Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Is It Over Yet?

Ruth MacKay

During recent weeks we have witnessed often abusive gatherings in the United States and Spain demanding that covid-19 restrictions be lifted. Flags are flown, anthems are sung, slogans are cheered, all in an effort to show that quarantine is a violation of deep, eternal, and patriotic principles. Public health is not the issue; freedom is. There is a newfound if puzzling appreciation for the U.S. Constitution. As if transported to 1776, we find demonstrators in Michigan accusing that state’s governor of being a “tyrant”; in Madrid’s elegant Salamanca neighborhood supporters of the right-wing party Vox staged a “caravan for liberty,” a cause unlikely to have enthused one of Vox’s inspirations, Francisco Franco.

Of course millions of other Spaniards, Americans, and people around the globe are enduring their confinement, agonizing as it is for those whose livelihoods are threatened. They heed medical and political advice while counting the days before they can regain their lives.

Impatience with quarantine has surely existed since ancient times. It most certainly existed in late sixteenth-century Spain, where the ancestors of Madrid’s flag-wavers were similarly anxious for the shutdown to end, though their language relied not on patriotism, which hardly could be said to have existed, but on material survival.

One such case was that of the town of Villadiego, in central Spain. The region had been devastated by bubonic plague starting in 1597. In September, town leaders wrote to the city of Burgos, which governed smaller towns, regarding the annual San Lucas fair. The citizens had considered the drawbacks of both holding and canceling the fair. People from far and wide “have their hopes placed on the benefit of the said fairs, some because they buy food, others because they sell their animals,” the town explained. Therefore they “were unanimous in their agreement and desire that the said fairs not be canceled and that they go forward as is the custom and as was done” in other towns “that suffered from this danger which Our Lord has seen fit to bring upon them.” They said officials would protect the town; guards on foot and on horseback would be placed on all the little paths leading to pestilent villages; the governor could inspect during the fair to ensure no one from a sick town was there; and innkeepers would receive the usual admonitions about sick guests. The governor was torn, he told his superiors. It was dangerous to hold the fair, but the town needed it so badly. So he journeyed to Villadiego, 45 kms away, to see for himself. He visited the site of the livestock fair and the areas just outside the town and confirmed that it would not be difficult to control the entrances. He agreed that the town was well protected and that all the gates were closed except two, which had guards. Yet still he had doubts. He worried about buyers and sellers coming from elsewhere, pestilent places with less rigorous controls. With regret, he prohibited the fair.

Today’s anti-mask, anti-quarantine spectacles invoke questions of identity and values, not public health. They are political in the narrowest sense of the word; in the cases of Spain and the United States, demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez or hailing the wise rule of Donald Trump. In early modern Spain, there was no such mixing the unquestioned need for economic survival with one’s distaste for a particular governor. (Distaste for the king was not an option.) Using pragmatism and ingenuity, officials tried to balance general and individual interests. They were desperate to re-open, but too sensible to confuse immediate desires with the immensity of what “Our Lord has seen fit to bring upon them.”

Life in a Time of Pestilence by Ruth MacKay
Life in a Time of Pestilence by Ruth MacKay

About The Author

Ruth MacKay

Ruth MacKay's most recent book is Life in a Time of Pestilence: The Great Castilian Plague of 1596-1601 (Cambridge 2019). She also is the author of The Limits of Royal Authority: R...

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