This copper engraving shows the face mask and clothing designed by plague doctor Charles de Lorme (1584–1678). The elaborate beak mask was the first historical attempt used to keep physicians safe from contagion while treating plague victims. Plague was a reoccurring feature in European life for centuries after the Black Death of 1347-1353, which decimated over forty percent of the population.
The mask itself was filled with all kinds of herbs and tinctures — amber, cloves, camphor, rose petals, myrrh, laudanum — to protect the doctors from breathing contaminated air.
Europeans at the time believed the disease was airborne, which it was not. They had no way way to assess the source of the plague, completely unaware the Black Death had originally arrived as a pestilence from fleas on rats transported along trading routes by ship from Asia and the Middle East.
Along with the broad-brimmed hat and bird-like beak, doctors wore a cape of leather or waxed material, all used as protection when these doctors attended patients in quarantine. They also commonly carried a cane to allow them to diagnose and examine patients without direct contact.
It was a frightening mask to those the physician came to see.
How the “Quarantine” Originated in Italy
As little as they knew about the plague, port cities in Italy even at the sudden and swift onset of this horrendous disease in 1347, did actually suspect people on ships were bringing the virus from areas of the world already infected. Venice closed its canals and insisted those traveling to the city and all scheduled ships be isolated for thirty days. Later on, that period of time became set as forty days, thus originating the word “quarantine” (“quaranta” in Italian).
All this was copied by other cities to stall the advance of the plague. Their success seemed to depend on how soon they had implemented these measures, and for most, it was never soon enough.
One famous plague doctor — “beak doctor” was the name often used — was Nostradamus, a physician in the Renaissance who wrote prophecies, and he presented extensive recommendations for ways to help prevent people from getting the plague, especially advocating boiled water, and being outdoors in isolation. He also encouraged the quick burial of the dead.
We can easily treat bubonic plague now with antibiotics. But back then, such a thing was in the realm of science fiction. Had someone proposed an injection as a cure, people would have had no comprehension, only more fear.
How Did People Personally Experience Such a Consuming Crisis?
When I first learned about the Black Death in Europe, the subject riveted me. It wasn’t only because I learned how a plague — any plague — takes hold of a population, it was also the effect of eyewitness reports I researched, small bits and pieces in journals and letters people wrote about what they experienced and most of all, what they saw happening to others. So many people wandered aimlessly across the landscape as if in a trance, without homes or possessions or loved ones, with nowhere to go, some like sleepwalkers, others deranged, or becoming so. So many unable to process any of it.
This painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder circa 1562 is called “The Triumph of Death,” inspired by stories of the Black Death, along with the Hundred Years’ War of the time. I studied it for a long time with the central question: How did they manage, these people who survived physically but were utterly devastated and bereft of all they had known as normal? Emotionally they had to have been in a continuous state of terror and shock from such a cataclysmic event.
We still remember the Black Death and subsequent attacks of the pestilence even today, though we have converted what we know of it all into symbols and art. It remains a part of our psyche.
Mardis Gras and the Beak Doctor
The memory lives on through some of our cultural celebrations. It has been a tradition for ages for people to attend ritual ceremonies where revelers wear masks. Think of the streets of New Orleans at Mardi Gras, the Venetian Carnivale (Carnivale di Venezia), or the millions who visit during the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. The proliferation of inventive and often extraordinary masks are stunning. But each festival also has examples of the plague doctor! It is astonishing that part of a joyful celebration also includes a reminder of the greatest pandemic in human history.
How Did It End?
What ended the series of bubonic pandemics that beset the world? It seems to have ended after the 1665 bubonic plague struck London, wiping out a quarter of the population. I wrote about that just recently in my article A Portent for These Times — Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year.
Defoe takes us through the onset of the plague, the chaos as it ran its course, and how many of the rich escaped from the city to be free of the pandemic, the only way they knew how to protect themselves — self-isolating. The poor had neither the means nor the certificate of release to do the same, and they were afraid of losing their jobs. Given the lack of sanitation protocols and the crowded conditions in London, the threat was imminent daily for anyone who stayed.
But at the end, Defoe describes the joy that reigned when people realized that particular pestilence, with its deadly legacy, was gone for good. And so it was.
If you would like to know more about this time in history, there is a fine and thorough description, including some firsthand accounts, on Wikipedia HERE. There is also a brief summary of early public health measures I only touched upon HERE.