CLOSE

Doctors Didn't Actually Wear Beaked Masks During the Black Plague

Long ago, European physicians believed that "bad air" caused illnesses—scientists like Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and Joseph Lister hadn’t yet delivered scientific proof of the germ theory of disease. To safeguard themselves against miasma, as they called this harmful air, doctors donned a curious accessory while treating sickly patients: a mask with a long, bird-like beak, which was stuffed with dried flowers, herbs, and spices. (Today, you might recognize it from the “plague doctor” costumes worn during the Carnival of Venice, as it’s associated with Il Medico della Peste, the famous commedia dell’arte character.)

Doctors are said to have embraced this look, thanks in part to the Black Death, which ravaged the Middle East, Asia, and Europe during the 14th century. However, there’s no concrete evidence that physicians of the era wore these face coverings. In fact, medical historians say they weren’t invented until three centuries later, when a 16th century French doctor named Charles de Lorme likely designed what could be described as one of history's earliest hazmat suits during later waves of the plague.

Doctor de Lorme (1584-1678) was the chief physician to Louis XIII, and is credited with the mask’s design. He is also responsible for its typical accompanying outfit, which consisted of a leather overcoat, breeches, a cane, a wide-brimmed hat, gloves, and boots. Here’s an early textual description from the Encyclopedia of Infectious Diseases: Modern Methodologies:

The nose [is] half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the [herbs] enclosed further along in the beak. Under the coat we wear boots made in Moroccan leather (goat leather) from the front of the breeches in smooth skin that are attached to said boots, and a short sleeved blouse in smooth skin, the bottom of which is tucked into the breeches. The hat and gloves are also made of the same skin … with spectacles over the eyes.

The suffocating clothing ensemble was designed to protect the skin from exposure to miasma (the coat was even tucked into the mask), while the hat was simply a common accessory worn by physicians at the time. Meanwhile, the wooden cane was likely used to keep a distance from ill patients, or to instruct caregivers on how to move them during exams.

So, if you see someone wearing a plague doctor costume this Halloween and their history isn’t quite up to snuff, make sure they share their candy with you first, before gently correcting them that their silly-looking mask isn't technically a part of the Black Plague's lasting legacy (even if it is extra-creepy looking).

[h/t Historyanswers.co.uk]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
arrow
Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

arrow
History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios