Even without the benefit of modern medical knowledge, our ancestors knew well enough that you catch infectious diseases from other people, and that the best way to protect yourself and your family was to isolate. Accounts of the great epidemic outbreaks in history are scattered with reports of people locking themselves away, or moving to the relative safety of rural areas.
It also became a matter of good municipal government to have a building on the edge of town for the quarantine of people with communicable disease. These came with a number of names – fever sheds, lazar houses, pest houses. In 17th-century Bristol, one of the pest houses went by the discouraging name of Forlorn Hope.
History also tells us that until fairly recent times, most people faced epidemics of one kind or another. Many of history’s best-known figures sooner or later found themselves in lockdown, whether self-imposed or compulsory. Here, we explore a few of the more notable figures – and how they coped…
Pope Clement VI
Clement VI (born Pierre Roger, 1291–1352) was the fourth of the seven medieval Popes who resided at Avignon rather than Rome. A cultured and worldly political operator, he enjoyed all the good things in life and raised members of his own family to high church office (including a nephew who was made a Cardinal at the age of 18).
It’s repeatedly said of Clement that when the Black Death struck, he self-isolated in a room, placing himself between two enormous fires which burned day and night.
If he actually did this (and Avignon is pretty hot in summer anyway), it just might have afforded some protection from fleas carrying the disease. But we don’t seem to know for sure if he followed the advice at all. If he did, it might not have been for very long.
“A Pope should make his subjects happy,” he declared, and for all his high-living and low corruption, Clement’s response to the Black Death was humane and energetic.
He set astrologers and medical men to examine the plague (one of the physicians identified the difference between bubonic and pneumonic plague), and decreed that all who died of plague would be granted remission from their sins, something which would have been a huge comfort in a very religious age.
He consecrated the Rhône river so that bodies dumped in it were nonetheless in ‘holy ground’, and condemned anyone blaming Jews for the pestilence, pointing out that it was killing them just as much as Christians. In the town itself he supervised care for the sick and burial of the dead. While he was doing all this, the plague carried off something between a quarter and a third of his own staff and cardinals.
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The Black Death was the indirect inspiration for one of Renaissance Europe’s greatest works of literature, The Decameron.
The premise of the collection of stories is that a group of young men and women meet up at a church in Florence, where the Black Death is raging. They arrange to flee the city and shelter in a country villa where they entertain one another by each telling everyone one story a day for ten days.
The Decameron is a diverse collection of stories of wit and greed, love and loss, comedy and tragedy and was written (and in original form, possibly also illustrated) by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–75).
Boccaccio was a very Renaissance Italy sort of character – variously a lawyer, businessman, diplomat and scholar, and of course poet. We’re not exactly sure whether he self-isolated during the plague, though he was probably in Florence for some of the time. The plague killed his father, leaving him a somewhat diminished family fortune, and it was probably this which permitted him the time to write The Decameron, which was completed in around 1453.
The history of Tudor and Stuart England is punctuated by outbreaks of plague, and by monarchs leaving the capital for safety. Sometimes they tried to deter anyone from London following them; when Elizabeth I moved to Windsor to avoid an outbreak, a gallows was erected outside as a warning not to enter.
Arguably it was Henry VIII who lived in greatest fear of disease. Despite the strong image he sought to portray, he was also a hypochondriac who spent much time studying medicine and even devised his own cures and potions, offering advice and medication to anyone he thought needed it.
(His daughter Elizabeth did this, too, though she was less neurotic and indeed survived a bout of smallpox early in her reign.)
Aside from plague, Henry had a particular dread of the Sweating Sickness, a mysterious ailment which killed tens of thousands during the reigns of Henry and his father. It seems to have particularly affected England and was recognised at the time as being different to plague. It still baffles medical historians, though it’s currently believed it may have been a viral infection similar to the hantavirus.
In 1517 Henry escaped the Sweating Sickness by leaving London and ended up spending the summer moving with a small entourage from one place to another. By December they had almost run out of food because he refused to buy from any supplier who might have been in contact with the disease. By December that year Henry and his little court were in Southampton awaiting a shipment of provisions from Flanders.
Another outbreak in 1528 saw him on the move once more, moving from one place to another. When he heard that his beloved Anne Boleyn was ill with the sickness he refused to visit her, though he did send her a love letter and one of his surgeons.
Plague ran through William Shakespeare’s life like a thread. As an infant he survived an outbreak that carried off a hefty portion of the population of Stratford-on-Avon, and as a playwright he would have seen the theatres in London closed a number of times due to the periodic epidemics that blighted the capital through the Tudor and Stuart eras.
Biographical details of the bard’s life are scant, but we know plenty about the times he lived in, and Shakespeare scholars have speculated about the effects of outbreaks on him. Theatre closures would have affected his income, but they would have also given him time to write.
One belief is that King Lear, one of his most dejected and sorrowful plays, was written during the London outbreak of 1606. Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra date from the same period.
Before this, it’s possible that Measure for Measure, Othello, and All’s Well that Ends Well were products of another outbreak that saw theatres closed in 1603–4.
Previously, in the 1590s, he seems to have had a huge creative burst, with the Chamberlain’s Men performing The Comedy of Errors; Richard II; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labour’s Lost, plus possibly the ‘lost’ Shakespeare play Love’s Labour’s Won, all within about 12 months. Some or all must have been at least partly written during the closure of theatres between mid-1592 and mid-1594, again due to plague.
What we know for sure is that Shakespeare knew all about plague, and about lockdowns. As the characterFriar John in Romeo and Juliet relates:
Going to find a barefoot brother out,
One of our order, to associate me,
Here in this city visiting the sick,
And finding him, the searchers of the town,
Suspecting that we both were in a house
Where the infectious pestilence did reign,
Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth.
Isaac Newton was studying at Cambridge when the university closed in August 1665 because of the Great Plague. He returned to his home at Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire to study in private.
Between 1665 and the spring of 1667 when he returned to Cambridge, he had an astonishing burst of energy and insights that formed the basis of most of his later career, including work on calculus and optics. This was also when a falling apple is supposed to have provided the lightbulb moment for work on gravity.
Newton himself later observed: “All this was in the two plague years of 1665–1666. For in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention and minded Mathematicks & Philosophy more than at any time since.”
Bal Gangadhar Tilak
Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856–1920) was one of the most influential founders of the campaign to liberate India from British control. A key root of the movement was the British authorities’ response to a plague outbreak.
In 1897, in response to a plague outbreak, the British authorities brought in very harsh and heavy-handed methods, including compulsory segregation of suspected sufferers, forced entry into private homes and the destruction of personal possessions of suspected infectees, even the poorest people.
While the measures appeared to have succeeded, they caused great resentment and were condemned by Tilak in his newspaper, which served the city of Pune. Following the assassination of a British officer and an official, he was convicted of sedition. Upon his release from prison in Mumbai he was hailed as a hero and martyr.
In succeeding years Tilak became one of the most important – and certainly the most radical – leaders of the independence struggle, and would go on to serve another, longer prison sentence. Mahatma Gandhi, who later inherited the mantle of nationalist leadership, called Tilak “the maker of modern India”.
Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863–1944), troubled all his life by mental health issues, painted numerous self-portraits. When the disease that became known as Spanish Flu struck at the end of the First World War, he was already living a fairly solitary life, though this did not stop him catching it.
His ‘Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu’ was a haunting depiction of a lonely figure, and just about the only famous work of art to come out of a global pandemic that is estimated to have killed well over 40 million people worldwide.
A subsequent painting, ‘Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu’ is less well-known.
Irish-born Mary Mallon (1869–1938) worked as a cook in a series of well-to-do houses in New York in the early 1900s, where members of the household invariably went down with typhoid fever. Typhoid was relatively unknown in the city at the time, and eventually a medical researcher named George Soper tracked her down and identified her as a carrier of the disease who did not display any symptoms herself.
She was held against her will at a clinic for three years and upon her release, undertook to never take employment as a cook again. But working as a laundress did not pay so well, so she changed her name and reverted to her former profession – and once more people started going down with typhoid.
When she was eventually tracked down in 1915, she was quarantined in a hospital for the rest of her life, becoming a minor, and tragic, celebrity as ‘Typhoid Mary’.
Eugene Byrne is a historian, fiction writer and journalist specialising in the history of the British Isles.
This article was first published in April 2020