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The Quarantine Quarters of Dubrovnik

Social distancing and quarantine are not new concepts. During the Middle Ages, when Europe and Asia were devastated by deadly outbreaks of plague and small pox, physicians had no idea about viruses and bacteria, but they knew enough to isolate the infected to arrest the spread of the disease.

The first official decree to introduce quarantine was by the Republic of Ragusa, now the city of Dubrovnik in southern Croatia. Located on the Adriatic coast, the Republic of Ragusa had an active port through which people and goods entered from all over the world. When plague broke out in the 14th century in countries across the Mediterranean and the Balkans, the Great Council of the Republic passed a legislation according to which all merchants, sailors, and goods arriving from plague-infested areas were required to spend a month in quarantine. Only if it was proven that the person was healthy, after the end of the quarantine period, was he allowed to enter the city.

Lazzarettos of Dubrovnik

Aerial view of Banje Beach in Croatia. The walled buildings on the left are the lazarettos, or quarantine quarters. Photo: dronepicr/Flickr

The city designated three inhabited islands—Mrkan, Bobara and Supetar—located some distance away from the walls of Dubrovnik, where the quarantines had to pass their days. Initially, there were no living quarters on these islands and the suffering of the people, without a roof over their heads, were almost as deadly as the disease itself. The authorities realized this and decided to build a few wooden dwellings. By the mid-15th century, the quarantine quarters had become complex institutes with guards, gravedigger, a priest, barber, and doctors. This was surrounded by a high wall to prevent escapes.

In 1397, the Great Council adopted a new decree, by which the quarantine procedures were made more organized. They appointed three healthcare officers to supervise the implementation and compliance with quarantine provisions. Those who violated the rules or did not comply were penalized with prison sentences. The decree also introduced “lockdown”—the prohibition of goods from entering the Republic for the entire duration of the epidemic. The lockdown slowed the flow of people and goods into the city which negatively affected trade, the source of the city’s livelihood. Yet, authorities felt it was their moral duty to protect the people from the epidemic.

Lazzarettos of Dubrovnik

Lazzarettos of Dubrovnik. Photo: Anamaria Mejia/Shutterstock.com

Originally, the waiting period was fixed at 30 days (a trentine). Later, it was extended to 40 days (a quarantena), thus giving birth to the term “quarantine”. Some scholars suggest that the period was increased because 30 days proved to be insufficient in containing the spread of the disease. Others believe the number 40 had religious significance. When God flooded the earth, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. After Jesus was baptized, he went to the desert and spent forty days in the wild without eating. Whatever be the rationale, the forty-day quarantine proved to be an effective formula for handling outbreaks of the plague. According to current estimates, the bubonic plague had a 37-day period from infection to death.

Despite the measures, in 1526, Dubrovnik was struck by the hardest outbreak of the plague, which completely paralyzed the city for six months. The government relocated Gruz, because Dubrovnik had become too infected to live. Six years later, construction of a large lazaretto (quarantine facilities) began on Lokrum, an island 600 meters from Dubrovnik. In 1590, another lazaretto was built in Ploče, about 2km from Dubrovnik, and completed in 1642. It contained 10 multistory buildings, separated by courtyards and with their own sewage system and guards. All goods that entered the city was aired, fumigated, and soaked. But in their ignorance, no attention was paid to fleas and rats, the primary carrier of the disease. Only brand new, unused goods were allowed into the city, while used goods, such as clothes, went straight to quarantine in the lazaretto together with their owners. The Ragusans took pride in the fact that after construction of the lazaretto, instances of plague fell drastically.

The lazaretto in Ploče still exist, and today are used for recreation and entertainment.

Lazzarettos of Dubrovnik

Lazzarettos of Dubrovnik. Photo: Anamaria Mejia/Shutterstock.com

References:
# https://lazaretihub.com/sites/default/files/preuzimanja/2019-08/Monografija%20LAZARETI%20FINAL%2028.11.%20ENG.pdf
# The Origin of Quarantine, https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/35/9/1071/330421
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lazzarettos_of_Dubrovnik

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