Dr Alex Bamji on 16th Century quarantine practices in BBC article: The 432-year-old manual on social distancing

Dr Bamji helps BBC Future explain how one 16th Century doctor utilised social distancing practices to contain a plague outbreak the city of Alghero in Sardinia.

“Keep six feet apart, avoid shaking hands and only one person per household should leave to do the shopping”. These are rules we’ve become very familiar with over the past 9 months. Yet, in 1582 citizens of Alghero experienced the same instructions. The 432-year-old manual on social distancing, an article by BBC Future, features the School of History’s Dr Alex Bamji and details the social distancing guidelines issued by a doctor well ahead of his time, despite the broadening in scientific understanding during this age. 

One such guideline which we’re already familiar with was to wash your shopping. The 16th Century saw people begin to better understand how diseases were spread by contact and it became common to disinfect goods as they arrived, especially from ports. Dr Bamji explains, “One of the things that they thought most risky were textiles. But all sorts of things get disinfected, including letters”, and we find evidence of this that can still be seen today. “If smoke and fire were used to disinfect them, you can still find the odd scorch mark here and there”.   

Further, describing the first plague hospitals, lazarettos, established in Venice in 1423, Dr Bamji explains how these part-hospital, part-prison quarantine facilities were “not viewed positively – people at the time often described them as being ‘like hell’”. However, she goes on to caution this may be more reflective of the stigma surrounding them. “Huge amounts of money was spent on them – that’s one thing to say”. They may not have been all gloom as described, as Dr Bamji hints “there’s evidence that the food was pretty good”. 

Dr Alex Bamji is an Associate Professor of Early Modern History in the School of History, she is social and cultural historian of early Modern Europe, with interests in cities, religion, gender and the history of medicine. Her research focuses on religious reform, death and disease in early modern society.