail of cloth, others go further and claim that the fabric had been specifically ordered for a bridal gown. Within six days of laying the cloth out in his shop the tailor was dead. The fabric had brought the plague with it from London. By the end of September six others - all Viccars' neighbours - had also died. Not knowing or understanding about the outbreak in London, the villagers began to worry that some kind of curse was being visited upon them - the howling of spectral Gabriel Hounds, the appearance of white crickets, and cows straying into the church all being cited as ill omens. By the end of April 1666 seventy-three villagers had died and many were gathering their belongings in preparation for flight.
In May the young rector of Eyam, William Mompesson, called a village meeting. Although the exact nature of the disease was not known, Mompesson and others understood enough to recognise that it was passed from person to person. He told his parishioners that theirs was the only village in the whole of the county in the grip of the Black Death and that if they were to flee they would only spread the disease and cause others to die. That day the people of Eyam agreed to enter into what we would now call quarantine - a voluntary isolation from all others - until all sign of the plague was gone from the village.
Arrangements were made for supplies to be delivered. The Earl of Devonshire's men would take food to the village's southern boundary stone, to be collected as soon as they were at a safe distance. Other provisions were left at Wet Withens stone circle on Eyam Moor, and at a Holy Well - now known as Mompession's Well - at which coins were left in payment in the belief that the water would cleanse them of contamination. Holes were drilled in a stone, named the Coolstone - still extant - into which vinegar was poured and other coins were left in the belief that the vinegar would sterilise them. In order that Sunday service continue without the parishioners getting too close to each other, Mompesson chose the grassy slopes of a natural amphitheatre - nearby Cucklett Delph - or an outdoor venue for his sermons.
The Eyam Plague lasted fourteen months and claimed two-hundred and sixty lives - the rector's wife Catherine Mompesson among them - but not one person outside of the village contracted the disease. 
Today in Eyam a procession will troop through the village - many dressed in 17th century costume - singing Onward Christian Soldiers. They will make their way along an ancient track to Cucklett Heath and seat themselves there upon the grass where hymns will be sung and a sermon given, just as it was in the plague years.   Mompesson's Well will be dressed, and flowers left on the grave of Catherine.
 G. Christakos, Interdisciplinary Public Health Reasoning and Epidemic Modelling: the Case of Black Death (シュプリンガー・ジャパン株式会社, 2005), pp. 110–14.
 Marc Alexander, The Companion to Folklore, Myths & Customs of Britain (Sutton Publishing, 2002) pp. 87-89
We often think of our identity in terms of our physical body, but is it just something that we – as only a consciousness – simply use as a vehicle? This is an interesting idea, and has been with us throughout human history, largely built into the religious beliefs of cultures around the world. But we should be careful of falling into the trap of thinking about an afterlife existence based simply on the religious or cultural models we have been brought up with. Most people who were exposed to some sort of religion in their upbringing are imprinted with the fairly simplistic idea that surviving death means a transparent, ethereal version of you floats ‘up’ to a heaven of fluffy clouds, and lives there for eternity in happiness. Who knows, perhaps elements of this are correct – some of near-death experiences and other visions of an afterlife actually do correlate in some respects with these ideas. But perhaps also these experiences are filtered through an overlay of our own expectations and cultural beliefs, and the ‘true’ experience could be fundamentally different. It’s fun to consider some of these possibilities.
The way our view of an external realm ‘beyond reality’ can change is illustrated well by the science fiction blockbuster The Matrix, with Neo taking the red pill and ‘waking up’ into the ‘real’ world, despite having thought until that point that the computer-generated Matrix was the real world. Before the age of computers the idea that we might be inside some sort of virtual reality, with the ‘real us’ residing in another realm, was barely known. Certainly, versions of this idea existed before the computer age, notably in discussions of the strange world of dreams. For example, the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once remarked on the difficulty of distinguishing where ‘reality’ lies with the following words: “Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man”.
The influential 17th century philosopher René Descartes also wondered how we could actually know what reality is, given that our senses can be so unreliable, and yet it is only through these senses (and then subsequent interpretation by the brain) that we comprehend the world ‘out there’. Descartes deduced that all we can be sure of about ‘reality’ is just one thing – that if we think, then we must in some way exist, at the very least as just a mind. He summarized this view with his well-known maxim ‘cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’). Beyond that, for all we know, we could just be a ‘brain in a vat’ – a piece of meat hooked up to sensors that trick our mind into thinking it is undergoing experiences in a virtual world. The Matrix took all these older ideas and made them new again by making them the centerpiece of a movie about a false reality (spoiler warning for the young kids out there):
The fact that all of our sensorial experience of ‘reality’ must necessarily be filtered subjectively through the brain – and thus isn’t ‘reality’ at all (for example, we apprehend the world very differently to an infrared-sensing rattlesnake) – was enunciated in Hindu culture via the term maya (illusion): the idea that we can never identify or comprehend the actual truth or reality of the world, only (at best) a fragment of it.
But in the 21st century, the ‘simulation argument’ – the suggestion that all of what we think of as ‘reality’ is actually a simulation, and that until now we have been unaware of the fact – has gone mainstream. Not only through the popularity of The Matrix, but through first-hand experience: many computer gamers now spend several hours a day immersed in the virtual worlds of first-person shooters. As an example of how things are progressing in the world of virtual reality immersion, see this recent demonstration: ... Read More »
Christopher Laursen is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia whose dissertation focuses on poltergeist phenomena. I first met him at the Parapsychological Association’s 2012 conference, and have been glad that his web magazine, the Extraordinarium, has allowed me to continue following developments in his research over the past few years. His PhD dissertation, titled Mischievous Forces, looks at the shifting perspectives on poltergeist phenomena in the 20th century, focusing on changing research paradigms in the United States and UK during this period. It’s with great pleasure that I had the opportunity to interview him via email regarding his work and recent developments in his studies, including an online survey of people who have experienced purported poltergeist phenomena (Click Here to take the survey).
DM: What is a poltergeist? How accurate is what we see in the popular media?
CL: Poltergeist refers to a strange phenomenon in which there are unusual noises, such as knocking or scratching sounds, and movements of objects, as if they were displaced or thrown by an invisible being. There can be spontaneous fires and appearances of liquids or objects among other things. These manifestations happen repeatedly, but they tend to be time-limited. They start happening out of the blue, and then just as mysteriously, they tend to disappear a month or two later. Sometimes the anomalous phenomenon lasts just a few days, and I’ve also seen reports in which manifestations stretch across years. It is something that has been recorded as early as the fourth century, and it is likely to have been experienced even earlier in history. Furthermore, the phenomenon has occurred all around the world, albeit under different names and interpretations that are culturally specific.
The historical reports I have read certainly have had their share of strange moments, but most of them are a catalogue of relatively mundane anomalous events. The tea cup slides three inches across the countertop. A bar of soap bends around a corner to fly from the kitchen shelf into the living room. A woman enters her bedroom to find the curtains aflame. Three knocks are heard from the ceiling at 11:40 p.m., but no one is upstairs. There isn’t anywhere near the level of paranormal fury that has been depicted in most TV shows and movies.
This isn’t to say that anomalous events do not bring tension to those who experience them; emotions and anxieties are heightened in many cases since no one really knows what’s going on or what’s going to happen next. In other cases, people are