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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

Source: HISTORY

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