The first quarantine of history: its origin and meaning

In times of health risk, isolating a patient to avoid infection has been a common procedure in the world for centuries.

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Pintura del canal de Venecia.

“Cito, longe fugeas, tarde redeas”, which means, “Flee, fast and far, and come back late”. Although today we use the modern term quarantine to speak of the measure that seeks to prevent the spread of a disease, in the Middle Ages, this Latin locution was used with a similar objective: warning of a great disease and its possible spread.

But when did we start using the modern term? When did the first quarantine happen? To know the precise moment in which this precautionary system was put into practice, we must travel back to Italy in 1347, specifically to the Republic of Venice.

The arrival of the Black Death in Italy

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Republic of Venice played a very important role in its trade with the East. Ships loaded with all kinds of products arrived in their ports. However, sometimes these vessels did not only carry the desired wheat, silks and spices; they also hid equally exotic diseases.

The black plague, known as the deadliest epidemic in human history, caused entire continents to tremble, as did their great maritime empires, such as the Italian: from 1361 to 1528, 22 different outbreaks were recorded in Venice and in just one of them, more than half of the population was annihilated.

This data forced the Italian population to take extreme and considered measures that had never before been taken to control infections: infected people were sent from cities to the countryside, or the traveling of infected people and immigrants was blocked. It was during this period that it was realised that by isolating people, greater evil could be avoided.

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Approximately one third of the total European population died from the Plague.

The 14th century offered societal isolation

The impotence and ineffectiveness of the measures taken led the population to take a step further, when in 1377 the first Trentino was established by law, a 30-day isolation period for all citizens or visitors from areas likely to be infected.

The authorities of Ragusa (today Dubrovnik), on the coast of Dalmatia and Venice, stopped the passage of ships as a protection measure, until they exceeded a period of time without the appearance of the disease. This measure sought not only to save the Venetians themselves, but also their trade, since the products they transported were unloaded and taken to a huge warehouse where they were disinfected.

In addition, the first Lazaretto in Europe (Lazaretto Vecchio) was built in Venice, on the island of Santa Maria de Nazaret, the first isolation hospital in history. Anyone showing symptoms was immediately removed from the city and taken to the island, also known as the Black Death Island. The thought was this: if the people on board survived, then it would mean that they were healthy and that if they got off the ship they would not infect anyone; if they died, it would mean that there was nothing they could have done before.

The Republic of Venice thus established the world’s first institutionalized quarantine system, a system soon applied by other maritime cities such as Marseille, Genoa and Pisa.

From Trentino to Quarantine

Initially the duration of isolation was 30 days (trentino) but after some decades it became 40 days (quarantine), why?

According to some historians, it depended on a practical fact, the inadequacy of the expected time of one month for the restoration of the person’s health. Others, on the other hand, link the 40 days to Christianity, and to the many references to the number 40 in the sacred books: the 40 days of Lent; the years that Moses wandered in the desert with his people; and the days that he remained on Mount Sinai; or the 40 days that Jesus appeared before his disciples, always according to the scriptures, after the crucifixion.

Regardless of who is right, the quarantine concept survived through time, and even today it continues to raise the same concern and uncertainty. 

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