So I decided to be a plague doctor for Halloween this year. Seemed really appropriate.
What or who exactly was a plague doctor? The profession itself is quite old, certainly going back to the Black Death of the 14th century (when 30-50% of Europeans died) and possibly as far back as the 6th century’s Plague of Justinian (when something like 25% of the Roman Empire’s population died) and likely even earlier.
The tell-tale beak-shaped mask actually originated in Naples in the 17th century, the beak filled with herbs and spices designed to combat noxious smells as well as to prevent infection. Plague doctors carried canes so they could examine patients without touching them (the first instance of mask-wearing and physical distancing?). In addition to taking care of patients (if one could call it that), they took a sort of death census and performed other tasks related to death, including writing wills.
One of the most famous plague doctors in history was Nostradamus, though living during the 16th century in France he would not have worn this outfit (too soon). Apparently though he had a very good success rate, his remedies relying less on bloodletting and garlic wearing and and more on good hygiene, a healthy diet, and basic public health regimes such as removing infected corpses from the streets.
But the plague doctor mask, just like quarantining, is most associated with Venice, perhaps because of the population’s general fondness for mask-wearing during Carnival. Wearing masks in Venice goes back to at least the 12th century and was a way to play with the rigid societal stratification, so popular that the authorities had to shorten the Carnival season, from six months in its heyday to about six weeks. But the wearing of the plague doctor mask probably started when commedia dell’arte (professional Italian comedy) came into fashion with the character Il Medico della Peste (Plague Doctor). Apparently it became the custom for droves of people dressed as plague doctors to fill the streets of Venice on Fat Tuesday to signal the end of Carnival, to remind Christians of the start of the more spartan Lenten season, and to instill a little old-fashioned fear into the population. It has enjoyed renewed popularity through its integration into popular culture, including the video game Assassin’s Creed and steampunk.
And so, in this new year of the plague, with a Halloween like no other in recent memory (trick-or-treating is officially “discouraged” in Toronto in 2020), you’ll find me with my family carving pumpkins, eating our favourite candies, and watching Frankenstein and Dracula, all while wearing my plague doctor costume.
Or trying to. It might be really hard to see anything through that thing.