Plague doctors and big beaks

In the Middle Ages people were terrified of an executioner costume - a hoodie and a mask hiding the face. A garment of a Plague Doctor who reported that the Black Death, the Plague, settled nearby was equally horrifying. Cases of bubonic or pneumonic plague were not the only ones called plague, and pestilence and other epidemics with fatalities had the same name.

Information about the first plague goes back to the 5th century. It broke out in the Eastern Roman Empire during the reign of the Emperor Justinian who died from the disease. In his honor, the plague was named "Justinian." The largest pandemic (Black Death) of 1348 - 1351 was brought to Europe by Genoese sailors from the East. It was hard to think of a more effective means of spreading the plague than medieval ships. The holds were full of rats that carried the infection by leaving fleas on all decks.

The bubonic plague is manifested in swollen lymph nodes (buboes) that become extremely painful and hard to touch. Lymph nodes are filled with pus and may burst open.

The cycle of infection from fleas to rats and from rats to fleas could last until the rats die out. Hungry fleas in search of a new host would transfer the disease to humans. As a result, no country in Western Europe escaped the epidemic of plague, even Greenland. It is believed that the Netherlands, Czech, Polish, and Hungarian lands remained nearly unaffected, but the geography of the spread of the plague is still not fully understood. The plague moved at the speed of a horse, the main transport of the time. During a pandemic, between 25 and 40 million people were killed, according to various estimates. The number of victims in different regions ranged from 1/ 8 to 2/3 of the total population.

No one was safe in the face of the plague. Among the dead were French King Louis the Saint, the wife of Philip of Valois Joan of Bourbon, and a daughter of Louis X Joan of Navarre, Alphonse Spanish, German Emperor Gunther, a brother of King of Sweden, and painter Titian.

Doctors at that time could not immediately identify the disease as it was assumed that the transmission of the disease occurred during physical contact, through clothes and linens. Based on these ideas the most infernal medieval costume of a Plague Doctor has emerged. To visit the sick during the plague, the doctors had to wear special clothes that were a combination of prejudice and sound thought in terms of epidemiology considerationsю

It was believed that the mask with a beak that made doctors look like ancient Egyptian deities repelled the disease. The beak's function was to protect the doctor from foul smell of the sick. The tip of the beak was filled with strong-smelling herbs that made breathing in the constant stench of plague easier.  Plague Doctors constantly chewed garlic for prevention, and the beak protected others from the garlic odor. In addition, doctors put incense on a special sponge and placed it in the nose and ears. To prevent suffocation from this bouquet of smells, the beak had two small vents. The mask also had a glass insert for eyes protection. A long waxed coat and leather or oiled clothes made ​​of thick fabric were required to avoid contact with infected patients. Often clothes were soaked with a mixture of camphor, oil and wax. In reality, it allowed to some extent to avoid bites of plague carries - fleas, and protected from the airborne disease, although people were not aware of it at the time. The costume was completed with a leather hat with a hood with a cape under it covering the joint between the mask and clothing.

Costumes varied depending on the location and doctors' financial resources. For example, in Tallinn Kiek in de Kok museum one can find a doctor's costume without a hat, but with a hood tightly fitting the beak. Wealthier doctors wore beaks made of bronze. Doctors' gloved hands often had two things in them, a stick to chase away hopelessly infected, and a scalpel for dissecting buboes. The stick was filled with incense that was supposed to protect from evil spirits. In addition doctors had caskets of aromatic herbs and substances meant to "scare" the plague away.

In addition to doctors, Mortus worked in the streets and homes of those infected. They were recruited from convicted criminals or those who have had the plague and managed to survive. These were special servants whose duty was to collect the dead bodies and deliver them to the place of burial.

Ancient engravings from London depict Mortus bringing bodies on carts and wagons, digging graves and burying the dead. The engravings of the time also show burning braziers. It was believed that the fire and smoke purified contaminated air, and fires were burning everywhere through the night, and incenses were smoking to help clear the air of contagion. Londoners in the 17th century, for example, persuaded people to smoke tobacco, equating it to healing incenses.

Perhaps the most famous Plague Doctor was Michel de Notre-Dame, better known as a predictor Nostradamus. Little is known about his methods of plague treatment. He recommended drinking only boiled water, sleeping in a clean bed, and in case of plague danger at the first opportunity to leave dirty stinking cities and breathing the fresh air of the countryside.

For disinfection of the premises where patients died, the doctors recommended, among other things, placing a saucer of milk in the room that supposedly absorbed the poisoned air. During monetary transactions in the times of the plague and other epidemics shoppers placed their money in the market in a container of honey vinegar or simply vinegar that every seller had. It was believed that this way the infection could not be transmitted with the money.

Leeches, dried toads and lizards were applied to abscesses. Pig lard and butter were placed on open wounds. Buboes were opened and wounds were burned with hot iron. It is not surprising that with such treatments the mortality of infected was 77-97 %. The tried and tested recipe that has been adopted by the people  up to the 17th century and even later was "cito, longe, tarde", that is, escape from the contaminated area as soon as possible and come back as late as possible. This method used in the Middle Ages, was, without a doubt, the most effective at the time.

Alexander Orlov


Read the original in Russian

Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov