Quarantine and History

Quadraginta. Quaranta giorni. Forty days. A Biblical number, first used for medical reasons in Venice in 1377, or at least the law and enforcement of it dates to 1377. Forty days in the wilderness, forty years in the wilderness, forty days of fasting and prayer, forty days of rest to assure others that no impurity in the form of disease afflicted a traveler. The practice goes back much farther, but the current name stems from Venetian Italian. The Torah mentions the need to separate those afflicted with leprosy (or feared to have it) from others until either they recovered, or it became apparent that they were indeed ill and thus ritually impure until they succumbed to the disease (or were healed and repeated the process, then were purified and returned to the community.)

People knew from observation that large groups of people traveling together often carried disease, especially armies. “Disease follows the army” was a proverb for a reason, due to the poor sanitation, poor hygiene, and rapacious nature of armies passing through various lands. Dysentery and other “dirty water” diseases were common, and later small pox as well. (Note, we’re talking about non-venereal diseases here.) Readers of the first four Colplatschki books will remember how obsessed Elizabeth von Sarmas was with boiling water or at the very least filtering it through layers of cloth and then adding wine (or another form of alcohol.) Those of her men who followed those orders tended not to get “the flux.”

It became apparent in Europe that isolating people for a period of observation not only worked for leprosy but also for the Black Death. Renaissance trading ports had a lazaretto, named for St. Lazarus the Beggar, which later served as a hospital for leprosy patients. It was outside the city walls. Over time the area near the lazaretto came to be a place of general quarantine for merchants and sailors, if suspicion existed that they and their goods might be carrying plague or other diseases.

The Habsburg Empire managed to escape major outbreaks of the Black Death and a few other infectious diseases in the 1700s by establishing a hard medical border. Traders had to stop for a set period of time if they came in from the south (Ottoman Empire). Their goods were categorized as being more or less likely to carry whatever it was that harbored plague, and the merchants were fed and housed at government expense until it became obvious if they were well or ill, and until the risk of plague transmission from their goods had ended.

Sailing brought its own risks of disease, especially plague, yellow fever, smallpox, and later cholera. A ship that had sickness on board was supposed to fly a yellow flag*, meaning “disease present” and was not supposed to dock until a medical examiner had cleared the vessel. As you can imagine, this procedure wasn’t always followed. This is why sorting out the ill from the healthy was such an important function at US immigration ports, especially after the 1860s and the “second wave” of immigration to the country. Quarantines and special hospitals also came back into use in Europe and the US in the late 1800s as cholera reared up again, most infamously in Hamburg, Germany.

Extended precautionary medical confinement is still used in many places for livestock and pets, in order to prevent rabid or otherwise sick critters from entering. People going to animal shows in the US have to show proof at various state borders that their animals have been vaccinated for certain things, or are certified free of certain infectious ailments.

Notice, in all cases, the goal is to keep the ill or possibly ill out of the general population. This was far, far easier than trying to keep the healthy confined away from the potentially sick. It also makes more medical sense in a world where people had some sense of disease transmission, but weren’t 100% certain of the details. Malaria was, indeed, found in places with “bad air” and “miasmas.” So too was yellow fever. That the miasmas were a sign and not the cause of the problem didn’t fit the understanding of the times. (Think about the outbreak of fever an’ ague in Little House on the Prairie. Everyone agreed that it came from the lowlands. Ma thought it had gotten into the watermelons because of where they grew. That the mosquitoes spread the ailment didn’t make sense, given what people knew.)

Today we have germ theory, and a much better idea of how various types of diseases spread. However, if you think about how the Wuhan fever has been considered and discussed, our society and mentalité are not as modern as we like to think. It’s an invisible killer that lurks in the very air, haunting public places, and attacking everyone. It hides and we cannot find it, cannot know who might harbor it, or where it abides. It comes with strangers and outsiders, who are to be regarded warily, lest something leap from them onto us, killing at random and laying waste to millions. The elite flee to rural retreats, hiding from the common folk and telling tales to entertain themselves. Plague doctors attend to the ill, and neighborhoods and communities are left to fend for themselves.

No wonder sales of The Decameron and De Foe’s Diary of a Plague Year have soared.

*A local city government asked people to hang yellow flags and yellow ribbons in honor of medical personnel. I missed the announcement, and wondered if the house with the yellow flag meant that someone had been diagnosed with Wuhan fever and the flag was a warning. Oops!


19 thoughts on “Quarantine and History

  1. It’s always interested me that whereas criminals could be relied upon to do almost anything dishonest or illegal for money, one of the areas they wouldn’t touch appears to have been breaking quarantine. There are several accounts throughout history of rich travelers in a time of disease offering large bribes and other incentives to be allowed to bypass quarantine, or have someone smuggle them out of it earlier than the allotted period: but in almost every case, they were turned down even by local criminals. In the few cases I’m aware of that succeeded, often the perpetrators – the quarantine-breakers and those who helped them break it – were all punished, usually very drastically (summary execution was not unknown). The risks to general health appear to have outweighed the desire for as much dishonestly filthy lucre as possible.

    • G’Kar’s law applies: “we all do what we do for the same reason: it seemed like a good idea at the time.” We all balance the potential risk of an action against the potential reward; if reward > risk by a large-enough margin, it will seem like a good idea. But there can be few higher risks than “let a vicious disease into the city where it could kill me and/or my loved ones.” Only a full-on sociopath could see that as a good idea, and true sociopaths are thankfully rare in human history.

      • If there isn’t a web page of “The Wisdom of G’Kar”, there damnwell *ought* to be one.

        If nothing else, it would give me an excuse to re-watch 122 episodes of Babylon 5…

        • There are several webpages that are collections of G’Kar quotes, but I have no idea how complete any of them are.

          I don’t know who actually wrote his lines, but he had some of the most insightful and enlightening thoughts I have ever seen anywhere.

          “The universe is run by the complex interweaving of three elements: energy, matter, and enlightened self-interest.”

  2. The Q flag, the yellow jack, was hoisted or displayed for one reason: infectious fever or illness. All civilized people understood that and kept their distance. Like using the Red Cross flag to highlight hospitals, hospital ships, or similar non-belligerents. Quick and painful death were the usual punishments for breaking custom or law, or misusing the protection.

  3. Mark Twain, in “Innocents Abroad” has several incidents where his ship is quarantined in various ports due a cholera outbreak in Europe at the time. He also discusses how his group of tourists manages to evade the quarantine restrictions and get ashore anyway. One of the weird parts, is that once ashore, no one seems to question a bunch of obviously American tourists regarding their quarantine status.

    • Bees defend the entrance to the hive vigorously. Once wasps manage to get inside, however, the invaders are ignored.
      Remind you of anything?

  4. Haven’t had my coffee so I can’t make an intelligent or humorous comment. 😉

  5. Looks like our Oregon governor has seen the extended lockdown orders and said “hold my wineglass”. We’re #40 in the country for Kung Flu deaths, with the usual skew towards the old and/or infirm, but that “isn’t good enough”.

    So Despicable Kate Brown is extending the order through July 6th, or until everybody either rises in rebellion or leaves the state. Rope and lamp posts not in the picture. Yet.

    • We’ve had the feds arrive (medical feds) and state people to try and sort out the medical mess at the packing plant north of town. Otherwise the city is (reluctantly) abiding by the state’s timeline, although the mayor is literally pleading with people to wear masks and stay home, and for businesses to either not open or keep very conservative entry/exit numbers.

  6. I read yesterday that Washington’s Gov has extended the STAY HOME rule to the end of May. Or, thereabouts.

  7. At least this is a fact based recounting of the real meaning of quarantine, unlike some of the crap I’ve seen. Now if we just had a quarantine for stupid… sigh

  8. Wondering whether air travel is more efficient at spreading epidemics than is sea travel…for the same total number of travelers. Probably depends on the speed of the ships…if a voyage takes a month or more, as it often did in sailing ship days, then the disease will likely be manifest by the end of the trip, and health inspections will prevent the affected people from landing. But for modern ocean-going ships, which can cross the Atlantic in 3-4 days, does this transportation mode provide materially more epidemic-resistance than air travl?

    Also, of course, there’s the question of virus transmission on the plane or ship itself…people are packed closer in an airplane, but otoh the trip doesn’t last nearly as long.

    • I suspect that would depend upon two factors: speed of travel and length of incubation period. With this virus – unless you travel cross the US in covered wagon – you will probably get it if exposed.

      • The other question is: what does the virus do and how is it transmitted? A norovirus or other GI bug probably won’t afflict plane passengers as badly, while we’ve all read or heard about cruise ships that have an outbreak. Things that can travel on respiratory droplets spread well on planes, because of the airflow. (Although the filters and UV filters that some aircraft now use do seem to help reduce the problem.) One hopes that venereal diseases, viral or otherwise, do not get transmitted in flight, but the Mile High Club does exist.

  9. Does anybody know whether there’s any specific connection between the use of the yellow flag as the “infectious disease” indicator and yellow fever, which was also known as “yellowjack” for a time? Looking at those terms, I’m reminded of the infamous “jolie rouge” (“red flag” or “bloody flag”), the flag that pirates hoisted to indicate that no quarter would be given to a target ship. And today, the solid red flag is “Baker” in the maritime flag code, which when flown by itself means “carrying (or discharging) dangerous cargo.”

  10. Speaking of the Mile High Club…there’s a story that the first members of this club (or at least aspirants) were Lawrence Sperry, inventor of the airplane autopilot, and his female student. Sperry turned on his autopilot and the pair began engaging in some distracting activities. Unfortunately, someone accidentally hit the autopilot disconnect…


    I’d say they were very fortunate, compared to what has happened to some other people who disconnected their autopilots without noticing.

  11. The elite flee to rural retreats, hiding from the common folk and telling tales to entertain themselves.

    This particular plague has just been crying out for a re-write of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death: a group of elites locks themselves in a castle away from the illness and comes up with ever-more bizarre and outre entertainments.

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