Quarantine rule breakers in 17th-century Italy partied all night – and some clergy condemned the feasting

17th-century outbreaks of plague in Italy reveal both tensions between religious and public health authorities.

How Bubonic plague quarantine rule breakers partied all night
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts between religious freedom and public health regulations have been playing out in courts around the world.


Churches from California to Maine have flouted public health orders by convening in person, indoors, unmasked and accompanied by choirs. When an underground church in South Korea seeded one of the country's largest outbreaks in February, the government responded by arresting its leader for obstructing contact tracers and violating public health regulations.

I am a historian of science and religion in the Renaissance, and what strikes me as remarkable about the current moment is not that some religious communities are defying public health measures, but that so many religious institutions and individuals are piously working to implement them.

Historical accounts from 17th-century outbreaks of plague in Italy reveal both tensions between religious and public health authorities and also examples for collaboration.

Sites of conflict

In the summer of 1630, a plague epidemic packed the plague hospitals known as "lazaretti" with over 15,000 people in Milan. Smaller towns also faced outbreaks that taxed their community resources.

In the Tuscan town of Prato, public health officials were beginning to doubt the wisdom of treating plague patients at the "lazaretto" located within the city walls. They feared a risk of further infection if the healthy were in such close proximity to the sick.

The city officials needed to identify an alternative location that was far enough to keep the city safe, but close enough that they could conveniently move the sick patients. They determined that the Convent of St. Anne, located a couple of kilometers outside town, should serve as the lazaretto and requisitioned it.

The seizure of church property by the nominally secular powers of the Tuscan grand duke infuriated the friars of St. Anne. They petitioned Grand Duke Ferdinando II de' Medici to overturn the act, but he ignored their objections.

This was not because the grand duke was persecuting Catholics – he ruled a Catholic state, and two of his brothers became cardinals. However, during this outbreak of plague, it appeared that the grand duke deemed such emergency measures to be a necessity.

Limits to jurisdiction

However, the grand duke's jurisdiction did have limits. In late-Renaissance cities, civil authorities could punish citizens for public health infractions, but they did not have direct authority over the clergy.

When a priest in Florence broke quarantine by staying out late at night drinking and playing guitar with family members, the health board punished his sisters but not him.

To discipline priests who broke public health laws, civil authorities had to petition local church officials, like bishops, to intervene. For example, as the plague spread in the Tuscan city of Pistoia in September 1630, public health officers resolved to broach with the archbishop the possibility of emptying the fonts of holy water in case they were spreading disease.

Although no records confirm the outcome, throughout this epidemic the archbishop of Florence repeatedly reinforced the importance of the policies of secular health commissioners.

State and religious officials alike were concerned about plague spreading through air, water and wine and curtailed traditional activities to minimize contagion.

Case of Father Dragoni

Much like today, when civil authorities canceled religious services and ceremonies, local protests ensued.

During the plague outbreak of 1631 in the small Tuscan town of Monte Lupo, a fight broke out between the guards tasked with preventing gatherings and a group of armed civilians from the surrounding countryside and their parish priest.

The worshipers insisted on congregating to pray at the crucifix in the local church and threatened to shoot with an arquebus – a long gun used during the Renaissance period – anyone who got in their way.

The health officer tasked with managing the delicate situation at Monte Lupo was a 60-year-old Dominican friar, Father Giovanni Dragoni, who was both a public health officer and a member of the clergy.

Father Dragoni was stated to be furious with the parish priest for his disregard for the public health measures. He promptly dispatched a message to the regional health commissioner: "It is necessary to take measures against these agitators of the people. The evidence is serious, and … the reverend parish priest is largely responsible for these uprisings."

Father Dragoni was unable to prevent the parish priest and congregants from gathering and feasting. He found himself further burdened the next morning with sorting out the events that had followed the procession, when prayer and feasts had turned into late-night drunken parties of revelers who tore down part of the wooden stockade that had been erected to enforce the quarantine.

When the plague outbreak finally ended and the town reopened, Father Dragoni offered the following report on his own actions: "I have not acted unjustly and have accompanied severity with compassion and charity. … In more than a year that I have held this office, no one has died without sacrament or confession."

In a period that has been characterized by faith's opposition to science, Father Dragoni demonstrated through his actions that carrying out public health measures and God's sacraments went hand in hand.

Then and now

Four centuries later, there are similar examples of religious resistance to public health measures and striking examples of religious collaboration with public health regulations.

Although there are instances of church leaders rallying congregants against public health measures, there are far more examples of people and institutions who, like Father Dragoni, bring together religious devotion and disease control.

When the coronavirus swept into Italy in February, the patriarch of Venice – the bishop – promptly complied with the government's edict to cancel Masses, eagerly doing his part to stem the epidemic. And in the Italian churches around Turin that remained open for private prayer, the cisterns of holy water were promptly emptied.

To be clear, there is a long history of religious resistance to public health measures during disease outbreaks. But cooperation between church and state in attempting to stem the spread of disease has its precedents too.The Conversation

Hannah Marcus, Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
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