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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.
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.
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- Why did the bubonic plague spare Milan and Poland - Big Think ›
An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.
- A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
- A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
- Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.
The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.
Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .
The Barry Arm Fjord
Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach
Image source: Matt Zimmerman
The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.
Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest
Image source: whrc.org
There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.
The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.
"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."
Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.
What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord
Moving slowly at first...
Image source: whrc.org
"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."
The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.
Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.
Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.
While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.
Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."
How do you prepare for something like this?
Image source: whrc.org
The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:
"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."
In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.
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Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.
Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.
- A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
- The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
- Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.