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A Close Look at Spain’s 1817 Health Guidelines: Avoiding the Spread of Disease

The following is a guest post by Alice Pérez Ververa, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a current student of the Information School at the University of Washington.

This document was a mandate with 24 instructions written by Spanish government and health authorities on handling the spread of bubonic plague in Spain near coastal towns and ports. Ensuring the health and safety of the public through ordinances was as important in 1817 as it is in 2020. Interested in reading the entire document in English? You can read the entire English translation here.

Before the age of social distancing, quarantining, shelter-in-place orders, hand sanitizer, and mask-wearing there was isolation in open fields, lazarettos, health ballots, and soaking your mail in vinegar. Travel back 200 years and you would find people dealing with their pandemic in that way. In 1817, the Spanish government sent instructions to local governments declaring the outbreak of plague after reports of a wave of the bubonic plague hitting northern Africa near Algiers, Bona, and other towns. This declaration, contained in the above “instructions”, was targeted at the Spanish coastal towns and seaports which saw a lot of traffic back then. The guidelines put in place by the Spanish government during this time are strikingly similar to what we are currently practicing.

The plague has been interwoven throughout history. The Black Death dates back to the 14th century, when it scarred Europe, killing half the population, and sent civilization into the Dark Ages. Spain, wanting to avoid another catastrophe such as that, published several laws and guidelines to help combat the spread of the bubonic plague.

At the start of my research, I first had to transcribe the above document, which is part of the Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents crowdsourcing campaign, and then translate it into modern Spanish and finally to English. I was interested in researching the similarities and differences between some of the health guidelines made in 1817 and 2020 on preventing the spread of infectious diseases. The similarities include the acknowledgment of getting sick through various modes of transmission (in-person, mail, enclosed spaces, and travel) and the practice of social distancing and quarantining. One of the major differences between then and now was the larger role played by the church and the military. The church was responsible for monitoring and reporting of suspicious cases or symptoms within the church and their parishioners. Meanwhile, the military had  more overt control over how people moved around the country, specifically the use of military and naval forces to enforce quarantine policies.

Modes of Transmission 

Meeting in-person, mail, enclosed spaces, and travel were viewed as high-risk activities by the Spanish government, leading to bans or limitations of on certain activities, including in-person communication, mass gatherings, and travel.

The Spanish authorities of 1817 restricted travel between cities that were exposed to the plague, and the Health Boards of those cities were charged with keeping careful track of who was sick and where they were recovering. The Health Boards issued health patents and emergency passports that allowed healthy individuals to travel, though only for emergency travel. Communication by mail was also regulated, as the sickness could spread via contact with mail from infected individuals. The measure to combat this while still maintaining communication channels was to soak the letters in vinegar.

“6…The public mail and the particular documents of the Royal Service will be dispatched open in a regular dimension by both surfaces and soaked in vinegar…”

Today, we can easily avoid in-person contact through online video and phone communication while staying connected with work, school, and with friends and family, but back before all this communication technology, even just talking or sending mail was considered an infection risk.

Social Distancing and Quarantining

Before social distancing became one of the newly-added terms in Merriam-Webster, back in 1817 there were social distancing measures that were put in place to decrease the spread of contagious illnesses. Some of the ordinances within this instructions included sick people having to stay with the first person who took care of them, the requirement of health ballots and emergency passports to travel, the prohibition of public gatherings and events, and the government providing a sick person with a comfortable convalescence within a separate ward in the village hospital or, in dire cases, placed within a lazaretto.

“10… it has always been practiced to establish in cases of existence of contagion outside of town hospitals under the name lazeretos transporting without distinction of sex nor the quality of the sick, who in their homes perhaps they might  heal…”

People were encouraged to stay home while their city combated the outbreak of the plague, and anyone who did get sick was usually forced to stay at the place where they had fallen ill in order to recover, lest they end up in a lazaretto. A lazaretto was not where you would want to convalesce from the plague. Lazarettos served as quarantine stations within buildings or anchored ships where sick travelers, mariners, and lepers could isolate themselves for twenty days and were often not well equipped to deal with enormous amounts of sick people. One of the lazarettos mentioned within the document was in Mahón, which is still standing today off the eastern coast of the island of Menorca.

Role of the Church and Military

Along with the local Health Boards, the church and the military played a large role in monitoring the spread of the plague throughout the country, specifically in the area of the coastal towns and seaports.

“9. …The troop that is in charge of preventing people from leaving the infected village is careful to communicate with him, whether this troop was earlier within the same village or has come from the provisions according to Article 6…”

Fast-forward to 2020, we have a cross-sector health communication network involving entities such as the Centers for Disease Control and PreventionJohn Hopkins University, and state health authorities. I live in the state of Oregon and look to the Oregon Health Authority for local guidance and updates on preventing the transmission of COVID-19, such as social distancing, mask-wearing, and the science of the spread of the virus.

During the 19th century, the Spanish government and health authorities looked to the church to report any person suspected of being ill and to sanitize their churches. The church played a larger role in monitoring its parishioners who were suspicious of carrying the disease.

The military had guidelines and orders defined in this instructions as well. The commanders of troops were ordered to cordon off cities affected by the plague at a distance of 10 leagues and were to monitor traffic going in and out of the city. They enforced the Health Ballots and isolated unauthorized travelers in open fields for weeks at a time to make sure that they were not infected. There are several ordinances that detail how people were to be moved in and out of these fields, what rights they had to communicate with their families, and whether animals were allowed to travel with them or not.

“9….The troop that is in charge of preventing people from leaving the infected village is careful to communicate with him, whether this troop was earlier within the same village or has come from its provisions according to Article 6. ; but if any soldier or individual from the village get sick with a kind of symptoms that accompany the contagious fever, the significant sense of this novelty  will be passed that will be given in advance and the Health Board of the infected town send without arrest to collect that sick person, leading him to the hospitals inside or outside of which it corresponds.”

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