Some of S6 spoilers, about flashbacks to the Great Plague of London 1665 and the episode titled “The Funeral” as well as the latest casting call for the Funeral Director reminded me to write briefly about the measures that were taken during the times of Bubonic plague and establishing a quarantine.
When the Black Death spread through Italy in late 1347, some ports began turning away ships suspected of coming from infected areas. During March the following year, authorities in Venice became the first to formalise such protective actions against plague, closing the city’s waters to suspect vessels, and subjecting travellers and legitimate ships to 30 days’ isolation. This period was extended to 40 days some years later - hence the term quarantine. Further regulations established remote cemeteries for plague victims who in turn were collected, transported and buried in accordance with defined rules. But these measures were too little, too late. Plague took hold and Venetians died in their tens of thousands. Other Italian cities tried similar measures. Further inland, in May 1348 the northern city of Pistoia introduced wide-ranging laws affecting many aspects of daily life. Restrictions on imports and exports, travel, market trading and funerals were all brought in.
Fear of infection led many people to isolate themselves from others, thereby further contributing to social chaos and individual anxiety and depression. The fear for one’s own life and the lives of loved ones was rational and perhaps useful under the circumstances. Rational fear, however, often became transformed into panic, and at times panic led to rage and the adoption of bizarre practices. Some extremists became flagellants, whipping their bodies bloody as they marched from town to town, proclaiming that the plague was a well-deserved punishment from God. Others took the lead in persecuting strangers and minorities as well as those unfortunates who were perceived as witches. As though there was not enough death ready at hand, innocent people were slaughtered because somebody had to be blamed. Medieval medicine was not equal to the challenge of preventing or curing the plague, so there was a ready market for magic and superstition. So great was the labour of burying the dead, little wonder that fear seized the stoutest hearts, and the people dreading infection ran into the houses as the corpses were carried past. No outside help could be had for love or money.
The church-yards were soon unable to contain the dead, and many houses, left without inhabitants, fell to ruins. In Avignon, the Pope found it necessary to consecrate the Rhone, that bodies might be thrown into the river without delay, as the church-yards would no longer hold them.
In Vienna, where for some time twelve hundred inhabitants died daily, the interment of corpses in the church-yards and within the churches was forthwith prohibited, and the dead were than arranged in layers, by thousands, in six large pits outside the city. In many places it was rumored that plague patients were buried alive, and thus the horror of the distressed people was everywhere increased. In Erfurt, after the church-yards were filled, twelve thousand corpses were thrown into eleven great pits; and the like might be stated with respect to all the larger cities. Funeral ceremonies, the last consolation of the survivors, were everywhere impracticable.
During the Great Plague of London, the regulations further enjoined that the houses which the plague had visited were to be marked with a red cross on the middle of the door one foot in length, and the words “Lord have mercy on us” to be also inscribed. In view of the regulation that none might follow to the grave, the corpse was hurried out of the house at night, wrapped in any sort of an improvised shroud, to be committed to the pits, with, or more likely without, a muttered prayer from the labourer already accustomed to the sickening sight of wholesale slaughter.
Liberal libations of beer and tobacco and good pay were the only consolations of a sorely tried official, who, from force of circumstances, or some sense of duty, was pressed into this service.