The 432-year-old manual on social distancing

(Image credit: Bildagentur-online/Alamy)

By Zaria Gorvett 8th January 2021

In this spookily prescient booklet, people are advised to keep six feet apart, avoid shaking hands and only send one person per household out to do the shopping.

As we head towards the end of another extraordinary year, BBC Future is taking a look back at some of our favourite stories for our “Best of 2021” collection. 

It was the dead of night in mid-November 1582. A sailor stepped onto the dock at the port of Alghero, Sardinia, and took in the view of the city for the last time.

The unfortunate mariner is thought to have arrived from Marseille, 447km (278 miles) across the Mediterranean Sea. The plague had been raging there for a year – and it seems that he had brought it with him. He was already delirious, and suffering from the characteristic swellings that marked out the disease, known as buboes, in his groin area.

And yet, somehow the sailor managed to get past the plague guardians, or Morbers, whose job it was to stop those who had any symptoms. He made it into the city. Within days, he was dead and an outbreak had begun.

At this point, many of the people of Alghero were already doomed. Based on official records from the time, one 18th-Century historian estimated that the epidemic led to 6,000 deaths, leaving only 150 people alive. In reality, it’s thought that the epidemic killed 60% of the city’s population. (The exaggeration may have been an attempt by the government of the time to avoid tax.) 

Mass graves sprung up, some of which remain to this day – long trenches filled with the bones of up to 30 people at a time.

It could have been worse, however. The surrounding districts were largely spared – unusually, the contagion remained in Alghero and vanished within eight months. It’s thought this was all down to one man and his prescient conception of social distancing.

“It is perhaps a bit surprising to find this knowledgeable doctor in this rather parochial town,” says Ole Benedictow, emeritus professor of history at the University of Oslo, who co-authored a paper on the subject. “You would expect for measures to be introduced more strictly in the big commercial towns, such as Pisa and Florence. But this doctor, he was in the front of his time. It’s quite impressive.”

Live chickens and urine

The most notorious plague episode in history was of course, The Black Death, which swept across Europe and Asia in 1346, killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

In Florence, the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca didn’t think future generations would be able to grasp the scale of the devastation. He wrote: “O happy posterity, who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable.” The remains of the plague’s victims are regularly unearthed as part of tunnelling projects today, such as Crossrail in London. Records suggest that there are 50,000 bodies hidden under Farringdon alone.


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