Coping with Pandemics in the Middle Ages

Coping with Pandemics in the Middle Ages 

Written by Ken Mondschein, a history professor at Anna Maria College.
The following is an excerpt from Ken’s article posted on


By far, one of the most stressful things about the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t fear of falling ill, but the psychological toll—not just in terms of isolation from “social distancing,” but simply feeling a lack of control over the situation.

Medieval people differed from us in their ways of coping with a pandemic, but they felt similar helplessness. Of course, they did not have the advantage of Pasteur’s germ theory, so they did not practice social distancing—though they did know that disease spread from person-to-person contact and practiced quarantines. In fact, the word “quarantine” comes from the early fifteenth-century Venetian law that required ships from plague-affected cities to wait off the coast of Venice for forty days (quaranta giorni) before discharging passengers and cargo. In this, the Venetians were following the example of their former colony of Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik in Croatia), which was a major power in the eastern Mediterranean.

Such quarantines tended to be communal in nature—for instance, shutting off a city from outsiders (though Milan escaped much of the devastation of the Black Death when the Visconti dukes walled victims up into their homes—a sort of internal exile). So, too, did methods of psychological coping tend to be communal. Foremost amongst these were liturgical rituals such as processions and prayer—particularly to saints who were said to have power over disease. Of course, today, we have our own personal Coronavirus rituals, such as hand-washing, checking in on friends and family, and incessantly posting on Facebook. These, however, are highly individualistic responses, and differ from the medieval tendency towards collective action.

Processions are a great example of this medieval communal tendency. Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540–605) famously held a “seven pronged procession,” or letania septiformis, during the plague of 590, sometimes called the First Plague Pandemic or Justinian’s Plague. Seven groups of Romans, organized by clerical or lay status, marital status, and gender, met at different churches to come together in one statement of community solidarity at Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. The contemporary chronicler Gregory of Tours relates that eighty people died during the march; supposedly, the Archangel Michael appeared on top of Hadrian’s tomb and sheathed his sword, signalling the end of the plague. The building has since been known as Castel Sant’Angelo...

To read the entire article, please visit

From Classroom to Kitchen Table
From the President - March 23rd Update

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to