Four Hundred Years of Quarantine

Erin Maglaque and Thomas Jones

Erin Maglaque talks to Thomas Jones about the lockdown imposed by the city of Florence in January 1631 in response to a plague outbreak, the similarities with our current situation, and the differences.

Maglaque wrote about the plague in Florence in a recent issue of the LRB, reviewing Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City by John Henderson.

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Further reading in the LRB

Erin Maglaque: Inclined to Putrefaction (2020)

Thomas Jones: Quaresima (2020)

Thomas Jones: Death in Florenc​​​​​e (2012)​


Thomas Jones: Hello, and welcome to the London Review of Books podcast. My name is Thomas Jones, and today I’m talking to Erin Maglaque, who teaches early modern European history at the University of Sheffield. Erin wrote in a recent issue of the LRB about how the city of Florence responded to a plague epidemic in the early 17th century. We’re speaking over the phone, of course, as we would have to be, even if we were next door to each other, given the need for social distancing to limit the spread of Covid-19. But as it happens, we aren’t next door to each other. Erin is in Sheffield, and I’m in central Italy in Orvieto, about a hundred miles south of Florence. And I’ve written a piece in the current issue of the LRB describing the first 15 days of the lockdown in Italy, which began two weeks before the lockdown in the UK. There’s this strange sense I’ve had when talking to people in Britain that I'm speaking from the near future or to the near past. Though ever less so, as the situation there comes closer to the situation here in Italy. Hello, Erin. Thank you very much for joining us. 

Erin Maglaque: Hi, Tom. Thank you so much for having me. 

TJ: How are things under lockdown in Sheffield? 

EM: Well, it’s quite surreal, really, quite surreal. I feel like I’m talking to a quarantine expert, but things in Sheffield, yeah, it’s very strange. I’m taking my government-allowed one walk a day, which is very nice. The weather has been beautiful recently, which feels like it’s sort of mocking us now that we can’t go outside, because it’s not nice very often in Sheffield!  But we're bubbling through. 

TJ: And so to begin, why don’t you just tell us briefly the story of what happened in Florence in 1629? 

EM: Sure. So the plague arrived in Europe originally in 1347 for this period of epidemics. But the one in Florence began in 1629 when troops from the thirty — who were fighting in central Europe during the Thirty Years War — were making their way through Northern Italy. And so they were carrying with them fleas, and the fleas were carrying with them yersinia pestis, which is the bacterium that causes the bubonic plague.  And so as these troops were moving around northern Europe, they were spreading the plague behind them. It was much worse in other northern cities, the cities in northern Italy, initially before it arrived in Florence, it came to the outskirts of Florence sort of early summer 1630, and the deaths in the city began sort of late summer and reached their height by late autumn, early winter of 1631. As more and more people started dying, obviously panic began to rise in the city, and in January of 1631, the health board in the city known as the Sanita decided to implement a general quarantine, so everyone had to stay home for 40 days. And I think it’s something that you wrote about in your piece too, that 40 days recalls the period of Noah’s flood, right? So it is a really resonant period of time. 

TJ: And where did that, the modern quarantine — that began in Venice, is that right? After the Black Death? 

EM: Yeah, that’s right. So during the Black Death Venice decided to make ships that were carrying cargo wait outside of the port for 40 days before allowing them into the city. And that’s because they recognised that the Black Death really travelled with cargo and particularly textiles and things like soft material. So they decided to implement this whole 40-day holding period. 

TJ: So even though they didn’t know it was fleas and rats, they did know that it was the kind of cargoes that fleas and rats would live in. But did Venice ever, or any other city before Florence in 1629, lock down the entire city in the way that Florence did, or was Florence the first city to try this locking down of the whole city?

EM: Yeah. I mean, so other cities in the 14th century and then again in the 17th century were experimenting with different degrees of lockdown, but it seems that Florence had a sense of the total lockdown in the city as being a quite new invention. And they really debated whether or not to do it because they recognised that it had a huge potential impact on the local economy, of course, people being out of work and needing food provisioning and so forth, which is all uncannily coming back now with Covid-19. But in the 14th century, they experimented with various forms of isolation, but not to the same extent that Florence did in 1630.

TJ: Right. And because the practice of the sick people being taken apart and kept in separate lazaretti. Is that the right word? 

EM: Yeah, that’s right. So that was another Black Death, medieval plague era invention, and it started in Venice again, because they actually had the first lazaretto on an island. They actually just used an island and the lagoon as a place to quarantine people, so this is a kind of common public health technology that emerges from the plague and continues to the early modern period. 

TJ: Were there doctors in the lazaretti? Were the people there looked after or were they just pushed away and abandoned?

EM: No, they were incredibly well looked after. There were many plague doctors  in the 17th century who were, also actually like medical professionals today, under particular kinds of rules because they were highly exposed. So they often had to live alone. They wore protective clothing. I mean, we all, I think, know that famous plague beak, right, the plague mask of the early modern — 

TJ: Exactly, which is a carnival character mask. 

EM: Exactly. But in the early modern period, that beak would have been stuffed with sweet herbs and incense, which was meant to filter what they thought was this sort of putrefying or corrupt air.

TJ: But presumably it did have some effect. I mean not in terms of purifying the air, but in terms of keeping distance and a physical barrier, it must have helped a bit, presumably. So even though their science was dodgy, the way they acted on it was… 

EM: Yeah, I mean presumably, because it’s spread by fleas, and the plague’s only rarely spread from human to human. Only when it’s pneumonic plague, that’s the only time it spreads from human to human. I think what really is a barrier to bubonic plague transmission more than anything is isolation and distancing where it seems that mortality rates seem to have been highest. In high density housing, particularly like around that with people who were working in the textile industry and things like that.

TJ: And the measures that they took in Florence — let’s briefly go through them. People had to stay in their houses as we do now. And were they allowed out for an hour’s exercise a day? Presumably not.

EM: No. So in January they implemented this general quarantine on the city. Women and children were actually locked in their houses first, and that was because they thought that they were more vulnerable, on the one hand, but also sort of more culpable, right? That they were harder to control and so might spread the disease faster. Eventually as the mortality rates were ticking up, they decided to also implement this general quarantine and quarantine men too. It didn’t apply to everyone. So if you were wealthy and lucky enough to have a house in the countryside, you could leave and go there. Some men, I think over the age of 12 who were working, could have a health pass to go out, but I know a health pass is something that you now have to write in Italy these days too.

TJ: Exactly. 

EM: So it was somewhat uneven in the way that it was applied based on class and gender. But no, you didn’t have your government allowed walk once a day.

TJ: But key workers, as we’re now calling them, were allowed. As you said, obviously, because if they were delivering food, there were food deliveries to every house every day. Is that right? So there must have been people — 

EM: Yeah. So there were thousands of people who were involved in food provisioning. Obviously the warehousing of food in the city, distributing it, a lot of them who were involved were members of confraternities, which were these kinds of charitable lay organisations in the city who undertook these voluntary charitable roles, including food provisioning, transporting the sick and so forth. 

TJ: And when people fell ill were they expected to stay at home or were they taken to the lazaretto

EM: So when people fell ill, they were meant to notify a doctor who would then come to their house and certify that they were in fact ill and they would remove the sick person to a plague hospital, which was a terrifying prospect. We know now that the Florentine plague hospitals had about a 50% mortality rate. And so people were said to fear them more than death. They did often receive quite good medical care there, but I don’t think anyone would really like those odds. And then the family members in the home were then actually locked up behind a barred door and kept in the home. And then often the belongings in that home, especially soft material, cloth, bedding, mattresses would be burned in the street. So there was always the worry that people wouldn’t report plague cases because of course it means seeing your loved one shipped off to this quite terrifying hospital and having your possessions potentially taken away and burned.

TJ: And obviously as they didn’t have antibiotics, they didn’t actually have any treatment for the plague, it was just a question of looking after people and hoping they’d recover. 

EM: They did use medicines, like various concoctions and cordials and things like that. And there was actually a great confidence in Florence that medicine worked and that doctors knew what they were doing. And that wasn’t always true in other cities. So in Venice and Milan, there was a great suspicion about charlatans and fake doctors, but in Florence there seems to have been a great confidence in public health.

TJ: Which must have helped with enforcing the quarantine as well. But if the people trust the Sanita then they’re more likely to do what they ask. Do we know why that is? Why the Florentines were more trusting of authority, or of doctors? 

EM: It’s really hard to know. In Milan, in the same epidemic, there were absolutely rampant rumours about what they called the untori, these mysterious anointers who were said to go round churches and swirl infection into the stoops that contained holy water, or they’d smear infection onto doorways and church pews. And those became part of this classic understanding of what the plague was like in the 17th century. But there was really very little of that in Florence. There was one doctor who was said to be either Neapolitan or Sicilian, so suspiciously foreign, who was accused of poisoning  his patients with rotten chickens and things like that. But that seems to really have been the only the only case of that. 

TJ: One of the things that we’ve seen in some of the more unfortunate responses to Covid-19 from the Trump administration, but also from the people in the street, that there’s racist ideas, that it’s somehow that it’s a foreign disease, that it’s come from China. Was there — you’ve mentioned the prejudice against Neapolitans and Sicilians — but was there any other prejudice against groups who were suspected of having brought it into the city, or were they more rational about that?

EM: I think there are lots of prejudices. One that is actually continuous with the Black Death, the 14th-century plague, is the suspicion and prejudice against Jews. They were some of the first to be fully locked up and quarantined. They thought that perhaps their  black hats had festered putrefaction, festered contagion. And that was a very common response in Italy at the time, to be suspicious of Jews. Another population who were marginalised were prostitutes or sex workers. Sex was thought to generate excess heat in the body, which if your medical understanding is based on humoral theory would make you more vulnerable to infection, to disease. And of course there’s also a kind of moral contagion idea there too. So prostitutes were also marginalised during plague epidemics. And then I think the poor were a broad category, which is something I was interested in in the piece too, that there is this really interesting tension between the rhetoric against the poor on the part of the government, which often sees the poor as both vulnerable, but also as essentially irresponsible, not civic minded, even their bodies were thought to be more corruptible. So one of the physicians in Florence at the time, Alessandro Righi has a theory that the poor sort of fester plague in their bodies in a way that nobles don’t.  But then on the other hand, they also looked after them, and they had this extensive welfare programme and food provisioning  as we spoke about. So there's a really interesting tension there between both blaming the poor and also looking out for them, which I was really interested in in the piece.

TJ: And that, again, is recognisable from what’s happening now. That you mentioned that people were worried that if you give people enough to eat without making them work, then they won’t go back to work when you want them to. Rondinelli, who was one of the contemporary historians, worried that quarantine would give the poor the opportunity to be lazy and lose the desire to work, having for 40 days being provided abundantly for all their needs. And you hear Republicans in the US Congress saying almost exactly that now, and the right in the UK as well, and here in Italy.

EM: Yeah, it’s a little scary, I think. When the Florentines were debating whether to enact this general quarantine, it was this problem of work that they really were worried about, what would it look like to have so many people in the city unemployed and not earning, and how would we provision for that? And so early on in the plague, they thought, well, we’ll just give unemployed people some work and that will help them through. So they had unemployed men from the countryside working, constructing the Boboli Gardens and working in the Palazzo Pitti building their chapel and things like that. But they got sick and died because of course, what vulnerable people need is not more work, but more rest, right? 

TJ: Yeah, exactly. As in the way that the factories are staying open and Amazon warehouses staying open and all the rest of it, which do seem to be sites of contagion now. But in the years before the plague started, isn’t this right, there was — I’m not sure, a recession is probably an anachronistic word — but there were problems in the wool market and there was a lot of unemployment and there were economic problems before the plague arrived. 

EM: Yeah. So there were widespread famines, there were religious wars, unemployment, as you say, like Florence was a centre of the textile industry which had already been suffering in the past few decades before the plague. So there already was unemployment and hunger. So when the plague came people were more vulnerable to disease, and that was recognised at the time. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the way that people talk about Covid. That it somehow reveals fractures in society that have been here all along, and that the people who we call key workers now were certainly not thought of as key workers even a month ago. I think early modern people would have really appreciated the idea that the plague was a kind of clarifying moment, that it reveals to us things that were previously hidden. I think that’s a very early modern idea. But I see it in the newspaper every day now. 

TJ: Yeah. But the people who a month ago were called low-skilled and said that they wouldn’t be able to get visas to come and work in the UK are now key workers.  In Florence you said that it was thought that the nobles were less susceptible. Did those assumptions change? Because presumably - or because of social distancing, or whatever the equivalent  would have been, because they were allowed to leave the city and go to their country houses, did fewer rich people die than poor people, or was everyone equally susceptible? Was the plague revealed to be a social leveller, or were those class distinctions reflected in the people who suffered? 

EM: That’s a really good question. I don’t know the exact statistics about how mortality differed. I would say that because it seems like higher mortality rates were associated with poor neighbourhoods, with high density housing, and particularly the neighbourhoods where textiles were produced, it does seem as though lower paid workers probably had a higher mortality rate than the elite. But certainly the elite died too. There’s a story in the piece about the wife of the chancellor of the Sanita dying. But even again, in death, you can see some of that social stratification. So one of the great horrors of the early modern plague is that you would be buried in a plague pit in these anonymous mass graves outside the city walls when ordinarily in normal times you would have been buried in your parish. But the wife of the chancellor of the Sanita was given permission to be buried in her parish church, which was not something that ordinary people were privileged to necessarily. 

TJ: But did people attend her funeral? Because funerals were one of the earliest things to be banned in Italy. The idea of banning funerals still seems quite a shocking idea, but one of the focolai, the epicentres of transmission early on was a funeral. And there have been these striking and shocking images of army lorries turning up in Lombardy to take away coffins, and the stories coming from Spain of ice rinks being used as makeshift morgues. So I think that the practice but also the fear of the plague pit is still with us now. And even the fact that it should be is in itself quite shocking. 

EM: Yeah. It’s a horror of anonymity, isn’t it? That you could just be one of many. That was something one historian of the plague has argued, that it was that horror of anonymity and the horror of the plague pit which led people to disguise cases of the plague from the government because they just couldn’t bear the thought of their loved ones being buried in the plague pit. 

TJ: And the people who survived when they were locked in their houses? Did people keep records of what they did and how they coped with the boredom and the solitude as much as anything else? 

EM: I think as ever for early modern history, our main records for this plague year are by elite men. Our records for how ordinary people coped mostly come from court cases, so mostly from people who coped in ways that meant breaking the law. So one of the things I absolutely loved about John Henderson’s book was all of the stories that he pulled from those court cases, about people chatting in the street or doing some mending for their children or girls dancing together in their apartment buildings and things like that. These very ordinary ways in which people tried to break up the loneliness and the boredom, which when I originally read that book, I thought was really moving and now I can’t believe that we’re living it.

TJ: And the story about the woman mending her son’s clothes, is that right? He was in the apartment below and she lowered things on a basket. But I think that was quite a standard Florentine practice for not having to go downstairs to talk to people because in Arnold Bennett’s diary from when he was in Florence in the early 20th century, he describes people lowering baskets from their windows and people in the street putting things in that they wanted and taking them back up. And actually one of the many memes that are circulating here now shows across a courtyard a couple with a dog, and they lower the dog on the lead from the balcony. It sort of potters about on the ground beneath, and then they pull it back up by the lead, a bit dangling slightly, but quite a small dog, obviously, it’s a terrier. It’s slightly pathetic, dangling from its lead from its collar. Which some people react to thinking it’s hilarious and other people think it’s very cruel. And of course the other thing is that this conversation that we’re having now means we’re all locked in our houses, but I’m speaking to my parents far more often than I was a month or two ago. Were people still allowed to write letters? What levels of communication were permitted in Florence? 

EM: Yeah. People certainly wrote letters. There is some good evidence from these court cases, again, that people shouted to each other from their windows. Because often their front doors were actually physically barred, they would climb out of their windows and go up to their balconies, and just talk to each other out in the fresh air. There were lots of ways to get around it and to talk to each other.

TJ: And in terms of news from other places? How did the people in Florence know what was happening in Milan? 

EM: Yeah, so in the 17th century lots of these Italian cities had their own health board, their own Sanita, and they would send letters back and forth to each other, reporting on the news, which is actually how Florence first became aware that there was this growing epidemic. They were getting letters from Milan, from Bologna, from Verona, describing what was happening in those cities, and the early letters are really moving because they are trying to work out what it is. And they don’t want to say that it is the plague because of course if they say that it is, it’s hugely worrying and might set off a panic. But it was a really important way for them to get a sense of what was happening and ready themselves to prepare for the epidemic. 

TJ: But they didn’t actually lock down as we have until the death toll reached a certain level. 

EM: Yeah. They didn’t lock down until January and the plague had arrived in August. But what’s interesting is that the 1630/31 epidemic tailed off in early summer around May-June, and then it came back again in 1632/1633 for a much shorter period of time. And when it came back they locked down more quickly and more extensively. So for example, in 1630 they left the Mercato Vecchio open, the main market in the city they left open. In 1633 they shut it down almost immediately. So it seems as though they learned their lesson about how quickly they need to respond, which I feel like is unfortunately a lesson we’re learning now too, right? 

TJ: Yeah. And indeed the countries where SARS was a bigger problem in 2003, in South Korea and Singapore and China and Japan, they seem to have acted much more quickly and been much more prepared and had the equipment  and seem to have done a much quicker and better job at stopping it than countries that didn’t have that experience with SARS. So maybe next time we’ll do better too.  So presumably one of the reasons they waited when the plague hit in August, they wanted to get the harvest in before they shut down. There must have been those sorts of, I mean, partly economic reasons, but also if you’re going to shut the city and feed it, 30,000 people as it then was, you’re going to need to have enough food to do that. So you’re going to have to carry on with those essential services, as we’d call it. It's very hard not to use these anachronistic terms when talking about it. 

EM: I think then as now, the prospect of really just suspending life as you know it is a huge, huge decision.  And as politicians now are worried about the unpopularity of the decision, I’m not sure that early modern politicians thought, or a governor thought in terms of popularity, but certainly in terms of the overall effect that it would have on the city and the way that they would afford it and provision for it. And it’s obviously a huge decision to make. 

TJ: You’ve already mentioned this, but you wrote your review before Covid-19 arrived in Europe, or before we realised that it had arrived. And in the sense that your thinking about what happened in Florence then has changed since you wrote the piece. And if I read the end, you remember, about  the difference between —

Percentages tell us something about living and dying, but they don’t tell us much about survival. Florentines understood the dangers, but gambled with their lives anyway, out of   boredom, desire, habits, grief. To learn what it meant to survive, we might do better to observe Maria and Cammilla, the teenage sisters who danced their way through the plague year. 

EM: It’s a very strange feeling to write a historical essay about something and then almost immediately afterwards, find yourself living through something so similar. Because I think I am constantly calibrating my own experience against what I was writing about. One of the strangest moments was when those videos of Italians singing from their balconies started to go viral. Because in Florence in 1630 they held mass on the street for people during quarantine. So the priest would stand at the junction of a couple of streets on the street corner and lead everyone in singing hymns. And Rondinelli, who is a kind of elite, he was the official librarian of the Grand Duke, and he wrote the official history of the plague, said that it was so moving and so beautiful to witness all these people singing together. And when I first read that, I thought, well, of course he thinks it’s beautiful. He’s walking around on the street. He’s not behind a door. And as soon as I saw those videos, I thought I have to reassess that, because it actually is really beautiful, and it’s an incredible moment of solidarity and collectivity. I think one of the most dislocating and surreal experiences of Covid is that we are all atomised and isolated in our houses.There is no social life to speak of, and yet we are all going through the same thing. It’s the strangest tension, and I think reading about the singing in Florence and then seeing the videos, I think, okay, I actually understand this now. It is not just this kind of elite man who has the freedom of the street to observe what’s happening behind closed doors, but actually singing is this incredible moment, a way of expressing a collective experience that you otherwise can’t do because of the social distancing. 

TJ: Yeah. Great.

EM: Did you feel that when you were, I mean, have you taken part in any sing along? 

TJ: Well, no. In Orvieto it is very odd that there’s my family and we’ve been out on the balcony at those times when people were supposed to go out on the balconies and there’s nobody else there! We don’t have that, and it’s partly living in the big cities, and you see those huge apartment block complexes in Naples and Rome and Milan, and how close people are to each other. We live in an apartment in a house in which there’s one other apartment and they’re the people downstairs. We haven’t seen them, partly because if you don’t want to pass them on the stairs, so if they're on the stairs, we wait till they've gone in or out before we go in or out and the stairs smell very strongly of bleach. We’re not having to wash the stairs because they’re washing them every day! And there’s another question about the shape of the household now.The assumption now is of the nuclear family, although that’s obviously not true for very many people in that the question that the British government don’t seem to have thought about, children of separated parents, for example. Or also if you have a house with several unrelated people living together, which is a fairly common situation, or people living by themselves who rely on people coming in to help them. All these situations that haven’t been thought through. But what was the household in Florence in 1630? What was, as it were, the average household or the assumed average household then?

EM: It probably also wasn’t really the nuclear family. So often extended families, multiple branches of the same family might live together within one Palazzo, and they would each have one section of the Palazzo, or siblings could live together. Often a more extended family, I think, than we are used to. 

TJ: And would they be separated from each other? If you had cousins living in apartments in the same palazzo, would they be separated, or would it just be the whole palazzo that would be shut down altogether?

EM: I don’t know the answer to that. I would imagine that if there had been a member of the household who was identified as sick, then he would be taken away to the plague hospital and then the entire household would be shut down together. I don’t think they had a sense of quarantine separation within a single household in the way that we are now told to isolate someone who has Covid within a space in the home.

TJ: Rich households as well presumably had a lot of servants living there. Would they have stayed with the families they worked for, or were they sent home to their mothers? How would that have worked? 

EM: There’s some interesting evidence of the servants working in the lazaretto, working in a plague hospital. So there was one servant who was working in the plague hospital. And of course, once they were working there they had to stay there, they couldn’t leave. And this woman, Maria, made it eight days working as a servant in the plague hospital before she decided to quit, and she waited for a moment when there was no one around, and she could just walk out of the door. Which was obviously illegal because once you were working in a plague hospital, you had to stay there. You couldn’t go home. And when she was hauled in front of the court for this, she said, well, you know, I have two children, I had to go home. But also, I could not stay because of the great stink, which I think is an interesting insight into just how tough it was to work in one of those plague hospitals.

TJ: I suppose one of the most reassuring things about this story is that after six months, which does seem an interminable amount of time at the moment, the disease went away and people got better, and they weren’t any new cases. And in June 1631 people were allowed out and they came back onto the streets and into the squares and life could begin again.

EM: Which just seems almost impossibly far away now, doesn’t it. I mean, one of the things that’s so interesting about the plague is something the historian Julia Calvi talks about, the plague lends itself so well to history writing because of this gathering sense of tension, right? As the epidemic is drawing closer, and then the tragedy, the climax of death and these kinds of public health measures, and then it goes away again. And so it has this natural narrative arc that makes it such a great subject for history writing, but because of that narrative arc, you don’t always think about what comes afterwards. And that’s what I’ve been thinking about so much now. Like what is on the other side of this? You know, how does Covid change the way that we live? Does Covid change how we work, the economy? What is the aftermath of this? Because of the way plague stories are told, I’m not sure that I can make any informed historical guesses. 

TJ: Right. So in Henderson’s book, he ends in June, 1631, does he, with the end of —

EM: Yeah, that’s the end of the main narrative. He has an epilogue for this second shorter outbreak in 1632/33. And that’s it. So we don’t really know what happened afterwards. And I think there was a recent paper last year that came out that tried to measure the economic impact of the plague epidemic of 1630 on Northern Italy. And he argued that while there was an ongoing economic crisis in the decades before the plague, that the plague really was what kind of triggered Northern Italy’s economic decline throughout the rest of the 17th century. And it’s something that I’d love to read more about because I, I suppose with the kind of mass unemployment, and financial crash or financial recession, that seems to be potentially sparked by Covid, I’d like to know more about what happened after the plague year. 

TJ: Okay. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. That seems like a good point on which to end. Thank you, Erin, very much. You can read Erin’s piece in the 20th February issue of the LRB and you can read my piece in the 2nd April issue of the LRB. Thank you very much for listening and thank you Erin for joining us. 

EM: Thanks very much for having me. 

TJ: The current issue also has pieces by David Runciman and William Davies on the politics of Covid-19, James Meek on the Black Death of 1348 as well as Rosa Lyster on the water crises in Cape Town and Mexico City and Julian Barnes on JK Huysman.

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