The Origin of Quarantine

In the course of being quarantined and following everything that was happening around the world, I ran across some interesting explanations for the origin of the term itself.

The actual  word “quarantine” is derived from the Italian quaranta, meaning “forty.” It is traced back to the language of Venice, Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries. During the Black Death plague of those times, all ships were required to be isolated for 40 days before passengers and crew could go ashore. According to Frank M. Snowden, author of Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, the 40-day period was chosen based on Biblical references, as in the 40 days and nights of the Great Flood, the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness, and the 40 days of Lent. Since this was well before microbes had been discovered and the causes of infectious diseases were understood, people relied on religious inspiration rather than medical practice; they didn’t understand exactly what they were trying to stop, but restricting movement seemed the most effective way to stop it.

Of course, this idea of limiting the movement of people and commerce to prevent to spread of disease goes back well before the modern word’s origin. The earliest reference I could find is from the Old Testament book of Leviticus (13:4, King James Version) — “If the bright spot be white in the skin of his flesh, and in sight be not deeper than the skin, and the hair thereof be not turned white; then the priest shall shut up him that hath the plague seven days.”

The concept was also referenced in Islam; the Islamic prophet Muhammad advised — “Those with contagious diseases should be kept away from those who are healthy.” (

So we certainly aren’t the first to suffer through a quarantine and we probably won’t be the last. Also, hopefully it won’t be for 40 days.


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