History, Top Stories

Social Distancing During the Black Death

One of the comforts of studying history is that, no matter how bad things get, you can always find a moment in the past when things were much, much worse. Some commentators on our current crisis have been throwing around comparisons to earlier pandemics, and the Black Death of 1347 — 50 inevitably gets mentioned. Please. The Black Death wiped out half the population of Europe in the space of four years. In some places the mortality was far swifter and deadlier than that. The novelist Giovanni Boccaccio, who gave us the most vivid picture of the Black Death in literature, estimated that 100,000 people died in Florence in the four months between March and July 1348. The population of the city in 1338, according to one contemporary chronicler, stood at 120,000.

Boccaccio at the time was a city tax official and saw the whole thing at ground level. Every morning bodies of the dead—husbands, wives, children, servants—were pushed out into the street where they were piled on stretchers, later on carts. They were carried to the nearest church for a quick blessing, then trundled to graveyards outside the city for burial. As the death toll rose, traditional burial practices were abandoned. Deep trenches were dug into which bodies were dumped in layers with a thin covering of soil shoveled on top. Boccaccio writes that “no more respect was accorded the dead than would today be shown to dead goats.”

Like COVID-19, the disease spread with bewildering rapidity, but unlike in the modern pandemic, it infected everyone, young and old, rich and poor, not mainly the old and infirm. And again unlike the current virus, the effects of bubonic plague were particularly humiliating. Tumor-like growths as big as apples, called “bubos,” would appear in the groin or armpit. Gangrenous blotches would appear on hands and feet causing the skin to turn black and die. The victims would start coughing up blood, all their bodily fluids stank and their breath became putrid. “The stench of dead bodies, sickness and medicines seemed to fill and pollute the whole atmosphere.” There was no dying with dignity during the Black Death.

It’s no surprise that a kind of extreme social distancing became the norm, even without urging from governments. Boccaccio’s stories are shocking. Everyone ran in panic from the sick. Neighbors shunned neighbors, relatives relatives. Children abandoned elderly parents and priests their flocks. Incredibly, “even fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their own children, as though they did not belong to them.” Some reacted by locking themselves up with a few friends in some comfortable place stocked with food and fine wines. They would entertain themselves with music and refuse to receive any news of the dead. Others, often those without the means to escape, became fatalistic and began looting the houses of the dead, stuffing themselves with food and drink, heedless of the risks of infection.

It is not yet certain that COVID-19 will become the fifth endemic coronavirus in the world today. The far more deadly bubonic plague long remained endemic in Europe, turning pandemic again some 17 times before its last outbreak in 1664 — 67—about once a generation. Over time a kind of bush telegraph developed in cities to keep track of new outbreaks. Transmitting news of the plague became a regular topic of private and public correspondence. The questions sound familiar to us now: Has the plague come to Bologna? How long has it been there? How many are infected? How many have died? Has a quarantine been imposed? Public authorities, predictably, took drastic measures to isolate the sick. In Venice, physicians were forbidden to leave the city during plague—as today, there was no social distancing for medical personnel. Plague doctors were required to wear the premodern equivalent of the hazmat suit: a long linen gown, a hat covering the hair, eyeglasses, and a mask with a long beak containing antidotes and perfumes to mask the stench of death. Today, the plague doctor’s dress still exists as a popular costume during Carnival.

Were there any silver linings to so horrible a pestilence? There were surely a few, though some of them remain speculative even now. Florentine Republicans began to appreciate Madonna Peste (Lady Pestilence) when she carried off their great nemesis, the duke of Milan, in 1402, at a critical moment during their long war with the great tyrant. After the Black Death there was an “inheritance effect” that led to far greater concentrations of wealth among those who survived. Some modern historians have claimed that this concentrated wealth led to an upmarket “investment in culture” that made possible the Renaissance itself. That’s a bit of a stretch.

Plague Doctor (wikicommons)

But there was one lasting benefit of plague that is with us still. In Renaissance Italy, the most effective form of social distancing turned out to be villeggiatura—withdrawing from the city to a country farm or villa and waiting for the pestilence to subside. After the first few outbreaks of plague in the later 1300s, many city folk began to invest in country estates, in part to secure reliable food supplies for their families in times of crisis. They began to spend more time in the country, especially during the hot summer months when the plague was at its worst. The Medici eventually owned 27 villas in the Tuscan countryside, many of them designed and decorated by leading architects like Giuliano da Sangallo and painters like Filippino Lippi and Jacopo Pontormo. Villa life became generally popular for wealthier bourgeois families, and over time a villa culture developed. Boccaccio’s Decameron provided an early literary model. It depicted a group of noble young men and women escaping to the hills outside Florence during the plague, entertaining each other with witty stories, song, and dancing. Renaissance literati, being passionate lovers of antiquity, adored Cicero and longed to imitate the urbane conversations on literature and philosophy he described in his dialogues, held in his classical villa at Tusculum. Even the less sophisticated learned to enjoy more spacious living in the country, reading in cool, manicured gardens or viewing scenic landscapes. They began to cultivate summer sports, musical events, and festivals. The summer vacation was born.


James Hankins is a professor of Renaissance history at Harvard University.

Featured image: “Bring Out Your Dead” courtesy of  Wellcome Images


  1. Medical advances and technology are so much more advanced than at the times of the Black death. All new news and developments back then were slow to spread, unlike the plague itself.
    Panic must of been extreme, as once you contracted the virus you knew certain horrific death was to follow. Human behaviour hasn’t changed since then, and now the monetary system weighs heavily on any decisions made.
    How can we pass through this pandemic whilst leaving our normal way of life intact? With historical accounts of the plague, and medical and technological advances, plus the speed to gather information, we ought to be able to act collectively to get the best outcome. But will those in power use this pandemic to herd people in a direction that will be much less favourable than what we have now?

  2. “Today, the dominant explanation for the Black Death is the plague theory, which attributes the outbreak to Yersinia pestis, also responsible for an epidemic that began in southern China in 1865, eventually spreading to India.” - Wikipedia

    China needs to get its shit together. While it is terribly misguided to attack random Chinese people on the street for this, we all know where this came from and sterile terms emerging from the mouths of politicians can’t change that. A plague by any other name still stinks. China owes reparations to the world it sickened.

  3. And speaking of responsible behavior in the face of a looming pandemic:

    In Spain, despite urgent warnings of the growing danger of Corona, many women’s marches took place on 8th March, the largest of which was in Madrid. As a result, two ministers and countless participants were infected with the virus :

    Earlier this month, tens of thousands marched in Spain to commemorate International Women’s Day, defying warnings that such large gatherings could spread the new coronavirus, which had already infected hundreds of people in the Mediterranean country. Four days later, two government ministers who participated in the march were diagnosed with the virus and the number of known infections in Spain had quintupled to almost 3,000. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s wife, who attended the demonstration, also tested positive.

    By now, the number of infected people in Spain has risen to 72,335 and the number of deaths to 5,820.

    Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari (Nobel Peace Prize 2008) is also infected with the coronavirus. He was infected by his wife, who in turn had been infected, among many others, at a concert on International Women’s day.

    At the same day, the police in Switzerland , a neighboring country of Italy, tolerated an actually unauthorized demonstration of feminists. Today the country is the world leader in terms of the number of cases per capita.

    You have to set priorities. I hope it was worth it.

  4. I think this article is instructive. True, we are not facing something as serious as the Black Death, that is good, but our society today is so much more complex and we are many times more interdependent. I am deeply worried about what is headed for us right around the corner. In the 15th century, despite the plague, many people could survive because most were farmers. Even right up until the Great Depression most people worked in agriculture. However miserable the Great Depression was, most people could at least grow their own food and make by hand many of the things they needed. It was no picnic, to be sure, but when I hear pundits right now saying things like “oh well, it looks like we are just going to have another Great Depression, ho-hum, no big deal, we can deal with that”, well, I become terrified. Things could get really bad really fast for millions of people. We take for granted that enough food will make it to cities with millions of people totally dependent on farmers. We have governors and a president casually making ad hoc policy about “essential and non-essential” workers. This is risky and short sighted in the extreme. To take one example, Transportation is critical for food supply, we are not just dealing with farming here. Therefore fuel also is critical. Then, the parts and repair work for trucks and trains also become essential, which makes all raw materials essential too, etc. Where do you stop? What is not essential besides maybe cinema and cafes, although good arguments can be made for those too? I do not trust politicians to make this kind of decision. We can realistically only shut down so much of the economy today without taking a huge gamble that could result in catastrophe for millions.

  5. Yes, I remember seeing one such parade in Dublin and been particularly galled by witnessing it. Hundreds of protesters tightly packed together many of whom were Spanish. What right I felt did they have as Spanish citizens who are wealthy enough to study here to protest how women are treated in my country. How self absorbed I thought to insist on “ your right to protest” at such a time.

    A generation of activists who have never experienced any real hardship . Unfortunately the whole womens marches on the 8th March remains a fitting metaphor for the self absorption and the obsession over the wrong things of the times.

  6. There was a key difference between our time and the time of the plague - the presence of the older citizens who do not work.

    Quillette published a piece on “luxury beliefs” in Nov, 2019. These are defined as “Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.” We have those with the current plague - a vast number of older persons are saying “DO NOT OPEN THE ECONOMY”. That’s because they get paid by pension or Social Security regardless of how the economy is doing. This is the very essence of a “luxury belief” - they want nothing but medical safety. Mostly they don’t give a shit about the single mom with the 2 kids who works as a waitress.

    The working poor, who have small children, are the ones who will be sacrificed in this. And also the persons who own small restaurants, bars, breweries, and other such places. In my small town, we have 8 small breweries. My guess is that 4 of the 8 will not survive. A small brewery was built 1/2 M from my house. Traffic is down, way down to that brewery.

    Yes, no one wants to die. I don’t want to die - I am 67, wife is 71, mom is 93. We are all in the higher-risk group. But even for Mom the risk is 15-20%. Not great but not certain death.

    There is a lot of exaggeration going on, a lot of hysteria, a lot of panicking.

  7. Don’t know about the rest of the “Western Countries” but here in the US our federal government was 100% consumed by Impeachment. Alas, democracy died in darkness (again! sad …). There was no have time for pondering trivialities like the approaching Wuhan Flu. In fact, to even suggest Social Distancing people from China was RACIST.


  8. Thanks, good to know it even happens in the US. In fact, I,m surprised it isn’t tried more often, hide out in the quiet , less populous and fresh country (Vermont? with all those hobby farmers??). In the NLs, very few people still have family or relations in the rural, as in NwYork, I think. But even in France, and certainly in Spain, Greece and Italy, quite normal. I can understand that not everybody would be happy with the city dwellers right now, though!

  9. The Not Welcome sign is up everywhere across America.

    Even in lonely Wydaho, where I live:

    Keep in mind that “Wyoming” is an old Native American (“First Nation” in Canadian) term meaning “Social Distancing”

    We also have a home on Kauai, but if we tried to get there, we’d be hunted down, killed, and forced into 14 days quarantine without access to food (in that order):

    Outsiders are unclean and need to stay out. If you are not already here, you are an outsider. Even if you live here, you are an outsider if you are not here.

  10. Social distancing is the slowing down of severe cases so that the medical system will not get so overwhelmed with greater numbers…which it has…to a point. I can see that aspect of it.

    Social distancing if you have the virus is common sense. But it is serious when they have to tell people to do this…

    There is no place on earth to hide from this, virus, herd immunity is the only thing that will save you, unless you are going to lock yourself away for the rest of your life, waiting for new vaccine and then each year, its updated versions of that yet to be discovered vaccine.

    I would say that if anyone has had the flu this season, without a hospital visit confirming it was H1N1 or influenza B, or some other version, then there is the high possibility you might have had it…and did not realize it.

    There are somewhere in the range of 320,000 human viruses, of one type or another out there. It is theorized that about 12,000 years ago humanity changed the way it interacts with itself which gave new avenues of opportunity for viruses to thrive. We are the living result of that 12,000 journey.

    Nature and natural selection are fair, everyone gets a chance, but only the very best must go forward. Humanity must be strengthened, not weakened.
    And really, 33,000 deaths ‘Globally’ isn’t a plague, is it?

    6000 years ago black plague went through a civilization that was a heartbreaking thing to have witnessed. We as humans are still here…and the plague has followed us.

    But Covid is not a plague, it is big pharma and other opportunists taking advantage of a good crisis.

    Covid it is believed was discovered in late 2019, and pinned on a pangolin as the usual suspect for it…but limited research has been done on its genesis or whence it came. Future research will/might tell the truth…but I wouldn’t wait for it.
    It is highly possible that this particular virus had been around the world once, before the publicized outbreak, it could have been around for quite a while? It’s discovery date and place and not evidence of its genesis – I know numbers of people who had bad flu around Christmas and into the new years, numbers of my family have had it, as I have – could it possibly have been Covid?

    Not all flu season deaths are autopsied or confirmed as the flu virus cause of their pneumonia, many times because of cost and backlog, and flu having its own season? That flu is confirmed by a X-ray and/or the usual flu symptoms shown. Not all people go to the doctor if they have the flu. They deal with it until it becomes too serious, and then seek medical help.

    This idea of super-spreaders is a dangerous misconception, schoolchildren in modern society are the worst of super spreaders if it comes to that…but the term is becoming a weaponized buzzword. And the mob mentality loves weaponized buzzwords.

    The cure it seems for Covid is potato soup, common sense, and a no-fear attitude.

  11. What I got from my time in Spain is that the populace has a Pavlovian protest response to just about anything and everything. They just start swarming and yelling, either for or against.

    They are crowd people by nature. I remember walking into a bar that was blessedly half empty and sighing in relief, while the Spanish friend I was with was horrified by all that non-peopled space. If they can’t jostle, it just ain’t worth it.

  12. No, actually there is a huge amount of panic and hysteria. In every state of the USA in which there is virus (that is, all states), there are many many many places with no virus. In my state, there are perhaps 400 towns, many of which are completely safe. In IL, there are hundreds of towns, and many of those are completely safe. A rational process would have 1) kept such towns open 2) had anyone who traveled in from outside self-isolate for 14 days and 3) change to full-on isolation after some number of cases (10 maybe) were found. Instead, the response in most states that lockdown has been to lockdown EVERYWHERE. This maximizes medical safety, but is going to absolutely destroy a ton of small businesses.

    The WHOLE POINT of the “flatten the curve” IS NOT to kill off the virus. It’s to slow the spread. We will likely all or most of us get the virus, unless there is a vaccine.

  13. No, not at all. You need to practice deep breathing, and not jump into the deep water before you can swim. I am actually a biostatistician with multiple articles in the medical literature, and work in a med school in an adjunct manner.

    It’s possible for intelligent people to keep several thoughts in their mind at the same time. You may wish to try that.

  14. This article highlights the irresponsible hype surrounding the current flu outbreak. How is a 0.3% mortality cyclical flu in any way comparable to the bubonic plague at 50% or better? In any case, even during the 14th century, social distancing did not work, even for the most affluent. In the town where I went to school, the ruling count had a tunnel excavated that ran from his castle residence under the gardens and pond to a place outside the fortifications so he and his family could get away to their hunting lodge in the woods. They got it anyway (fleas stay in clothing). Where I am hunkered down right now, the local fishermen congregate after dark as they have always done and merrily sterilize their throats.

  15. This hasn’t aged well.

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