Doctors who treated people sick with bubonic plague, they could be identified at a distance by their long cane (both for probing sick bodies and keeping away passersby) and their long leather overcoat, goggles, mask with a beak-like nose, and wide-brimmed dark hat. Plague doctors were employed by the village nobles to treat everyone regardless of economic status but were known to also offer additional (often esoteric) cures, wringing additional compensation out of desperate families who could pay.
Carly Busta: Well, this Mardi Gras, you'll be in Berlin. But in Italy, where of course Venice is one of the famous carnivals they curtailed it two days early. So they stopped it today, when they realized that there are so many cases. Of course, what I think is funny is one of the iconic costumes of Carnival, especially in Venice is the plague doctor, right? And I'm sure listeners can call this to mind. It's like the bird beak white face with the black hat, leather hat and the long black robes. So the first plague hit Europe in the sixth century, it was the plague of Justinian. The Black Death that we think of in the Middle Ages was in the 14th century. But this plague doctor costume actually didn't start until the 17th century. It was in 1630, that this doctor Charles de Lorme, who was a doctor to the Medicis, he invented it because he was like..Oh, this is a great example. We just posted this podcast on magick, and this is sort of the line between science and magic, and often how magic intuits something that science then later proves, right?
Daniel Keller: The techne-episteme question, right? It works because it was a mask that covered your face, but it didn't work in the mechanism that they thought.
CB: Right. So at the time, they thought that if you breathed in putrid air that you were kind of alchemically changed into the virus. But of course, you know, if you smelled death, if you smelled something that was bad, if you were around sick people, and you breathed in that air, it was this energy and these forces that were going into your body.
DK: Is that miasma?
CB: Exactly, the miasma. And so it was this toxic air that would cause disease in your body. So you know, for a long time, they believed this and I don't know what they did. But in the 17th century, this guy Charles de Lorme was like “I have an idea. I'm going to basically create a 17th century version of a hazmat suit. And I’m going to dress in black with a leather hat and I'm going to wear this bird beak that I'm going to put a straw and mint and camphor and vinegar in the beak of this mask. And I'm going to carry a long cane so that I can keep people at a distance if they come close to me and I see that they're infected. And if I want to probe something, I can keep my distance.” And so this mask evolved during this time.
CB: I could go on about plague doctors. It's quite interesting. So he popularized this and this then spread in the 17th and 18th centuries, but as I was looking into it further and this is just a Wikipedia hole but since we're at Carnival, and we're in the middle of a massive plague crisis, it seems to make sense. So these plague doctors were actually hired by the city because the city was like “shit like everybody in our city — we have to put our city under quarantine” and they also did this in the middle ages or 17th century and they would then hire a plague doctor to come in and to take care of the families. But the plague doctors were usually not like the good doctors, they were usually second rate doctors or not even doctors just people who signed up to be doctors. They got the mask, they got the cane, they got paid by the city a flat rate which meant they had to visit poor people but also rich people. But rich people were so desperate for something and of course they had no like legitimate medicine for this that they put like frogs on wounds back then or something to try to make the frogs, poor frogs, like take care of the virus or the bacteria.
LIL INTERNET: Like suck the bacteria out? Like putting an onion in a room when someone sick...
CB: Yeah, all this stuff. But so, these plague doctors they would go to the rich people and they would be like but for an extra few shillings or like whatever francs, I will do a special ritual for you. And so these plague doctors got like super, super rich because they were basically just playing on people's emotions, but it was kind of tragic because they all died.
DK: Is that why they're called quacks because they have beaks? Probably not...but interesting.