infected, without communication or
intercourse, by a cordon sanitaire, until the epidemic has
burnt itself out. Life under these conditions is portrayed in the
Decameron.1 But this system is impracticable and
restricts social and commercial intercourse. Thus a scheme
developed where the infected were still shunned, but 'suspected'
persons and goods were isolated only for such time as would permit
any latent disease to be exposed. For quasi-religious reasons
forty days was considered adequate for this revelation; thus
quarantine was born.2
Bubonic plague was its great enemy, but later
also yellow fever and cholera. Plague originated in Egypt and the
Levant. It was therefore at the great ports of the Mediterranean
which traded with these countries that quarantine was principally
practised. Venice, Genoa, Leghorn, Spezia, Marseilles, Ancona,
Messina, and others, all had lazarets sited on some spit or island
near the harbour, foreboding and sternly isolated (Plate I).
Communication with the mainland was restricted by solemn and
bizarre precautions, e.g. approaching the lazaret from windward,
wearing special dress, handling letters with long tongs, which
made sense then but are now seen to have been mostly unnecessary
and irrelevant to safety.
QUARANTINE IN BRITAIN
Britain was differently placed since she had
little direct trade with the Levant. Plague had smouldered in the
larger ports, especially London, since the Black Death. 'Plague
orders', first proclaimed in 1518,3 were, in Tudor
times, more concerned with limiting travel within the country
whenever plague deaths increased,4 than in surveilling
shipping. Scotland was an exception trading directly with infected
ports in the Baltic.6 The formation of the Levant
Company shifted the emphasis, and from an Order in Council of 30th
July, 16036 regulations at certain ports were
sporadically enforced,7 and were backed both by medical
G. Boccaccio, The Decameron . . . containing An Hundred
Pleasant Novelles, i (1909), London, David Nutt, author's
2 Forty days was the duration of the
great flood and the fast in the wilderness, and had significance
3 F. P. Wilson, The Plague in
Shakespeare's London, Oxford, Clarendon Press (1927).
4 'Licence to His Majesties'
servants Lawrence Fletcher, William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage
... to exercise the art of playing comedies, tragedies, histories,
interludes, morals, pastorals, stage plays and such like, in all
towns and universities when the infection of the plague shall
decease.' (F. W. Dendy, Extraots from the Privy Seal Dockets
relating chiefly to the North of England, May, 1603, Arch.
Aeliana, xxiv (1903), 184-228.)
5 J. Ritchie, 'Quarantine for plague
in Scotland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries', Edin.
med. J., lv (1948), 691-701.
6 P. Russell, A Treatise of the
Plague, London, G. G. J. and J. Robinson (1791), p. 478.
7 J. Simon, English Sanitary
Institutions, 2nd Edn, London, J. Murray (1897), p. 100.