Simēon of Poland Does Not Have a Good Time in Quarantine

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The lazaretto at Livorno, Tuscany, Italy: panoramic view. Coloured etching by Pompeo Lapi. (Wellcome Library no. 24279i)

The practice of quarantine- or at least quarantine as we now think of it- was first developed in late medieval Venice, and was gradually developed in early modern Europe with increasing legal and infrastructural support and method. One such institution was the lazaretto, an example of which, that of Livorno, is pictured above, as it looked in the 18th century. From the sixteenth century forward lazarettos were built in a number of European cities and ports, generally with a similar layout: something of a combination between a merchants’ caravansarai or khan and a fortress, designed to accommodate travelers and their goods while monitoring them for diseases, particularly the plague.

The Armenian traveler Simēon of Poland (b. 1584), whose travels primarily took place within the Ottoman Empire, left the Ottoman lands in 1611 for a sojourn in Rome, a city with which he was much impressed. However, upon departing the Ottoman Empire and entering Venetian-controlled territory, Simēon found himself forced into involuntary quarantine in the lazeretto (no longer extant) of Split, modern-day Croatia. His account, translated by George A. Bournoutian, describes his reaction to this practice, one unfamiliar to a traveler used to Ottoman customs, which did not yet include quarantine, his apprehension compounded by the language divide he encountered on the Venetian side of the frontier:

When we crossed the other side of the river and entered the fortress of Split, soldiers came out to meet us. We were overjoyed and thought they had come to honour us. But they took us to a house, which is called Nazaret [1], shut the door on us, and left. Not knowing their language or the circumstances surrounding the event, we remained there in depressed sorrow and cried all day. In the evening, looking out of the windows, we saw many merchants- Christians and Muslims- from various cities: Istanbul, Angora, Edirne, Julfa and other regions. Conversing with them, we asked, ‘Why have they detained us?’ They replied that such was their custom; even if the Sultan of Turkey came they had to put him in quarantine. Hearing this we became so distressed and such an irreparable melancholy came over us that our entire being was disturbed and our tongues dried out. We suffered thus in jail and in chains and even avoided each other; no one came to visit us and we did not see anyone. On the second day they brought a gvardian, that is, a nāẓir [2], and said that he shall carry out and buy whatever we wish. However, we did not know his tongue, nor did he know ours. We, therefore, explained to him via hand signs, like dumb people. If we asked for food, even fruit, they handed it to us through the window and we threw out the money…

They came every week, examined our worn clothes, bags, silk, shook them and hung them on ropes. They hung thus till evening. We somewhat comforted ourselves by talking to the Armenians who stood at a distance. They told us that there were different quarantines: those who have beeswax, hides, or morocco leather, and other similar goods, but do not have mohair, they keep twenty-five days. Those who have goods made of felt, leather, wool, or items made of mohair, are kept for forty days. We had nothing, but the vardapets had several rolls of wool to present as gifts to the Pope; because of that they detained us for forty days. Alas! Alas! Alas! Woe is me!

Simēon of Poland, The Travel Accounts of Simēon of Poland, trans. and ed. by George A. Bournoutian (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2007).

[1] Simēon no doubt mixed up the unfamiliar Italian word lazarett with the very similar sounding Ottoman Turkish naẓāret, meaning view or supervision.

[2] Here Simēon more or less accurately translates the Italian term into Ottoman Turkish, nāẓir meaning a superintendent and hence in this case one who looks after the quarantined travelers.

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