• Weird History

14 Quarantines That Show How People Dealt With History's Worst Pandemics

As the coronavirus rages, the centuries-old strategy of quarantine remains a cornerstone of disease control. Strict civilian adherence to quarantine does wonders to limit disease spread and save lives. Nonetheless, these pandemic outbreaks show how quarantines have historically triggered political, ethical, and socio-economic upheaval.

  • Ragusa Issued The First Quarantine, Or 'Trentina'  

    At the root of the word "quarantine" is the Latin word for 40: quaranta - the number of days a person suspected of early plagues was generally required to isolate.

    Before the world had quarantines, the seaport at Ragusa established a trentina to isolate ships offshore for 30 days, while their flea-bitten passengers stewed with mumps, dysentery, smallpox, and more.

    After the 30-day trentina (which occurred in 1377), those given a clean bill of health were allowed on shore, indicating to historians a pre-Reformation cognizance of disease spread. The trentina was revised into a quaranta once physicians traced the most volatile outbreaks to the hot months of summer.

    Stopping trade to quarantine ships from infected areas of the world was a radical move by Ragusa, requiring captains to prove their origins. The seaport's trentina is now considered society's first quarantine.

  • During The Medieval Era, Leprosy Patients Were Sent To Lazar Houses

    The 14th century concluded with such hospital reforms as the establishment of almshouses and colonies for leprosy patients on separate islands. "Lazar houses" weren't considered hospitals because there was no treatment for the disfiguring disease. 

    Being exiled to a lazar house or lazaretto meant beginning a new life. The afflicted prepared to exit society with a legal death. First, they were granted last rites and a final chance to confess any lingering sins before their ex-communication from the church. Then, the ritual live burial concluded with a priest casting a handful of dirt on the afflicted. 

    In some colonies, husbands and wives who arrived together were separated and monitored by priests or nuns. Other colonies afforded their patients an independent life where they could keep gardens and even bear children. Colonies often had their own currency and water supply.

    Begging for alms became an enjoyable pastime for some leprosy patients who could spend time in society while canvassing good works for their colony. Citizens often treated lepers kindly - almsgiving was thought to score points toward salvation. 

    Lazar houses began to close in the 16th century, although in some parts of the world, people chose to stay until the end of their life.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The People Of Eyam Village Quarantined Themselves In 1665

    In the summer of 1665, a tailor named Alexander Hadfield ordered a bale of cloth from London to the village of Eyam. The bale was received by his assistant, George Viccars, who dried the cloth over an open flame - sending a frenzy of infected fleas into the village. Within days, Viccars, his two stepsons, and all their neighbors, along with Hadfield, had succumbed to the bubonic plague.

    In May 1666, Reverend William Mompesson self-isolated Eyam so its villagers could not flee, certain this was the only way to protect the towns surrounding them. Church services were relocated to the Cucklett Delf, an outdoor amphitheater where worshippers practiced safe distancing, and families were ordered to bury their own dead. 

    The bubonic plague ravaged Eyam for 14 months and took 273 lives. It is said that of the 80 people who survived, many persisted while mysteriously asymptomatic. Among them were the town's gravedigger, Marshall Howe, and Hadfield's wife, Mary.

  • Thousands Fled Marseilles Or Died In The Streets  

    With Marseilles' harbor open to the full Meditteranean Basin, the city has more than 2,000 years of experience facing fatal epidemics. In 1720, a ship arriving from Lebanon with passengers covered in boils was placed in quarantine. Powerful merchants awaiting the ship’s imported silk for a thoroughfare at Beaucaire pressured port authorities to lift the quarantine.

    The rash decision exposed the city to the bubonic plague, and overnight, thousands of people began to collapse in the streets. With little understanding of germs or how the plague was spread, French authorities scrambled to contain it. They barricaded the city and shut down the public market, leading civilians to starve, riot, or perish in the streets.

    More than 10,000 people fled Marseilles, carrying the plague further into France and beyond, while those who tried to return were met with a plague wall that authorities erected through the countryside. Although portside hospitals were established to quarantine individuals outside the city, efforts to stop the plague may not have been coordinated enough. Within two years' time, more than 100,000 people in Marseilles and its surrounding provinces had lost their lives.