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Quarantine: The Italian Meaning and Origins

The word 'Quarantine' stems from the Italian practice of isolating ships during the bubonic plague.

Quarantine has been a hot button word since the beginning of 2020. All across the world, people have faced varying levels of quarantines because of COVID-19. As a modern society, we have never seen a quarantine of this magnitude before. However, our Italian ancestors were far more familiar with this practice than we would have thought.

The word quarantine originated in 14th century Venice. It stems from the phrase ‘quaranta giorni’ meaning 40 days. This referred to the number of days  cargo ships arriving in Italy’s ports had to sit in the water before their goods and crew members could de-board. This practice was done to combat the spread of the bubonic plague, or Black Death, that had been spreading across Europe like wildfire. 

Originally the practice was for 30 days or trentino, but over the years the time frame was extended to 40 days thus quarantine. Some historians think this might be in reference to the biblical significance of 40 days but there is no concrete evidence. This theory makes sense though as many people believed these illnesses were punishments from God.

Giovanni Boccaccio’s ‘The plague of Florence in 1348’

The Italians, like many other European countries at the time, extended this quarantine practice to those on the mainland suffering from infectious diseases. There is evidence to suggest that often times the patient would be brought out to a field outside the city and left there to either die or recover. If fields weren’t readily available, then islands would be suitable dumping grounds as well. 

As we can see in today’s society quarantine no longer means 40 days of isolation but more so any length of time spent in isolation in the effort to minimize infection. Though to be honest I would be willing to wager that quarantining in our homes with our modern-day electronics would be easier to handle than being stuck on a ship for 40 extra days in the 1300s.


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