Becketwood Cooperative
An Active, Independent 55+ Community of Owners in Minneapolis

Plagues and Quarantines

by Steve Schuller, Becketwood Member

The Black Death - probably the most destructive known plague in European history - swept through in the mid 1300s.  The measures used to combat it were hit-or-miss: persecuting the 'unclean' minorities (things have not changed much since then), moving the sick out of town to isolate them, burning the clothing and possessions of the sick.

Italian city-states, Genoa and Venice, were major shipping ports and enacted laws to require incoming foreign ships to remain at anchor in the harbor for 30 days before disembarking.  The thirty day period was called the "trentino". Then the required time was expanded to forty days - the "quarantino". Later, this isolation period was extended to persons within the city who showed symptoms - they were required to remain in their homes for a quarantino.

Modern science has identified the Black Death as a form of the bubonic plague and has established that the typical time from infection to death is about 37 days, so the 40 day quarantino made sense.

Milan took a more extreme course. When a person carrying the plague was identified, that person and the entire family were walled up inside their house and left to die. This was actually an effective control and Milan suffered less than other Italian cities.

Other plagues and diseases, of course, swept through various parts of Europe for centuries. One of the most notable was the Great Plague of London in 1665. Though it was attributed at the time to the Black Death, it probably was not. Symptoms and incubation periods do not match the Black Death. Again, isolation was used as a means to combat the disease. One small village -Eyam- self-quarantined when the disease was discovered there. A circle of about one-half mile was drawn around the town and nobody was allowed in or out. Neighboring towns left food at pre-arranged locations to be collected later by residents of Eyam.

The early United States suffered plagues in the form of waves of cholera and yellow fever. The usual blaming of outsiders and refugees always accompanied these, but the use of quarantine was also tried, though it was not very effective because the movement of persons could not be well-controlled at the time. In Philadelphia the appearance of yellow fever was reason for thousands of the more well-off to vacate the city and head to country homes to wait it out. Bloodletting was a favorite, and useless, treatment as well as ingesting mercury compounds. Worse than useless, actually, as they did great harm. Alexander Hamilton favored a treatment taken from more southerly climates: the bark-and-wine treatment. The bark, of course, was quinine. It was useful against malaria, but totally ineffective against yellow fever. (Does this sound familiar?)

Of course this is a very Euro- and Western- centered history. Equal or greater plagues probably occurred in the East, in Africa, and possibly the worst of all: the unknown, unrecorded destruction of native Americans, both in North and South America. Small pox was the culprit - the Americans had never been exposed to it nor even to the animal hosts that carried it. There are estimates that 90 to 95 percent of native Americans may have died from this in the years between the early Spanish explorations in 1520 and the later explorations by the French and English. That decimation made the European conquests possible.

What to do during our (brief?) quarantine?

We've got the internet, cell phones, Zoom and FaceTime and Skype and television and DVDs and even old-fashioned paper books. There is a lot we could accomplish besides just staying entertained, such as:

The Italian writer, Boccaccio, wrote the Decameron, inspired by events of the 1348 Italian plague. And, in fact, it describes a group of people waiting out the plague in a country villa passing the time by telling tales to each other.

Where Boccaccio Recited the Decameron

Henry the Eighth of England was less productive. When the Sweating Sickness (possibly a form of hantavirus) appeared during his reign he broke up the Court and dispersed it. He changed his own residence frequently and is said to have slept in a different bed every night... alone (poor Henry).

1605 was a plague year in England and in that time Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Also, note that his comic character, Falstaff, dies of "a sweat"... was this a reference to the "Sweating Sickness"? (see above).

Isaac Newton, in his early 20s, left Trinity College, Cambridge to live at the family farm to escape the 1665 Plague of London. Using his time most productively, he proved that white light is made up of all colors and began his study of gravity that would later lead to his categorizing the laws of motion. Oh, and he also invented Calculus.

Samuel Pepys continued writing his Diary through the London Plague of 1665. John Milton finished Paradise Lost while staying at a home out of London during that same plague.

Paradise Lost by John Milton

Alexander Pushkin, regarded as the founder of modern Russian literature, was stuck in a small village 370 kilometers from Moscow during a cholera outbreak. He had three books with him - the Iliad, a Russian history and a book of English poetry. His fiance was in Moscow and marriage was postponed for one year. So he wrote: Mozart and Salieri, Little Tragedies, The Stone Guest, Feast in the Time of Plague and The Covetous Knight... and finished Eugene Onegin.

Dashiell Hammett, discharged from the army due to his tuberculosis, wrote detective fiction.

So... no excuses. Let's get to work.

Leave a Reply

  • Anonymous April 28, 2020, 7:59 pm

    Thank you, Steve. Great history lesson which is repeating in many ways!
    Lorene Liddle

  • Maura Kolars April 28, 2020, 8:26 pm

    So interesting, Steve!! Thank you!!

  • Judy April 28, 2020, 9:46 pm

    So much history I did not know and such evidence of how it repeats itself. Many of us will not be writing a book but thanks for the encouragement.

    • Eric Ramstad April 28, 2020, 11:12 pm

      Thanks for your around the world history of disease which shows how close we are to disaster periodically. A pleasure to read.

  • SONJA WALKER April 29, 2020, 8:03 pm

    Thanks Steve for the research. Interesting. So nothing ever changes: stay home, get to work.

  • David Liddle April 30, 2020, 2:53 pm

    Didn’t know you were an historian too Steve–very informative! There’s an absorbing account of the 1854 Cholera epidemic in London in Steven Johnson’s book, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic, and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World.

  • Peggy Ryden May 1, 2020, 12:35 pm

    Great history lesson! I’m greatful that modern medicine has given us the information (such is known at the time) to lead a broader life then the past during such dark times. While Sheltering in Place we have comfort in knowing what relatively safe options we have to continue to enjoy life outside and around town. Masking with great take out food, walks in our magnificent green spaces, and simple leisure drives (between sewing masks for our hospitals) keeps me going. Of course, maybe if I really stayed inside I could get after some magnificent projects in life………..or not.