It Could Be Worse: Lessons from Transatlantic Voyages and Medieval Quarantines

These days, 24-7, we’re eating, sleeping, and breathing (but hopefully not breathing in) COVID-19. Frankly, it’s hard not to. After all, we’re living through both a novel coronavirus and a novel situation—where our globally connected modern society meets the ancient realities of preventing the spread of diseases without cures. But with a bit of perspective, I hope we can agree that, ultimately, our current period of social distancing is not so bad.

The Transatlantic Voyage

It could be worse. You could be on a ship.
It could be worse. You could be on a ship.

First, let’s consider the transatlantic voyage. While few are flying now, and many have had to cancel vacations to distant lands, if you wanted to go to Europe 300 years ago, you would have had to be on a ship for at least six weeks, and more likely two to three months. There was also a not-so-insignificant chance that you wouldn’t survive the journey due to shipwreck or disease. Plus, you’d be grappling with sea sickness, extreme boredom, poor rations, diarrheal diseases we didn’t yet understand the cause of, and being thrown about by rough seas.

An account by Louisa Susannah Wells, a passenger leaving for England in the midst of the American Revolution, is insightful. The first days she spends “settling my accounts at the ship’s side.” As she explains, “Sea sickness is a great drawback to travelling by water.”

As is being thrown violently around one’s cabin. At one point, Wells was thrown from her bed and landed with her stomach thrust into a leg of an upended chair. After that, “all the passengers assisted in throwing the chairs upon Deck, and we sat on Trunks during the rest of the passage.”

Yes, there were moments of levity — as there are now. Wells describes how her company of ships, while catching cod off the coast of Newfoundland, were all grouped together, and she could chat with friends on other ships, and once, when the weather was especially calm, even, “without the speaking trumpet.”

As for how she passed the months at sea, here’s what Wells wrote:

“How do you think I made shift to pass my time? I can assure you I was obliged to exert all my Philosophy; which, together with the Guitar, made ‘the heavy Hours’ supportable. I have already told you that we had no conversation and I detested cards. Frequently, for two or three days together, I have been obliged to keep my Stateroom, merely for fear of having my bones broken. I was unable to sit up, without being lashed to the bed or trunk on which I sat.”

Compared to that, being stuck inside our homes doesn’t seem so bad. Our smart phones work far better than speaking trumpets, allowing us to chat with anyone we want, anywhere they are. We can play music, read from an infinite supply of books or play games (if we don’t detest them). And we’re not being thrown violently around or vomiting up our meals, which are much tastier than what sea voyages had to offer.

Quarantines of Yore

Then there are the quarantines of yore. Sometimes, sailors not only had to endure months of journeying but were forced to spend 40 more days in their ships in port when suspected of harboring a disease. This is actually where the word quarantine comes from: the Italian quaranta giorni or “space of 40 days.” Imagine the boredom and frustration of being stuck in port doing nothing, not earning wages, possibly watching your goods rot (thus losing more money) — as many restaurateurs are experiencing now.

Or imagine being quarantined in one’s home 400 years ago — when dwellings were far smaller and far more crowded, without running water or toilets, and when families could not go to the market and buy whatever they’d like (other than toilet paper and hand sanitizer). Again, in that context, our current semi-quarantine feels quite luxurious. In most countries, people are still allowed to take walks, go for hikes, work in their garden and get supplies, as well as explore the world virtually through literature, documentaries, film, even countless new activities like local online yoga classes and meditation sessions, virtual concerts and museum exhibits, and online climate protests.

Space Adventure

Keep your mask on.
Keep your mask on.

Astronaut hopeful Rachel Zimmerman-Brachman said it best when she encouraged people to compare our current isolation to astronaut training. “Attitude is everything: I’m on an adventure in a confined space with a small crew for a long duration mission, with occasional space walks and resupply missions. Sounds like astronaut training to me.” I would add to that the observations of Angela Merkel—that the outcomes of this, to a large degree, lie in our hands. If we “abide by the rules” and stick to our current “collective mission” of social distancing, we may get out of this relatively unscathed. As with an astronaut, following the rules is paramount. If you go on a spacewalk without your spacesuit, well, that becomes your final spacewalk.

Nature Hasn’t Noticed

Finally, as Beth Norcross of the Center for Spirituality in Nature noted recently, it’s good to remind ourselves that unlike us, nature remains unperturbed by our current crisis, a realization she had as she walked along the C&O Towpath under the majestic sycamore trees—trees that remain unmoved. We might look like a kicked-over anthill—or more accurately a rabbit hiding deep in its hole, heart hammering away in its chest—but nature hasn’t noticed (other than the significant drop in emissions, which it surely has).

If we recognize that we are just one species among many, and not the pinnacle of evolution; that Earth’s processes and cycles continue unchanged during this crisis; that trees are growing new leaves; and animals are coming out of hibernation—even as we seem to go into hibernation—then this too should help us maintain our perspective, despite the inevitable discomforts that come with this new and unsettling moment in history.

So, instead of allowing yourself to brood or go stir-crazy, treat this time as an exercise in supporting the collective good, even as an adventure—filled with lots of new quests and opportunities to develop your character. If we keep this all in context, these weeks will pass by more quickly, more calmly, and we may even learn something.

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