Advancements in Transportation Do Not Increase the Speed of the Plague
One fact about the bubonic plague that is hard to understand is that it spread faster during the middle ages then bubonic plagues traveled in the 20th century. Today it is widely believed that the Black Death spread at a rate of a mile per day and other estimates put its rate closer to 8 miles a day. This is somewhat staggering when you consider the rate of travel for plagues of the 20th century.
Scientists in South Africa, New Orleans and other areas that were hit by the bubonic plague in the 20th century created experiments that would allow them to track and clock the speed of the plague that was occurring. What they found was that the plague in the 20th century was moving no faster than 8 miles a year. So even with high speed trains, cars and planes the rate of spread of the bubonic plague was much slower in the modern era that it was during the medieval era.
While some might credit this to better hygiene or medical treatment, that does not really affect the spread of the plague. The modern bubonic plague was a rodent disease and it was spread by the house rat. In the modern era it is rare for a home to have rats and if one is seen, it is typically dealt with rather quickly. So, with few rats around to transfer and spread the plaque, it moves at a snail’s pace compared to the medieval era. Some of this does have to do with cleanlier habits around the home but it also shows that even as the speed of transportation increased it did not increase the rate of spread of the bubonic plague in local areas.
One of the interesting myths about the Black Death is that nothing could stop the spread of the plague. The truth is much more interesting because some cities were able to do things that saved large portions of their population but their methods were brutal at best. One of the most successful cities at stopping the spread of the bubonic plague was Milan.
Milan was already at an advantage over other areas of Europe because they had better hygiene habits and they were not particularly superstitious. The lack of superstition is important because it meant that they did not bleed a person that was sick (and therefore spread the disease) but rather did something far worse for the patient. If a person was found to have the plague the entire home would be walled up. All the windows and doors would be bricked shut, along with anyone inside – whether or not they were infected. This strict method of quarantine largely stopped the spread.
Another way that Milan took efforts to protect themselves was to close off the city. The city was already surrounded by walls and therefore they closed the gates and would not let anyone into the city. Merchants delivering goods would have to leave the goods outside the gate and step away while guards retrieved the goods and left money from the merchants.
Quarantine efforts and border patrols were the reason the plague stopped spreading and would eventually prevent future plagues from breaking out as the practice spread. During the bubonic plague people would carry health ID cards that would identify the person and where they came from. Spies would then travel throughout Europe and report cities and areas that were being affected. Cities would then know who could be allowed to enter the city. Venice was also effective at restricting shipping until it could be verified that the boat and its sailors were not bringing the plague with them.
The phrase “Quarantine” comes from an Italian variant of “quaranta giorni” which means forty days. It refers to the period that ships would be placed into isolation before passengers and crew could be allowed to go ashore. But even though the phrase is Italian, they were not the first ones to impose a quarantine or come up with the forty-day period. In 1377, the city of Ragusa (present day Dubrovnik in Croatia) imposed a 30 day wait period for all new comers (a trentine). The newcomers would be kept in a restricted place like the nearby islands where they were watched to see if any symptoms of the Black Death occurred. It was later decided that the isolation period should be increased to 40 days and thus the quarantine.
Ragusa was very progressive in its attempts to protect itself from the plague. And with the success of their quarantine of ships and newcomers the practice quickly spread throughout Europe. It would become common practice in future outbreaks but the period of quarantine would be adjusted as knowledge about the diseases increased. In Milan during the plague of 1557 – 75 they decided that it was sufficient enough to isolate all newcomers to the city for a period of 8 days rather than forty.
One of the reasons why Venice and Italy are credited for being the ones to create quarantine is because they embraced the practice and took the lead on finding ways to combat the plague. They appointed three guardians of public health in the first years of the plague in 1348. They created hospitals solely for the treatment of plague victims and they created the first lazaret. Lazarets are quarantine stations for maritime travelers that would allow them to wait out their quarantine period in relative comfort. Lazarets were set up all ports not only in Italy but throughout Europe following Venice’s lead.