By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Recurring outbreaks of the Black Death led to quarantines. The sick were confined to “pesthouses” in order to keep them away from healthy people. Austria is unveiling increasing anti-COVID lockdown measures.
Austria’s COVID-19 rates have skyrocketed since the end of October, leading to increased lockdown measures—especially pertaining to the unvaccinated—in order to curb the outbreak. A recent government measure banned anyone who is not fully vaccinated from entering restaurants and other places; a new proposed measure would extend it to more—or all—public spaces.
Austria’s striking restrictions stand out, but drastic measures were taken during subsequent outbreaks of the Black Death, leading to the invention of quarantines in the first place. In her video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague, Dr. Dorsey Armstrong, Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University, explained how “pesthouses” revolutionized disease control.
Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst
“While the recurrence of plague certainly disrupted the attempts of local governments and other entities to try and recreate what had been normal in the pre-plague world, it also spurred them to grow and change,” Dr. Armstrong said. “For it wasn’t too long before most communities realized that this thing was going to come back with some regularity, and as such, it was necessary that there be some strategies in place to combat it.”
These strategies began to pop up with later plague outbreaks, starting around 1363. One major innovation of the time was the “pesthouse.” Also known as “lazaretto”—or “lazar house,” named for Lazarus, the resurrected man in the Bible—pesthouses were places in which those sick from plague were sent to either die or recover. Unlike hospitals, they were only used after a local government had declared a plague outbreak.
“The Italian city-state of Venice was one of the first to institute this practice, and when they did so, they made use of the natural defenses of islands,” Dr. Armstrong said. “It was in the Venetian territory of Dubrovnik, in what is now Croatia, that scholars think the first pesthouse was established in the island of Mljet in 1377. In Venice itself, the city leaders had a plague hospital constructed in 1403.”
Even the word “quarantine” comes from this practice. Venetians would require ships to wait on Dubrovnik for 40 days—or, in Italian, “quaranta gioni”—to ensure no sicknesses came with their cargo.
What Condition My Condition Is In
Fourteenth-century Europeans can be applauded for their grasp of epidemiology when it came to quarantining the sick. Unfortunately, the conditions of the pesthouses at the time would earn far less acclaim.
“Conditions in the pesthouses ranged from okay to horrific, depending on how bad the outbreak was,” Dr. Armstrong said. “There was also the additional bureaucratic burden of staffing and supplying these pesthouses, and this meant a significant outlay on the part of local governments.”
Convincing someone to maintain a building of plague patients and tend to those confined there meant bribing with high pay or pressuring lower-ranking city workers like grave diggers. Additionally, pesthouse staff often contracted plague themselves and would die, presenting the need for their replacement. All of that led to its share of unpleasantness.
“While in the first stages of an outbreak, the pesthouse might be clean, well-kept, and a comfortable place to either recuperate or die, as an outbreak worsened the beds would fill up, the staff would be overworked and unable to keep up, and patients might be made to share beds or, in some cases, lie on the floor,” Dr. Armstrong said. “Data from Florence’s Lazaretto of San Miniato in 1630 show that there were 82 beds assigned to 412 female patients 93 beds for 312 male patients.”
Fortunately, no matter how strict Austria enforces lockdown measures against the unvaccinated, the outlook is far brighter than those in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.