Christ in Quarantine (British Library, Royal MS 1 D X, f. 52v)
Strange new events call for new vocabulary, and over the last few weeks and months we have all been getting used to some novel and unfamiliar language: self-isolation, social distancing, lockdown. In my own mind, I've taken to calling this whole situation 'the Long Lent' - mostly because it sounds less frightening than 'global pandemic', and makes it seem a little bit less weird and impossible. It's also an apt name in several ways which suit the timing of this strange new reality. In the UK and some other parts of the world, this escalating situation has coincided almost exactly with the progress of Lent; at Ash Wednesday lockdown still seemed only a distant possibility, but by mid-Lent Sunday it was our new life. That life is Lenten in some familiar as well as unfamiliar ways. In a literal sense, of course, the constraints and restrictions we are all facing require the kind of self-denial and patience Lenten fasting is meant to teach; if we are lucky enough in ordinary times to have an abundance of all the food, time and pleasure we can wish for (of course not everybody is) that has changed abruptly in the last few weeks. The sombre themes which Lent demands we reflect on are now our daily preoccupation; texts used every year in the liturgy during Lent - contemplations of mortality and the brevity of life, the lamentations of Jeremiah, Psalm 91 with its promise of being saved from plague and pestilence - seem almost too pointed this year.
Even the suspension of worship in churches, though in some ways unprecedented, has a slightly uncanny Lenten parallel. (The date on which it ceased was also, as pointed out here, an extraordinary coincidence with the single comparable precedent for this in British history.) In Lent the church traditionally forgoes, temporarily fasts, from some aspects of the liturgy: the Alleluia is 'locked' away, as it was expressed in medieval England, to be unlocked again at Easter. During Passiontide, the last fortnight in Lent, statues and crucifixes in church are covered up, hidden and shrouded as a token of the deepening solemnity of the season. Last week, many people could still at least see the inside of churches they love via livestreamed services, but tighter restrictions mean that even that is now forbidden for many; and so Passion Sunday marked the beginning of a period when many churches will be entirely shrouded and invisible for a long time to come. It's a strange coincidence, of the kind a medieval historian, trained to be attuned to the intersections between unfolding human history and the liturgical year, would have found fascinating (and most likely they would have said it was not a coincidence at all).
Since these restrictions will not end for us at Easter, even when Lent is over, this looks to be a very Long Lent indeed. But there's an etymological fitness in the phrase 'Long Lent', too, which means the two words naturally collocate. In English, the original meaning of the word 'Lent' (Old English lencten) was simply 'spring', and though it was subsequently transferred in the Anglo-Saxon period to refer to the church season, the two meanings co-existed for a long time. 'Lent' continued to be the most common word for 'spring' in English until at least the 14th century. In medieval English usage, it's often difficult to distinguish whether any particular use of 'Lent' means 'spring' or specifically 'pre-Easter fast'; the two always coincide, and there wasn't often much need to differentiate. In origin, the etymology of 'Lent' probably derives from the same Germanic root as 'long' and 'lengthen', from the idea of spring as the time when the days are growing longer. Whether poets realised that or not (it wouldn't be hard to guess), the alliteration and aural similarity which links these words means they often appear together in medieval English poetry. For instance, here's a verse from a fourteenth-century springtime poem in praise of the Virgin Mary:
Lentun-dayes, thei ben longe,
And nou weor good tyme to amende
That we beforen han do wronge.
This world nis nothing, as I wende;
In sori tyme my lyf I spend.
This world is fals, and that I feel;
But Marie Moder me amende,
Amis I fare, and nothing wel.
(Lent days, they are long, and now is a good time to make amends for what we have previously done wrong. This world is nothing, I think; I spend my life unhappily. This world is false, and I feel that. Unless Mary mother helps me amend, I fare amiss, and in no way well.)
The suggestion here is that the natural lengthening of days in Lent helps to make them a particularly good time to do penance - not exactly, perhaps, because there are more hours of daylight to do good in, but because Lent/spring is a season of amendment, a time of growth and rebirth in the natural world, when light and life are increasing all around us. The lengthening days of Lent can be taken as a sign of hope for better things, a spur to aim for self-improvement. However, I confess that to me this Lent seems like a time when 'the days are growing longer' in a different way, because at times these formless days seem very long indeed...
A bit of more cheerful blossom
If we delve a bit further into linguistic history, we can see some more interesting connections. Along with adjusting to new vocabulary, we're also hearing much more these days of an older term, quarantine - a word most of us probably already knew, without often having the need to use it. This comes from the medieval Latin quarentena, from quaranta, 'forty', and in medieval Latin it's a measurement, both of length and of time: as a unit of length, the equivalent of English furlong (a length of forty rods), and as a unit of time, a period of forty days.
It's the latter which gives us our modern sense of the word. The history of quarantine as a public health measure dates back to the fourteenth century, when Venetian authorities, hoping to avoid outbreaks of plague, enforced a forty-day period of waiting before ships could enter harbour. In time similar measures were adopted elsewhere, and quarantine became a common word for such periods of isolation, whether or not the period in question was actually forty days long. (The OED helpfully quotes Pepys, writing in 1663, observing of a thirty-day quarantine that it's 'contrary to the import of the word; though in the general acceptation, it signifies now the thing, not the time spent in doing it'.)
However, the word quarantine has a longer history than that, and one which aligns it closely with Lent. A period of forty days is not a random unit of time, but one whose significance in medieval custom was established by important Biblical precedent: in the Old Testament both Moses and Elijah went without food for periods of forty days, sustained only by the power of God, and, of course, Christ fasted in the desert forty days and forty nights. In imitation of these fasts, and especially of Christ in the wilderness, a forty-day period of fasting was established in Christian practice in the fourth century, and gradually became codified as the season of Lent (in Latin Quadragesima, from the same root as quarentena). It matches the other significant periods of forty-day seasons which shape the liturgical year, the forty days between Christmas and Candlemas and between Easter and the Feast of the Ascension. Lent, Easter, and Christmas are each attached to a forty-day quarentena.
The well-established significance of the forty-day period meant that it was a convenient one to use for various purposes in the Middle Ages, long before it became a means of keeping out the plague. Some of the earliest appearances of the word quarantine refer to legal customs which stipulated a fixed forty-day period within which a particular thing had to be done. For instance, there was a law that a woman whose husband had just died was allowed a quarantine: she had the right to continue living in her late husband’s house for forty days, unmolested, while her share of the estate was decided. This right to a 'widow's quarantine' was included in Magna Carta.
Another kind of forty-day quarantine might be a time for fasting, chosen or imposed as a penance. It was a way of imitating the Biblical periods of fasting, but at any time of the year. The fourteenth-century English poet John Gower, writing in French, says that 'He who fasts a single day with you [i.e. Charity] receives a more sure reward than another who fasts a quarantine (un quarantain) without you', suggesting that a fast of one day, faithfully undertaken, is of more virtue than the more extravagant commitment of forty days. There are numerous comparable uses of the term in sources in medieval Latin (quarentena) and in Anglo-Norman (quarantaine), in the centuries before the word began to take on its more restricted present-day meaning.
Interestingly, though often used by English writers when writing in Latin or French, the word quarantine doesn't appear in English in any of these senses until after the medieval period. There are several reasons for this, one being that most legal and ecclesiastical business in the period we're looking at (twelfth-fifteenth centuries) was still conducted or at least recorded in either Latin or French, so an English equivalent for a technical term like the 'widow's quarantine' would not have been necessary. But the other reason is that when speakers of Middle English wanted to talk about a forty-day period of fasting, they would call it a lent - a term which by this time could refer to a fast at any time of year, not only the universal pre-Easter fast. If Gower had been writing in English, he would surely have used the word lent where he says quarantain, just as a contemporary of his writes of a penance being imposed for 'the lengthe of a Lenten' at a non-Lent time of the year. This means that to some degree lent and quarantine are basically synonymous, since both can mean 'a forty-day period of penitential fasting'.
And that brings us to the other link between them, the only sense the word quarantine does have in medieval English, according to the Middle English Dictionary.
By yonde ys a wyldernys of quarentyne,
Wher Cryst wyth fastyng hys body dyd pyne;
In that holy place, as we rede,
The deuyl wold had of stonys bred;
Aboue that wyldernys ryght fer and hy
The fende to Cryst schewyd regna mundi,
And sayde, 'Yf thow wylt me worschyp do
Al these shalt thou haue thy lordschyp to.'
This is the fifteenth-century writer William Wey, describing the region around Jerusalem, which he had visited on pilgrimage in 1456 and subsequently wrote about in his Itineraries. One of the pilgrimage sites one could visit in that region was the desert where Christ fasted, which was named Quarantine, because of the forty-day duration of his fast. (Today, Mount Quarantania.) Margery Kempe went there too, in 1413, to 'the Mownt Qwarentyne ther owyr Lord fastyd fowrty days'; she tells us how difficult she and her party found it to get up the mountain, and how she could not manage it at all until she found a kindly 'Sarazyn' to help her. That mountain, pilgrims were told, was where Christ fasted and was tempted by the devil, as Wey explains:
Beyond is a wilderness of Quarantine,
Where Christ with fasting afflicted his body.
In that holy place, as we read,
The devil demanded to have bread from stones.
Above that wilderness, right far and high,
The devil to Christ showed the kingdom of the world,
And said, 'If you will worship me,
You shall have this in your power.'
That was the fast and self-denial which the practice of Lent was supposed to imitate. And it all took place in Quarantine.
Christ in Quarantine (British Library, Add MS 18851, f. 71, opening the readings for the First Sunday of Lent)