📑 Brilliance and Blind Luck: How Did Medieval Europe Invent the Concept of Quarantine?

Bookmarked Brilliance and Blind Luck: How Did Medieval Europe Invent the Concept of Quarantine? (Literary Hub)

A merchant in 15th-century Ragusa wanted to bring his goods into the city as quickly as possible, rather than sit for a month on a rocky island. The sick of 17th-century Venice would rather stay in their homes than be shipped off to a plague hospital. Plenty of Americans chose to party in August at South Dakota’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally rather than shelter in place. Quarantine was as successful as it was only because the governments of both Venice and Ragusa were among the most competent of their day. In fact, in many ways they look better than the US or UK government did at the outbreak of COVID-19. When governments are less capable, quarantine and social distancing are harder to enforce.

Edward Glaeser and David Cutler discuss the roll of quarantine in managing disease carried via trade.

The Ragusans didn’t just establish Europe’s first quarantine. They created a shared strength to protect the city: elected public health officials were empowered with broad authority to enforce these and other rules. In 1390, the city appointed officiales contra venientes de locis pestiferis (officials against travelers from places of plague). After 1397, these health officers were elected annually and, after 1426, they served without pay. Ragusa, like Venice, was an aristocratic republic, and its leadership positions, including the plague fighters, were almost exclusively patricians. Venice followed Ragusa’s lead in 1486, and “by the middle of the 16th century all the major cities of Northern Italy had permanent Magistracies of public health.”

It is a reminder of the political nature of the response.

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