Interesting Laws Passed 400 Years Ago To Combat The Black Death

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With Covid-19 still looming over us, it is easy to forget that all the other epidemics that have happened through history. Today I will be covering some actual laws passed that the people of the time hoped would curb the infection. Lots of their ideas came from their firmly held belief in tradition. Because human brains are excellent at spotting patterns sometimes, they mistake correlation for causation. This leads to some of our more bizarre superstitious tendencies.

‘Airing the Stuff’

In the medieval era, the disease was thought to travel by foul smell. It makes sense from a certain perspective. Cities are filled with lots of people whose waste would cause fowl orders which then led to plagues. It was the population density of the city, but they were onto the right track. There are instructions to air the bedrooms with perfume and burning tobacco. We can see a similar distaste for rotten smells in the banning of stinking fish from the city during the outbreak. It seems strange to us now but if you genuinely thought that the illness was caused by small, wouldn’t you avoid it like the plague?

A big empty stone room with small drabs of light pouring in from the windows.

They banned all plays and closed the bars

Just like today, it was a bad time to be in the performing arts business. Plays were strictly forbidden as the gatherings would lead to a spread of infections. Ballad singers were also disallowed because they would also draw crowds. If you aren’t familiar with ballad singers, think of a busker that sells sheet music and will teach you their songs.

Another similarity with 2020 is the closure of bars and feasts. A similar level of social isolation would have been present to today; they wouldn’t have been able to meet up. Superstitious fear would have also been a significant stress in their daily lives. It’s hard enough to do lockdown with the internet, just imagine going without!

An old image of a tavern, similar to the ones in London of the time

It’s interesting to think that we were implementing disease control measures before we even correctly understood what was causing them. I’m sure that 400 years from now our descendants will look back on some of the things that we’re doing now with similar thoughts.

Sources

For a transcription of the laws passed, visit this blog here:

Cotes, Richard. “ORDERS CONCEIVED AND PUBLISHED BY THE LORD MAYOR AND ALDERMEN OF THE CITY OF LONDON CONCERNING THE INFECTION OF THE PLAGUE, 1665.” Blog Host. Tumblr, 1665. https://brucesterling.tumblr.com/post/612917764072636416/orders-conceived-and-published-by-the-lord-mayor?fbclid=IwAR0RCcEpIrJs0E2PZCYGuuqRsKrhkZwcmlF3dDykqDXRPpKqOa_4jiL-nBg.

For a historical analysis of the nature of the plague, view the paper here:

Fischer, Colby J., “Unequal Implementation: The Impact of Government Anti-Plague Policies on the London Poor in 1665” (2017). UVM Honors College Senior Theses. 178. https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/hcoltheses/178

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