Quarantine: a word hitting the headlines at the moment

Quarantine is not a word that we want to hear as it usually denotes a situation that is, albeit temporary, a medical emergency with an uncertain future. Widespread diseases that have given rise to decisions that quarantine is the only option have occurred throughout history.

It is generally recognised as a given period of time when an individual, or group of people, who have – or may have – a highly contagious disease are isolated from others in order to contain the spread of the disease. There are so many variables that even the ‘experts’ may be caught off guard by a new strain or new disease.

One of the most famous cases of voluntary quarantine was in the Derbyshire village of Eyam in England. The plague of 1665 was carried from London to this rural community and in order to prevent its further spread the villagers made the extraordinarily courageous decision to isolate themselves from the outside world.

Eyam Church where Rev Mompesson convinced his parishioners to isolate themselves within the village.
Mompesson’s Well where villagers left money to pay for the goods that people from neighbouring villages brought.
What is the history of the word?

In an eleven-year period in the middle of the fourteenth century the estimated death toll from the Black Death was 30% of Europe’s population and a considerable percentage of Asia’s. Such was the fear of the plague and related diseases catching hold again that a formal period of isolation was practised. Records in Dubrovnik dating from 1377 state that a 30-day period (a trentine) was to be spent outside the city before entry was permitted.

Seventy years later this was extended to forty days and this proved to be much more effective. It has since been found that the time-span for the bubonic plague to cause death is 37 days and this extended period of isolation resulted in the health of merchants and crew from supply ships being much more successfully determined.
The term for forty days in an Italian dialect of the time was ‘quaranta giorni’ and from this originated our word quarantine.

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