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Social Distancing and Quarantine Were Used in Medieval Times to Fight the Black Death

March 25, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

Way back in the 14th century, public health officials didn’t understand viruses, but they understood the importance of keeping a distance and disinfecting.

Almost 700 years ago, the overwhelmed physicians and health officials fighting a devastating outbreak of bubonic plague in medieval Italy had no notion of viruses or bacteria, but they understood enough about the Black Death to implement some of the world’s first anti-contagion measures.

Starting in 1348, soon after the plague arrived in cities like Venice and Milan, city officials put emergency public health measures in place that foreshadowed today’s best practices of social distancing and disinfecting surfaces.

“They knew that you had to be very careful with goods that are being traded, because the disease could be spread on objects and surfaces, and that you tried your best to limit person-to-person contact,” says Jane Stevens Crawshaw, a senior lecturer in early modern European history at Oxford Brookes University.

A 14th-century Italian fresco of the plague, from the Stories of St Nicholas of Tolentino.

The First Quarantine

The Adriatic port city of Ragusa (modern-day Dubrovnik) was the first to pass legislation requiring the mandatory quarantine of all incoming ships and trade caravans in order to screen for infection.

The order, which miraculously survived in the Dubrovnik archives, reads that on July 27, 1377, the city’s Major Council passed a law “which stipulates that those who come from plague-infested areas shall not enter [Ragusa] or its district unless they spend a month on the islet of Mrkan or in the town of Cavtat, for the purpose of disinfection.”

Mrkan was an uninhabited rocky island south of the city and Cavtat was situated at the end of the caravan road used by overland traders en route to Ragusa, writes Zlata Blazina Tomic in Expelling the Plague: The Health Office and the Implementation of Quarantine in Dubrovnik, 1377-1533.

Tomic says that some medical historians consider Ragusa’s quarantine edict one of the highest achievements of medieval medicine. By ordering the isolation of healthy sailors and traders for 30 days, Ragusan officials showed a remarkable understanding of incubation periods. New arrivals might not have exhibited symptoms of the plague, but they would be held long enough to determine if they were in fact disease-free.

Significance of a 40-Day ‘Quarantino’

The 30-day period stipulated in the 1377 quarantine order was known in Italian as a trentino, but Stevens Crawshaw says that doctors and officials …read more


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When London Faced a Pandemic—And a Devastating Fire

March 25, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

The Great Plague and the Great Fire of London were two unimaginable disasters with no silver lining.

In 1665 and 1666, one city experienced two enormous tragedies: the Great Plague of London and the Great Fire of London. The plague killed roughly 15 to 20 percent of the city’s population, while the fire burned about a quarter of London’s metropolis, making around 100,000 people homeless. And though the city only officially recorded a small number of deaths from the fire, the real death toll was likely quite high.

Humans often want to find a silver lining amid disaster, and one myth that sprung up around these twin tragedies is that the Great Fire ended the Great Plague by driving out the rats who were spreading the disease.

READ MORE: Pandemics That Changed History

“I was raised with that myth,” says Adrian Tinniswood, a senior research fellow in history at the University of Buckingham, England, and author of By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire. “It was the kind of standard school talk back in the ‘60s when I was growing up.”

The Great Plague of 1665 to 1666

A grpah showing the mortality rate during the Great Plague of London from 1665-1666. The solid line shows the total deaths and the broken line deaths attributed to plague.

The Great Plague was London’s last major outbreak of the plague, a bacterial infection caused by Yersinia pestis. The outbreak began in the late winter or early spring of 1665. By the time King Charles II fled the city in July, the plague was killing about a thousand people a week. The death rate peaked in September when 7,165 people died in one week.

Officially, the city recorded 68,596 deaths from the Great Plague, and the true death toll may have exceeded 100,000. Most of these deaths were from bubonic plague, a form of plague spread through fleas on small mammals. In London, the major carriers were rats. (In the United States, where plague has likely existed since a 1900 outbreak in San Francisco, squirrels and prairie dogs can and do transmit plague to humans.)

After peaking in September 1665, the city’s plague deaths began to taper off that winter. In February 1666, King Charles II returned to London, signaling a belief that the city had become “reasonably safe,” …read more