Trentino or Quarantino

It almost sounds like I’m going to write about the movie director Quentin Tarantino – but I’m not – not that it’s not the most fascinating name – but I’m actually  writing about something that’s been on everyone’s mind a lot lately – Quarantine.

Quarantine comes from the Italian word Quarantino, which comes from the Latin word quaranta giorni – which translates to “space of forty days.” The policy of quarantine was first enforced during the bubonic plague in 1348 in Venice. Ships carrying sailors and cargo had to stay on the ship in Venetian lagoons for 40 days before they could enter Venice.

Medieval Dubrovnik

Even before the Venetian quarantine the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia became the first to pass laws requiring a mandatory order for all inbound ships and sailors to stay away from the city for a period of 30 days for fear of carrying infection into the city. The sailors were sent to an uninhabited rock island for 30 days – and this was called trentino. This is the first known evidence of isolation and is remarkable that the officials of Dubrovnik had this much understanding of diseases and incubation.

Biblical importance of 40 days

The 30 days was later changed by Italians to 40 days – and this makes us question – why 40 days? The period of 40 days has numerous biblical references – and may have been picked for that reason. According to the bible when God flooded the earth it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, and Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days. Even today, in many countries, women have to rest for 40 days after childbirth.  

Another interesting and related term is Lazaretto – which is the place where the quarantine took place, or a place where people with diseases, especially lepers, stayed. The term traces its origin to the biblical Lazarus who was covered in sores. So for instance the rocky island near Dubrovnik where the quarantined (or should I say trentined) people were sent would be a lazaretto.

Dubrovnik Lazaretto

Contactless Delivery – in Medieval England

Many comparisons are being made nowadays of the current pandemic to Spanish flu in the early 1900s and the bubonic plague in the 1500s. Then, as now, the quickest way to stop the spread of the disease was through voluntary and enforced quarantines and keeping a safe distance from others. In towns across England one such reminder, of the social distancing that occurred, remains to this day.

Sitting unnoticed beside main roads, or near the outskirts of many towns all across England are stones that tell a story of the plague. These Plague Stones were hollowed out from the middle, filled with vinegar, and placed at the edge of town. Farmers were terrified to bring goods to market because of the plague, as a result of which there were severe food shortages in the towns. 

People from the town left coins in the vinegar and retreated a safe distance (one would assume of 6 feet or more) away from the stone. Farmers then came to the stone, picked up the – now sanitized with vinegar – coin from the hollow and left their farm produce, eggs, bread, etc. by the stone for the person standing a safe distance away.

And that was how Plague Stones played their part in stopping the spread of the plague the 1500s – they were the contactless delivery of today.

These Plague Stones teach us the importance of social distancing in fighting any pandemic. And more importantly, they teach us the value of knowing our History and learning from it – knowing how our ancestors got through the plague will teach us how to get through our current crisis. (Images courtesy of UK town travel websites – etc).