Avoiding Plague: The System of Quarantine Centres in the Early Modern Mediterranean

The present paper proposes to investigate the emergence and establishment of a system of preventative practices and institutions against the occurrence of plague outbreaks in the Mediterranean between the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A shared system of measures, which included quarantine centres, the adoption of health passes, the standardisation of quarantine practices and sharing information, were adopted by several health boards of the Western Mediterranean States. The aim was to prevent the spreading of plague when trading with Ottoman Levant and the Barbary Coast, always considered potentially infected, and cities and regions occasionally hit by epidemics. Indeed, narratives of plague stress the danger of trading and moving across the sea. This paper stressed the importance of quarantine in both preserving the European public health and in enhancing the local economic interest of single states. The protection of public health was paramount for those states with direct access to the shores of the Mediterranean. However, the measures undertaken by seafaring societies not only protected those states trading directly with dangerous areas but safeguarded the communal health of the whole Europe. Finding a way to adapt to the potential dangers brought by the sea was essential for communal health. However, health was not the only reason to adopt preventative strategies. Indeed, once the system of prevention and quarantine centres was in place, states and their port cities had to join the network if they wanted to be trusted and avoid bans from commerce. Almost counterintuitively, quarantine became so important that its adoption and the construction of quarantine centres were linked to projects of economic development of trading hubs and played a key role in the adoption of free trade policies.