Our world has changed drastically over the course of just a few weeks due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. I haven’t been to the office in weeks, trips have been cancelled and I have seen very few people for the month of March. We depend on so much, but don’t realize it until it is gone. Yet, it has this time has given me more time to focus on other hobbies, including writing more for this blog. Across the world we are all going a bit stir crazy in quarantine, but this is not the first-time humans had to isolate themselves in order to protect others.
From 1347-1353, the Black Death raced across Asia and then into Europe. Historians now believe that the bubonic plague began in the steppe region of Asia which includes parts of Eastern Europe (southern Russia, Ukraine, etc) and central Asia. During this time the region was controlled by the Mongol Khanate and trade along the silk road was as active as ever. Therefore, Italy was exposed earliest to the plague and its people were hard hit by the disease. The plague was also spread through fleas found on rats. The rats would be transferred from ship to ship on trading expeditions. Sailors who came to port and trade wares would easily spread the disease. This is how it was spread to greater distances and to multiple countries during the medieval period.
The plague caused swellings in the groin, armpits, behind the ears, etc. It also caused its victims to experience hallucinations or fall into a coma which often turned fatal. Doctors of the time had difficulty in determining why some survived the disease and others died.
The port city of Ragusa (modern day Dubrovnik in Croatia) was the first to pass legislation that took measures to isolate the infected. The law stated that those who came to Ragusa from areas touched by the plague would have to spend a month on “the islet of Mrkan or the town of Cavtat” to be disinfected. This included all incoming ships and trading caravans. Mrkan was a rocky and deserted island which would keep infected far away from the actual town. Despite being the 14th century, there seems to have been knowledge of incubation periods of the disease which spurned the isolation legislation. Ragusa also set up the first hospital specifically to treat and quarantine those with the plague. The state would provide food, a clean place to sleep, and health treatments. Venice would also create permanent plague hospitals.
The word “quarantine” comes from the Italian word quarantino. Quarantino is the Italian word for a forty-day period. By 1348, ports in Italy were starting to turn away trade ships. Venice was the first to close its ports entirely to incoming vessels. There were some that were admitted in but had to wait in isolation for 40 days (hence quarantine). They also created an isolated island like Ragusa to keep those in isolation. Similar measures were taken in cities throughout Italy. England would continue to have outbreaks through the 1600s and would eventually implement these measures as well. In the 16th century, it would become quite standard practice to have citizens isolated in their homes during an outbreak. Only one member could leave the dwelling to obtain essential items and had to carry a white rod in order to show that they were healthy. Shipping was also monitored and limited.
In 1348, the plague had spread to Northern Europe. With the outbreak, panic ensued across England and their King, Edward III, needed to step up and appear strong in the face of crisis. Parliament was postponed throughout the spring and government officials rush home to isolate themselves from the plague. Even the Hundred Years War with France was placed on hold due to the troubles in both countries. Edward III knew first-hand how deadly the disease could be as his own daughter, Princess Joan, contracted the plague while she was traveling to marry her betrothed, Peter of Castile. Edward ordered that burial plots would be separated from the residential areas and that the streets were cleaned. He figured that a lack of good hygiene was a factor to the spread.
This was not the first time the bacteria, Yersinia pestis, had infected so many people and caused a pandemic. In 541 CE, the Justinian Plague spread from Egypt then to Byzantium, North Africa and the Middle East. It would last two years and hit the Byzantine Empire’s capital, Constantinople, the hardest. Emperor Justinian even fell victim to the plague, though he did survive. Rats were also the reason that the disease spread so quickly throughout the bustling capital. Procopius, a contemporary history, described the streets of Constantinople and the fear that people felt throughout this period.
“During that time it seemed no easy thing to see any man in the streets of Byzantium, but all who had the good fortune to he in health were sitting in their houses, either attending the sick or mourning the dead. And if one did succeed in meeting a man going out, he was carrying one of the dead. And work of every description ceased, and all the trades were abandoned by the artisans, and all other work as well, such as each had in hand. Indeed in a city which was simply abounding in all good things starvation almost absolute was running riot”
“For it did not come in a part of the world nor upon certain men, nor did it confine itself to any season of the year, so that from such circumstances it might be possible to find subtle explanations of a cause, but it embraced the entire world, and blighted the lives of all men, though differing from one another in the most marked degree, respecting neither sex nor age”
Due to the losses, the Byzantine empire began to weaken. Enemy military began to take advantage of the domestic troubles and took back territory that had been previously lost. Trade and agriculture industries were heavily affected by the amount of deaths and those who choice to stay at home throughout the duration.
By the end of the Black Death in the 1300s, there were similar economic troubles. There was a drastic loss of labor, villages were abandoned, and trade had been essentially halted. The economy was in a disastrous state. Panic and fear also had caused people to turn on minority groups, such as the Jews. In order to explain the unexplainable, the Jews were the scapegoat. Many towns in Europe arrested Jews and tortured them for confessions. In Chatel (France), the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells which the townspeople believed caused the plague. They would be executed or exiled, and many lost their home and family members. In Strasbourg (France), the Jews were exiled for one hundred years (though 20 years later they were allowed back in, likely due to economic reasons).
The Black Death had spurned important social changes that would affect the world forever. It contributed to the mindset of the Renaissance. The pandemic changed the way people viewed the world. After the suffering that the survivors had witnessed, they began to concentrate more on their secular lives rather than spiritual/religious lives. The church had failed to give them an explanation as to why the plague had happened. Survivors took advantage of the new economic conditions. Prices of food were now low and there was a lot of abandoned land that was up for grabs. People began to travel for work and found new opportunities outside of their small villages. It was easier for people to move up the social ladder in these conditions because there was a need for it. They wanted to sponsor art and question the world around them rather than blindly following the churches guidance.
We are blessed to live in a time period where we have the medical technology and are better prepared to handle situations like this. Yet, like our ancestors, there is still uncertainty and fear as we go through the pandemic. With the knowledge we have during our modern era, we understand how virus spreads and what we can do to prevent it. It is a time we will come together. Based on trends in the past, society will change after this is all over though I hope it will make us stronger and put in better practices to handle more situations like this in the future.