Mask of the Plague Doctor

Promo image from the recent Ghost tour. Pretty damn correct as it turns out.

tl;dr warning – I’ve gone old school BS Historian on this; a long-form, detailed essay on the subject. For those with limited time or interest, the answer is in the first paragraph. For everyone else; I hope you enjoy the rest and, if you like, skip the first paragraph!

Given the current rash of people dressing as plague doctors in weird defiance of the novel Coronavirus that we find ourselves beset by, as well as their recent use by the ‘12 Monkeys’ TV show and one of my favourite bands, Ghost, I felt I had to tackle the iconic plague doctor mask; the one with the long, curved snout with impressed (or stitched) line down the side mimicking a bird’s beak (sometimes a full-on replica beak with nostril openings). I’ve been sceptical about this for a while now, mostly due to Kathleen Crowther’s blog article ‘Did Plague Doctors Wear Those Masks?’ (2013), available here. Crowther states that the bird’s beak was parody, not reality – that these physicians in their early versions of HAZMAT suits were derided and compared to scavenging ravens (post-medieval Europe hated corvids, unfortunately), and this is where our modern misconception of the plague doctor’s costume comes from. This conclusion does make a lot of sense, but as it turns out, I don’t agree. The plague doctor’s outfit and mask are genuine. Yes, the costume was probably the exception, and the really birdlike masks that fascinate us today even more rare than that, but there’s plenty of evidence that both did in fact exist from about 1619 for perhaps two centuries in one form or another.

OK, time for the deep dive…


The Evidence for An Historical ‘Dr Beak’

The earliest extant plague doctor depiction. Sebastiano Zecchini, 1656. (British Museum archive document 1880,0710.522, AN186495001, from

There is actually a reasonable amount of evidence for the iconic form of the plague doctor’s costume. What isn’t clear is how old this form actually is. Medical practitioners have probably been protecting themselves from infectious diseases (in this case forms of plague) for centuries, but the first version of the iconic outfit dates to the French plague of 1615-21 (which reached Paris in 1618). This clothing is attributed by Michel abbé de Saint-Martin to royal physician Charles Delorme. The full description of Delorme’s costume that appears on Wikipedia (taken from here and in turn from this 1896 article) is in fact a weird mashup of sources, fancifully (irresponsibly?) rewritten as one long interview between Michel and Delorme by N.M. Bernardin, an historian of French literature (not social or medical history). Despite this, it’s close to being accurate. It is mainly based upon ‘Remarques critiques sur le dictionnaire de Bayle’ (1748). Although written a long time after the fact, this does credit its information to Michel and may have been taken from a different source (possibly the 1683 second edition of ‘Moyens’, which I can’t find a copy of online):

‘Il se fit faire, dit-il, un habit de maroquin, que le mauvais air pénètre très difficilement : il mit en sa bouche de l’ail et de la rue ; il se mit de l’encens dans le nez et dans les oreilles, couvrit ses yeux de bésicles, et en cet équipage assista les malades, et il en guérit presque autant qu’il donna de remèdes.’

‘He had himself made, he says, a leather suit, which bad air penetrates with great difficulty: he put garlic and rue [a type of plant] in his mouth; he put incense in his nose and ears, covered his eyes with spectacles, and in this equipment assisted the sick, and he healed almost as much as he gave remedies.’

This has been combined with the only actual information on Delorme’s outfit that does appear in Michel’s ‘Moyens faciles et éprouvés dont M. de l’Orme, médecin, s’est servi pour vivre près de cent ans’ of 1682, which is a mention of his coat and mask (pages 424-425):

‘Il n’oublioit jamais fon habit de marroquin dont il étoit l’autheur, il l’habilloit depuis les pieds jusques à la tefte en forme de pantalon , avec un masque du méme marroquiņ où il avoit fait attacher un nez long de demy pied afin de detourner la malignité de l’air…’

‘He was never without his own design of (goatskin) leather coat, and dressed from head to toe with pantaloons and a mask of the same leather to which he attached a long nose half a foot in length in order to keep out the bad air.’ 

This certainly sounds like the plague doctor we know and love, but at this point there is no mention of a birdlike beak, eyeglasses, gloves (although they are implied by ‘head to toe’), rod or hat (although no gentlemen would set foot outside without some sort of walking stick or hat). Michel goes on to say that Delorme gave another coat and mask to the daughter of Monsier Renaud, chief chirurgeon to King Louis XIII, so there were at least two of these outfits in existence at this time.

However birdlike or otherwise Delorme’s outfit may or may not have been, and whether or not others took the idea from him or came up with it independently, the first certain visual depiction of a plague doctor and also the first to feature a naturalistic bird-face mask is not French but Italian, dating to 1656. [edit – as an aside, after I published this article I spotted this intriguing claim by Francesca Falk that there are in fact two beak-masked plague doctors incorporated into the 1651 frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. This seems impossible to prove, and there is no prior (or subsequent) English depiction or mention that would help to verify it, but I think Falk makes a good case.] One original copy of this 1656 Italian engraving resides in the British Museum’s collection (reproduced at the top of this article – see a later sketched copy here). It was produced in Rome and Perugia, is attributed to the engraver Sebastiano Zecchini;

‘L’habito con il quale vanno i Medici per Roma a Medicare per difesa del mal Contagioso è di tela incerata, il Volto ordinario, congli Occhiali di Christallo, & il Naso pieno di Profumi contro l’infettione. Portano una Verga in mano perdare a vedere, è dimostrare le loro operationi.’

In Roma, & in Perugia, Per Sebastiano Zecchini, 1656.  


This (hopefully!) translates as;

‘The outfit in which the doctors in Rome go to medicate in defence of the infectious disease is of waxed canvas, the face with eyeglasses, & the nose full of perfumes against the infection. They hold a staff because of their reduced vision and to demonstrate their operations.’ 

In Rome, & in Perugia. By Sebastiano Zecchini, 1656.


Note the difference in coat/robe material; waxed canvas instead of the thin goat leather used by the French. But otherwise it’s the same idea; we have to wonder how much ‘later’ Delorme had the idea of the perfume-filled beaked mask. Did he or the doctors in Rome come up with it first? Or did the two hit upon the idea independently? We have no way of knowing unfortunately, but it’s clear that the basic outfit was in use in both French and Italian regions. 


The German Piss-Take Versions

One of two German derivatives of the Italian original, this one by Gerhart Altzenbach and titled ‘Kleidung widder den Todt’ or ‘Death’s Clothing’ (Wikimedia commons –,_Kleidung_widder_den_Todt_Anno_1656.png)

Paul Fürst’s ‘Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom’ or ‘Dr Beak of Rome’ (Wikimedia Commons –,_Der_Doctor_Schnabel_von_Rom_(Holl%C3%A4nder_version).png)

The German states were clearly fascinated by the sensational appearance of the Italian plague doctor(s?) and copied the artwork to produce two later engravings (presumably made within a few years of the original), both with the extensive additional satirical commentary that Crowther points to in her article, poking fun at the odd-looking birdlike man and his ineffectiveness in actually helping the afflicted. One of these satirical ‘broadsides’ is by Gerhart Altzenbach (there is a very brief 1965 academic note on this here, JSTOR account required), the other by Paulus Fürst. Due to the identical date it’s hard to say which of the German ones came first (pun not originally intended) but Fürst’s added memento mori winged hourglass on the tip of the doctor’s staff and the closer resemblance to the Altzenbach version suggests that it followed the latter. Fürst also makes the gloved fingers even more pointed and sinister-looking. This version of the design also suggests that the original artist for the doctor figure was an ‘I. Columbina’, hinting at another Italian version pre-dating all of the known examples.

As Crowther notes, Altzenbach’s broadside is where we get the satirical comparison to the raven:


“Cadavera sucht er zu fristen

Gleich wie der Corvus auf der Misten”


“He seeks cadavers to eke out a living

Just like the raven on the dung heap”


I kind of want to see a Rammstein version of the full thing, but I digress. With all due respect to Kathleen Crowther (and in fairness she does not discount the idea but simply states that she has not seen the evidence), this does not in fact debunk the plague doctor’s beaked mask, or even the more overtly birdlike version of it. The birdface mask cannot be purely satirical; not only because of the other period evidence for similar costumes in France, but because the mocking German ‘Doctor Schnabel’ artwork is very clearly copied directly from an Italian original that is played entirely ‘straight’ with no smirking commentary, criticism or embellishment.

As it turns out, there’s even more evidence to support this. If the three depictions we’ve seen so far are all based on the same original, there is an absolute corker of an original artwork from almost half a century later. That is, the coat of arms of Swiss doctor Theodor Zwinger III (1658 – 1724). There are at least two versions of this; the below is an oil painting on a wooden panel, dated to c.1700 by the Wellcome Collection. It shows a very gothic-looking black robed figure with very birdlike, curved beak, complete with dividing line between upper and lower:


This is my favourite. – Theodore Zwinger in and out of plague doctor costume (From

That’s definitely Zwinger III on the right, and although his dress seems decidedly old-fashioned for the late 17th century, portraits of him show a large ruff and voluminous shoulders on his doublet. Of course, this artwork is essentially fantasy, and does not necessarily mean that Zwinger ever wore this clothing or even that it was still in use at the end of the century. It could in fact mean the opposite – representing the unenlightened past on the left (based on what those silly Italians used to wear) and the modern physician on the right, acknowledging the debt owed to past beliefs whilst distancing the subject from them. It might even be a direct reference to ‘Doctor Schnabel’ as a figure of fun. Even so, it’s another piece of evidence that this outfit was at least a meme of sorts, and very likely a real costume at one time.

Later Forms

The next version appears in 1721 in a much cruder form (below) as the frontispiece to (Genovese) Jean-Jacques Manget’s ‘Traité de la peste‘. Produced by an unidentified artist, is in fact considerably later than the Zecchini original and presumably the German derivatives. This is apparent from this source (note also the much less birdlike depiction over the page in the same book) and indeed from the clear debt owed, down to the specific pose of the doctor, to the design used in the three earlier engravings. This doctor also has an updated style of hat and gloves.

Manget’s 1721 version of the plague doctor (Wikimedia Commons –,_Trait%C3%A9_de_la_peste_(1721);_WHO_version.png)

The accompanying description (the annotation on the drawing covers the eyeglasses) offers more detail than the earlier ones in terms of clothing and is the first to comment on the resemblance of the ‘beak’ to, er, a beak;

‘Le nez en forme de bec est rempli de parfums et oint intérieurement de matières balsamiques … sous le manteau, on porte ordinairement des bottines, des culottes de peau attachées audites bottines et une chemise de peau unie dont on referme le bas dans les culottes, le chapeau et les gants sont aussi de même peau de maroquin du levant.’

‘The beak-shaped nose is filled with perfumes and anointed internally with balsamic materials… under the coat, one usually wears ankle boots, skin breeches attached to said ankle boots and a plain skin shirt whose bottom is closed in the breeches, the hat and the gloves are also of the same goatskin leather.’

Interestingly, Manget and other sources of this period (including this version of the Manget engraving, that specifically namechecks Chicoyneau) explain that the costume was brought back by physician François Chicoyneau, 100 years after the previous plague (no mention of Delorme as either inventor or plague doctor, interestingly), to help tackle a new outbreak of plague in Marseille. Interestingly (and eerily, because as I write this my country has just gone into COVID-19 lockdown), this was probably because Chicoyneau was utterly convinced by miasma theory and did not hold with the idea of a cordon sanitaire to prevent the spread of disease. Of course, the medical treatments of the day were unlikely to help anyone near as much as a cordon, although the plague doctor costume might protect the physicians to some extent. By implication at least, there were now multiple classical ‘plague doctors’ mooching about in this get-up. So far, so birdy. This early 18th century revival provides some important continuity with respect to my next section…


What Plague Doctor Masks Exist?

As far as I can determine, there are between five and seven (two may be recreations) documented ‘beaked’ plague masks (see below). Two to four of them (including both of the possible recreations) seem to have been lost or destroyed. One of these was originally collected for the Museum of Hygiene in Rome from the lazaretto or plague hospital in Venice. It now exists only in a photograph held by the Wellcome Collection in the UK. Even then it was in a sorry condition, missing its lenses. A very similar style of mask was photographed on the island of Poveglia (also in the province of Venice). Both appear below. The interesting thing about this is that Poveglia wasn’t made a lazaretto until the end of the 18th century, so any plague mask collected there is likely not contemporary with the 17th century depictions. It stands to reason that the basic design of mask/hood would remain in use, as the miasma theory of disease was not abandoned for another hundred years.


The Wellcome’s photograph of the Italian mask (from;_an_oil_cloth_ma_Wellcome_V0029672.jpg)

The Poveglia mask.

The two questionable ones were apparently once part of the Wellcome Collection itself. The Collection has photos of one of them including one in situ in the Wellcome Library (mid-C20th). They were clearly both on open display and by the time of this photograph were in a state of disrepair (one being held together with tape!). I am as sure as I can be that both are actually Victorian recreations, produced mid-late 19th century as teaching aids, handled to death, then binned. The one on the left is made of either plaster or papier mache. The right hand one is made of the same worn fabric (wax cotton, oilskin?) as the robes, and there’s no way that set of robes has survived the 150+ years to the mid-20th century. The biggest point against is probably that the Wellcome called one of them a ‘model’ and didn’t keep either of them. If they were genuine, they likely would have saved at least one. 

The three still-extant were also collected by German museums; the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museum in Mannheim, and the Deutsches Medizinhistorisches Museum in Ingolstadt. All appear (as we might expect from items collected by bona fide museums) to be genuine, although they are only loosely dated to some time during the 17th century and in reality could be recreations closer in date to Manget’s 1721 depiction. The Reiss-Engelhorn example has a distinct flat goggle section but is otherwise substantially the same as the others. The DHM hood (AK 2006/51) is the only one that I could find provenance information on – it’s a recent acquisition, purchased at auction in April 2006 from a private art dealer based in Vienna. It’s not clear whether this or the other German examples reflect any actual period German/Austrian/non-Italian use of the masks or (more likely) collection as medical/scientific curiosities by German visitors to one or more of the Italian states. 

The DMM (left) and DHM (right) masks (from the useful thread on the Taleworlds forum;


The Reiss-Engelhorn version (from,S,E&fields_0=all&fields_1=all&imagesonly=1&orientation=both&words_0=all&words_1=all)


Typologically, these masks seem to represent a further evolution from the Manget type, being bulkier, bulbous full hood designs with integrated eye lenses instead of separate spectacles and without the beak line or nostrils. Almost like early C19th diving helmets with beaks. I believe that all are late 18th or early 19th century in date. Frankly it would be remarkable if any of the early type masks had survived for 350-odd years. There is one very classical-looking but also highly dubious example currently included in the Wikipedia articles on plague doctors and their costume. Judging by its condition alone, this must be a modern recreation, and I cannot find any museum in Jena (to which the image is attributed) that would be likely to have anything like this. There is a museum of optics there, which would explain a diorama recreation of a plague doctor, which is what I believe this image to represent. 

These examples are more similar to the artistic depictions than they may appear. As well as a general form resembling the Manget version, and the obvious beak-like snout, if we look closely at the artistic depictions, these too were likely all full, over-the-head affairs, more like hoods than facemasks (the German museums call the later forms ‘pesthaube’ in fact). This which would make them more effective protection against actual diseases as well as imaginary miasma/bad air. All have more conical than realistic-looking ‘beaks’ (two leather, one bronze or more likely copper), not as birdlike as those shown in the period artwork, although in fairness, they are all very old and in a bit of a state; they may have looked more classically plague doctory in their day. Interestingly, the only real change in the 1721 Manget depiction from earlier versions was to depict the doctor’s mask as a full-head hooded affair, albeit still with a more birdlike snout. In fact though, the main difference is that the Manget version doesn’t have the robe wrapped up and over the mask itself. What look like separate facemasks akin to the modern Venetian carnival/commedia dell’arte il Medico della Peste‘ mask are also actually depicting a hood – just one sitting underneath an enveloping robe. In this respect a lot of the modern depictions are actually off-base, showing a balaclava-style hood with a facemask slipped over the top, or sometimes just the mask. Incidentally, ‘il Medico’ himself seems to be a recent phenomenon; a variation/play on the vague similarity of the plague mask to the long-nosed masks worn by the Zanni characters and the modern-day popularity of the plague doctor. There is actually no historical commedia character based on the plague doctor (although there is historically a very different doctor character). 



Whether styled closely after a bird’s face or just resembling one by coincidence (most likely both at different times, in different places and depending upon the individual doctor’s preference), the look of these masks was secondary to their intended function. The main goal here, then as now, was to protect themselves as best they knew how against unseen agents of infection. The masks (especially the simpler forms) are not too different to the early gas masks or ‘gas hoods’ of the First World War. The ‘beak’ is a direct analogue to the later mask filter, albeit full of items thought to combat ‘miasma’ rather than anything medically effective. 

To wrap this up; yes, the full-face bird-like ‘beaked’ mask/hood with glasses, the robes, the gloves, the funky hat, the point-ed stick, thin leather or waxed cloth; all of it was a real thing. Many masks/hoods probably had a conical ‘beak’ that only vaguely resembled a bird’s bill; others probably leaned into the look more like the earliest depictions and our modern conception. Of course, as we’ve seen, the ‘look’ sort of backfired; almost immediately critics were comparing them to that infamous bird of death, the raven – complete in the Fürst version (bottom left of frame) with several terrified prospective patients running away from the doctor, who is waving his winged hourglass of death at them and presumably wondering why no-one wants to be ‘treated’. Even Zwinger’s coat of arms seems to paint (literally) his plague doctor self as an ominous harbinger of disease and death. This, of course, is how we see the plague doctor to this day; a relic of scientific ignorance and a symbol of an elitist, distant, uncaring medical profession. We should probably recognise though that these people were trying to help the infected, not terrify them – just as our (thankfully much more capable) healthcare professionals are trying to do as I type this. Their methods may have been questionable (even by the 1720s) but in terms of protective equipment, they were thinking along the right lines in terms of overlapping fully enveloping clothing that might prevent the ingress of…whatever was causing the infection. They thought it was ‘bad’ air, we know that it’s microscopic organisms (in the case of bubonic plague, passed on by flea bites).

Thankfully, in the current pandemic, we don’t need to experiment with protective clothing for medical practitioners; we know what works and we just have to do our bit and help prevent the spread. If people find the iconic plague doctor interesting, amusing or even comforting rather than scary, that’s a great use for this fascinating piece of (not BS!) history.

Pull Your Finger Out of What, Exactly?

Good luck sticking anything in this… Credit:


Oh, this is a classic. I can hardly believe that I’ve never heard it before; the amazing BS claim, made by the so-called ‘History Project’ on YouTube (and apparently tour guides on HMS Victory), that the phrase ‘pull your finger out’ derives from the world of artillery. 

‘…cannons [sic] were loaded with black powder through a small ignition hole which was held in place by a wooden plug. In the rigours of battle though, this job was carried out by a crewmember who used his finger. Artillerymen hadn’t just to [?*] engage the enemy, would shout at the crewmember to ‘pull his finger out’ enabling him to fire.’

*I’m actually from the UK and have tried three times to get what the presenter is saying here; I still have no idea.

Although garbled and inaccurate, this is based on real historical drill, which you can read about here. I don’t know what they mean by ‘held in place by’, but the real need top ‘stop the vent’ was to prevent premature ignition of the next charge being loaded. By preventing air (and therefore oxygen) being sucked into the chamber as the sponge was pulled out, any embers left still glowing might be reignited, resulting in premature ignition of the fresh charge as this was rammed home (more on this here). 

Importantly, the gun’ captain was to cover the vent with the thumb, not insert a finger! Vents in gun breeches weren’t even big enough to achieve that – typically they were just .2” or 5mm – see this National Parks Service manual! Not to mention the risk of getting it stuck if you could somehow jam it in there. Then there’s the heat problem; gun captains were supposed to wear thumbstalls to protect them, but if you had to stop the vent in the ‘rigours of battle’ you’d suffer far worse if you had your fingertip, never mind your finger, stuck in a red-hot vent. Then there’s the ridiculous idea that an order of command would be as long as five syllables. In a world where even the two syllable word ‘Present’ was shortened to one for speed and convenience (‘P’sent’), there’s no way this phrase would have been used; and sure enough, there’s zero evidence that it was. 

At this point I’ll hand over to the superb

‘The first known use of it in print is in Aussie: The Australian Soldiers’ Magazine, March 1919 :

“Tell the bloke who issues the prizes to pull his finger out.”

It began to be used in the UK during the Second World War, presumably due to the mixing of Australian and UK forces.

What finger was being referred to and where it was supposed to be pulled out from we can only speculate.’

In other words, it’s an Empire/Commonwealth version of ‘pull your thumb out your ass’.

Verdict: total BS. But it made me chuckle at least. I feel that I must point out that ‘The History Project’ also has a video on ‘the whole nine yards’, another bogus phrase origin that I’ve debunked before. They also have one on ‘bite the bullet’, which is still wrong, but more plausible/arguable. I might do that one next. Or maybe I’ll be nice and cover their explanation of ‘Sweet FA’, which actually seems to be true…

Bone Detectives

Cliffs End Farm, Burial Pit 3666 (image from

You might think that I’ve avoided a pun title, but in fact ‘bone‘ is a British military term for ‘not very good’. So this one literally wrote itself. I miss a lot of documentary TV these days, but I managed to catch the first episode of Channel 4’s ‘Bone Detectives’ documentary series, and enjoyed it, but a few things bothered me. Firstly, and this is not uncommon in documentary television, especially not with major archaeological discoveries, because unless you’re Time Team, these don’t happen in real time. You inevitably have to re-hash information that’s well known in the field but is hopefully new to most of your audience. In this case the human remains in question were excavated between 2004-5 and have been pretty widely reported since, even by the tabloids. They were also published in detail in 2015 by a team including Jacqueline McKinley, who (thankfully) appeared throughout the programme. The remains in question were fascinating (see above) – an older woman in a deliberate semi-flexed pose, holding a piece of chalk to her face with one hand (with her mouth open) and apparently pointing at something. For those interested (and TV never gives us any further reading or sources, because god forbid TV isn’t the only way to learn things), the book is ‘Cliffs End Farm Isle of Thanet, Kent: A mortuary and ritual site of the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon period with evidence for long-distance maritime mobility’ by Jacqueline I. McKinley, Matt Leivers, Jörn Schuster and Peter Marshall (2015). My link only provides the contents, acknowledgements etc, not the actual text of the monograph. Depending where in the world you are, you may be able to read the Google Books preview.

Anyway, back to the TV version. As a relatively sensational show, the programme wants us to think that we are discovering something new along with the presenters, archaeologists and scientists, when in fact nothing new is being determined. They go so far as to recreate – possibly even fake outright – in a lab setting, an isotope analysis of a tooth from the site, before presenting existing data on an A4 printout. No analysis is happening, but you wouldn’t know that as a viewer. All of this data is available in McKinley’s book. It’s enough to make one long for the days of Time Team (a programme with which McKinley and Wessex Archaeology were previously associated). The whole format with a fake ‘nerve centre’ studio and team of three presenters is presumably meant to evoke ‘CSI’ and similar fictional shows, but it compromises the actual archaeology, for me at least. Some of the people involved have some serious expertise (mortician and museum curator Carla Valentine is criminally underused in this first episode) – show us the finds and let them tell us what they’ve discovered. You don’t have to sex it up to this extent. Of course, once a show like this has been made, the gutter press then jump on the bandwagon and reinforce the idea that the media have somehow uncovered new evidence or some amazing new interpretation of it. 

This leads me to the other annoying aspect – the levels of speculation involved. Inevitably, when trying to make prehistoric archaeology ‘relatable’ to a modern general audience, there was a fair bit of speculation and storytelling in this programme. Some of this was taken from McKinley’s work and was therefore legitimate (if still speculative), whereas some was no doubt encouraged by the producers and over-reaches the facts or (in the case of point 1) is outright incorrect. Some points that stood out for me;

  1. The name of the Isle of Thanet has *bugger all* to do with the Greek God of death Thanatos. Even Wikipedia (referencing the Oxford English Dictionary of Placenames) has the correct, British, etymology of the name. This is invoked to strengthen a questionable hypothesis about Thanet being some sort of Bronze Age island of death and the white cliffs being somehow part of this, hence the lump of chalk see point 3).
  2. McKinley et al are upfront in the book about the significance of the chalk lump that the same skeleton is holding close to her face. It is undoubtedly a deliberate pose by those that buried her, but with no known parallel and no known significance. As they put it, its meaning is ‘currently unfathomable.’ They speculate that it could be a reference to the practical purposes of chalk, or might ‘signify origins by representing chalk bedrock, chalk cliffs etc.’ They further speculate ‘symbolism associated with purity, renewal or [that] may [it] have been ascribe [sic] healing power.’ This is already a massive reach, as the comparison is actually with white quartz pebbles found in ‘much later early Christian graves’ whose symbolism is revealed in the Bible. This likely has nothing to do with Bronze Age Britain, but at least it’s qualified as speculation. In ‘Bone Detectives’ however, the chalk piece is emphatically connected to the chalk cliffs of southern Britain, which are in turn connected to a fanciful story of how Thanet was seen as a mystical island of death by foreigners. This is based on an account by Procopius of Caesarea about the British Isles in general, *not* about Thanet specifically (he wouldn’t have known where Thanet was). This appears for some reason (the text doesn’t reference it) as an epilogue in the archaeological monograph. Once again, hearsay about Britain as an island, recorded by a 1st century CE Greek who had never visited Britain can have nothing to do with this Bronze Age site on the smaller, specific island of Thanet. This is why the programme was keen for ‘Thanet’ to tortuously derive from ‘Thanatos’, the Greek god of death (as noted, it doesn’t). This despite the fact that the source itself is talking about how native Britons see their own island, not how foreigners see it. Even Procopius himself is far from convinced that the story he relates is true. You can read a translation here (scroll down/ctrl-F ‘Procopius’).
  3. The programme claims, probably in order to heighten topical parallels with modern Britain as a country of immigrants (as earlier media coverage also did), that the skeleton is pointing out to sea, where some of the people who were buried in the pit originated (some were not native to Britain). By contrast (perhaps her thinking has moved on?) McKinley’s book points out (ha) that the sea ‘lies to the south-west, not the south’ and instead suggests that the elderly female skeleton may be pointing at the central enclosure of the site, which is thought to have been used for ritual feasts. She proposes that the connection is in terms of feasting to aid the passing of the dead. Plausible, with supporting ethnographic parallels (which she references), but ultimately, we don’t know. In any case, and regardless of the foreign people buried near her (but not adjacent to her) why would a native Briton be pointing out to sea? If she were somehow pointing out to sea, for all we know she was pointing as a warning against invasion – or any number of other explanations. Given that the pit was regularly re-opened (or uncovered) to add more remains and/or change things, the posing of the older woman could have been done unilaterally by an individual – even as a sort of prank (again, for all we know – I’m not suggesting that this actually happened). It’s also possible that the gesture of a raised index finger is what was significant here, and not the trajectory described by the finger itself.
  4. This one is down to the archaeologists unfortunately – McKinley’s hypothesis that the pit was not just a ritual deposit but evidence of a sacrifice is very sound, indeed she covers this possibility in the book as the more likely of two explanations, the other being execution. She leans toward a ritual explanation because of the other human and animal remains in the pit, its situation near a compound thought to be for ritual purpose, and because getting killed by a sword in the Bronze Age was pretty uncommon, implying that she was somehow special (along with her relatively advanced age and the care taken in her burial). It’s all suitably circumspect and academically reserved. But in the TV show it’s all much less tentative; not only was this woman definitely a sacrifice, it’s stated that she was likely a willing sacrifice, because she had no defensive wounds on her hands or arms. This despite it also being stated that injuries to soft tissue do not (obviously) appear on bone, and so are invisible. Given that the woman was posed after death, it is just as likely that she was killed unwillingly (she was definitely killed – she has multiple edge weapon wounds to the top of her skull) with her hands bound or arms pinned by a third party.

I can’t help feeling that there’s a happy medium between this fluff and tedious archaeological monographs that only specialists read. In fact, I think that happy medium is probably the internet – you can find out way more with judicious Googling than you do in this episode (see my in-text links above). 

Empty Beaches in ‘Dunkirk’ (2017) (reddit link)

I have more posts in the pipeline, but as this is something I wanted to cover, but then found a Reddit thread that nailed it, I’m just going to link to it. I remember thinking that the beach was far too sparse in Christopher Nolan’s movie, but did search out some period photos that did look like the movie. I still thought that Nolan had erred too much on the side of practical effects and avoiding CGI. This is arguably still true for the detail of the film – the Buchon aircraft are visibly not real Messerschmitt Bf109s and that could/should have been fixed ‘in post’. The in-cockpit shots from the modified ‘camera ship’ aircraft are also obvious to those who know their aircraft. The most jarring shot of the film for me was the comedy broomhandle in Tom Hardy’s ditched Spitfire. Why that wasn’t fixed with CGI I will never know But these are minor details really. Long story short, Nolan got it about right about how busy the beaches were, albeit he was selective in the shots he chose to present. For me though it’s about whether what’s shown is plausible or realistic, and it absolutely is. You could take a time-travelling camera crew to 1940 and film similar footage – you might be missing times or places when there were more people, vehicles and equipment visible, but what Nolan shows us is not unrealistic. The argument then becomes one about artistic vision, and for me, the film overall is great.

Here’s the thread in question;

Excalibur found? No, obviously not.

More ‘among’ than ‘in’…

Very shortly after I posted my ‘sword in the stone’ article (see my last post), the story broke of another medieval (this one a ‘hand-and-a-half’ or ‘bastard’) sword supposedly embedded in stone – and also in a lake. Of course the media couldn’t resist the obvious parallels to two Arthurian swords (or one, depending which version of the myth you prefer) – the ‘Sword in the Stone’ and Excalibur. My title is taken from last week’s Fox News version of the story. Well, not the second bit. Unfortunate click-bait for what is actually a very interesting find relating to the very well documented practice of, to paraphrase Monty Python, ‘distributing swords’ among bodies of water. This is somewhat legitimate; more so than Pryor’s Bronze Age metallurgy-inspired origin for the sword in the stone. Of course the media did not make the actual connection here. The practice of depositing swords into lakes and rivers was very long-standing and lasted well into the medieval period (e.g. this one). We don’t quite know what this practice was about, but it was definitely a meme of sorts; there are so many cases of it for so long and in so many different watery places that there can be no single pragmatic reason. It’s widely accepted as a ‘ritual’ practice, probably an offering of sorts, originally to a deity, later perhaps to Christian saints. Therefore it’s at least plausible that the 13th century ‘Post-Vulgate’ era Arthurian tales (which are the first appearance of Excalibur as a lake-based sword) could have been influenced by this.

So, not entirely unconnected to Arthurian mythology, but actually part of a once common ritual practice. The ‘lake’ bit might just have a common origin with Excalibur, but the ‘in the stone’ bit is a total red herring. As you can see from the video on The Sun version of the story, the sword actually fell between two large rocks, later becoming somewhat embedded in an accretion of small rocks, silt, and sand formed over centuries. Not even the point is actually stuck in stone – the image of it in situ (and the actual recovered sword) shows that a good foot or more of the blade is missing; the broken distal end of the weapon was just resting against a rock, in a slight crevice depression, with a buildup of accretion around it. The story is interesting enough that it shouldn’t really need Arthur to sell it; it’s not every day that we find new medieval swords – but it’s the easy ‘hook’ I guess.

The Bronze Sword in the Stone?

Not the stone you’re looking for… Molds for bronze swords and other items, from the Nordheimer Hohl, Neckargartach, Stadt Heilbronn, c. 800 BC, Lettenhohl sandstone – Landesmuseum Württemberg – Stuttgart, Germany. Wikimedia/Daderot


I’ve been catching up on Arthurian legend/history recently, and have twice come across the interesting suggestion that the “sword in the stone” could have originated as an idea from the Bronze Age practice of casting a sword in a stone mould. Interesting, but ridiculous. This idea seems to originate with Francis Pryor, an eminent archaeologist of prehistory (not, in fact, the Migration Period/Dark Ages), who raises it in his ‘Britain A.D.’ series, and again in a Time Team special


The biggest issue here is one of time; 1,200 years (minimum) to be precise. The casting of bronze swords ceased around 600 BCE in Europe. Yet the story of the sword in the stone doesn’t appear until Robert de Boron’s poem Merlin, written circa 1190-1210 CE. This is the relevant section, from a later (C15th) Middle English translation;


“Some of the peple yede oute of the cherche where ther was a voyde place. And whan they com oute of the cherche, thei sawgh it gan dawe and clere, and saugh before the cherche dore a grete ston foure square, and ne knewe of what ston it was — but some seide it was marble. And above, in the myddill place of this ston, ther stode a styth of iren that was largely half a fote of height. And thourgh this stithi was a swerde ficchid into the ston.

Whan the gode man that sange masse herde this, he toke haly water and caste upon the stith. And the archebisshop lowted to the swerde and sawgh letteres of golde in the stiel. And he redde the letteres that seiden, “Who taketh this swerde out of this ston sholde be kynge by the eleccion of Jhesu Criste.”


Before this story there is no prior tradition of swords in stones in folklore or history that would imply any continuity at all between the practice of casting bronze swords and this late 12th/early 13th century story. As the Bronze Age is literally prehistoric, there could be no written tradition of cast bronze or copper swords, and we have no dated examples from the historical era. There is a tangential link to swordmaking insofar as the sword in the poem/story was driven through a blacksmith’s anvil and *then* into a hard stone (a “perron” or mounting block), but anvils (and indeed blacksmithing) have nothing to do with the making of bronze swords. If anything this hurts Pryor’s hypothesis because the sword isn’t just in a stone – it’s in an iron anvil. If de Boron was trying to evoke ancient swordsmithing, why introduce that element?

There is also the point that bronze swords were also cast in sand or clay moulds; it was much easier to press an existing sword into these materials to create a disposable mould than to laboriously chisel the correct shape out of stone. Stone sword moulds (which had the advantage of being reusable) are not common (and of course clay and sand are unlikely to survive), and were used early in the (pre)history of bronze swordmaking (see Wileman, 2014, p.109). So the ‘meme’ of swords emerging from stone moulds is by no means secure, and would have to have to survived even longer than the end of the Bronze Age to the early 12th century. Even if this knowledge had somehow survived (let’s say a mould had been dug up somewhere or found re-used in a wall or something), I also have to question the likelihood of a medieval poet coming across such arcane and ancient knowledge. Stone moulds were used to make metal objects until the 18th century, but never iron or metal swords. At best, for this hypothesis to work we would have to assume that de Boron was inspired to imagine a sword stuck in a stone by the mistaken belief that swords were cast rather than forged, or simply by having seen another metal object being cast. Even then, we have zero evidence of this, and may as well speculate (off the top of my head) that Tony Scott was inspired to direct the film ‘Top Gun’ because he had a toy helicopter as a child. It has a chance of being true, probably isn’t, and adds nothing to our understanding of the story. Pryor’s suggestion might carry more weight if we were talking about an early Welsh folkloric story of Arthur that might reflect some oral tradition, or even the late 1st Century pseudohistories that fleshed out the King Arthur that we know today. But here we know that de Boron came up with the idea in the process of writing a fictional story based upon those prior tales. Perhaps Pryor did not realise that the sword in the stone was part of the French romantic Arthurian tradition and not any kind of traditional British version. Therefore, not only is the idea that a Medieval author somehow possessed knowledge of prehistoric swordmaking implausible, it isn’t even necessary to explain a wholly fictional aspect of the lore.


This sort of retrofitting of the evidence is a constant theme in the never-ending quest by many to historicise Arthur (who very likely never existed by the way – a post for another day perhaps). To quote the brilliant Bad Archaeology blog:


“It starts with an assumption that there was a Camelot to be found and that there was an Arthur to hold court there, then goes out to find the evidence. Without the later stories of ‘King’ Arthur, there is nothing in the archaeology of these places that would lead us to postulate the existence of such a character. We bring our later preconceptions to bear on the interpretation of the data, which is definitely Bad Archaeology.”


In closing, I should point out that there is a much more likely historical inspiration for the medieval sword in the stone. It’s a medieval sword. In a stone. I speak of the sword of Saint Galgano, which actually predates the fictional Arthurian version both as an extant (and genuine) artefact and as an historically attested incident (by which I mean it was known prior to de Boron putting pen to parchment). As this academic article suggests, it’s possible that de Boron heard of this sword and stone and used that as his inspiration. This is still somewhat speculative, but far more likely than Pryor’s bronze sword claim which, as far as I can tell, has never been proposed in a scholarly fashion at all. 

Alms and Fingers: BS History on YouTube

‘A Family of Three at Tea’ by Richard Collins. British, oils, ca. 1727


I watch (or, being ridiculously busy these days, listen to) a lot of YouTube videos and really appreciate some of the historical channels like ‘Shadiversity’, which covers medieval history. They are a great introduction to the subject for the layperson and especially for visual learners, people with limited time and/or interest. The danger of them is exactly that of traditional TV documentaries – that the viewer assumes that the content is 100% factual and authoritative. Just like TV, YouTubers lack the time and often the means (often the motivation, it has to be said) to be academically rigorous about their ‘content’, which is entertainment first and foremost, not to mention a source of income (whether directly from YouTube monetisation or indirectly by crowdsourced funding).

For example, a recent video from Shad (who does normally try hard with his historical accuracy) included two very questionable claims, both from Abbey Medieval Festival organiser Edith Cuffe.


Claim 1: ‘Alms to the poor’ originates with the donation of used trenchers

Verdict: BS

Cuffe describes the medieval practice of donating the stale bread plates used at the banquet table, known as ‘trenchers’, to the poor, stating ‘…giving alms to the poor…that’s where that saying comes from’.

This is just not true and doesn’t even try to explain the word ‘alms’, what it meant in the wider sense, or where it came from. ‘Alms’ is actually ancient, from ancient Greek via Latin, and from very early on described any charitable gift to the poor, whether money, clothing, food or drink. This is like claiming that the concept of ‘drinking’ originates with alcoholic beverages – the idea of drinking obviously pre-dated that of the alcoholic drink, and the same logical failure applies here. Naturally I wanted to work out where this mistake originated, and as far as I can tell this isn’t something that is widely claimed. I suspect that Ms Cuffe simply misspoke or perhaps has become confused over this point. Trenchers really were given to the poor, although the sources seem to be limited. The main one (and I am no expert here either) seems to be ‘A Fifteenth Century Courtesy Book’ (British Library manuscript ‘Additional’ no. 37969). 

This explains that between courses various food and drink including (but not limited to) used trenchers would be collected along with an unused trencher and a whole loaf of bread in the ‘almes dyshe’ and then taken to be given to the poor. However, this was not some special dish just for leftover food – an alms dish was just a receptacle for any charitable donation – money, food, drink, or other. Incidentally, have a go at reading that Middle English source – it’s fascinating and great fun when you get into the swing of it. 15th century English is readily understood with a bit of effort, once you realise that words are spelled how they are pronounced (so this has changed somewhat over time), there’s an additional letter, the *Thorn* (looks like a ‘p’) which was a ‘th’ sound – and of course some of the vocabulary is a bit tricky, but easily Googled. For example, the ‘sure howse’ that the alms dish was taken to was a church, chapel, or other religious building (specifically, ‘church’ was ‘chirche’). There was an actual church job role of ‘almoner’ (mentioned in the same MS), the official receiver and distributor of alms – again, much of which was simply money – it was not just a medieval food bank per se (although it did partly perform that role).


Claim 2: The modern ‘pinky in the air’ was invented for the medieval dinner table

Verdict: BS

The other piece of ‘Medieval Misconception’ in the video (again given by Cuffe) is the idea that the present-day custom (popularised in the 19th century) of holding one’s little (pinky) finger out to one side/in the air comes from the medieval practice of reserving certain fingers for picking up spices at the dinner table. This seems to originate with Dr Madeleine Pelner Cosman of the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, City College of New York, who made the same claim several times in non-academic level publications, e.g. from her 1981 ‘Medieval Holidays and Festivals: A Calendar of Celebrations’ (p.7):

‘Even today many people keep a pinky finger extended when holding a tea or coffee cup. Why? Because polite banquet rules imitate the medieval manner of keeping particular fingers free of sauces, the spice fingers.’

All subsequent references seem to come from Cosman’s claims. Unfortunately Cosman seems to assume, without evidence, that the practice of reserving the little finger for tasting spices somehow has a direct line of tradition to the modern table etiquette idea of holding out the little finger. Rather like ‘archer’s salute’, this is a massive leap from a single source that vaguely sounds like something that’s done later on in history; *much* later on in history. Without wishing to be uncharitable, Cosman was definitely not a medieval scholar. None of her degrees were in a history subject, never mind medieval history, and her actual academic career was in comparative and English Literature. Her medieval expertise was essentially that of a re-enactor (not a bad thing in itself of course) running a living history group and being involved in the US ‘Renaissance Fair’ pastime. This makes her logical leap all the more questionable and means that her claims have never been challenged by credentialled medieval scholars.

In all, this is another case of an academic straying out of their area of expertise, and at the same time, of the re-enactment community inventing historical facts and reinforcing them through repetition and also publication. As for where the little finger in the air really comes from, it’s hard to say for sure but the explanation that it arose in the 18th century with the first teacups, which were small and lacked handles. Grasping one of these with thumb and forefinger/middle finger encouraged the little finger to be held out to one side, and this certainly became the fashionable way to do it. The book ‘Forgotten Elegance’ by Wendell and Wes Schollander (2002) refers to an artistic depiction of 1740 (actually earlier, see my image above) that shows different ways of holding a teacup including one with the little finger extended. In any case, by the late Victorian period the extended little finger had become passé and was used by the upper classes to differentiate themselves from lower class tea drinkers who persisted in its use (see for example Frederick Gordon Row, ‘The Victorian Child’, 1959, p.53). The rigorous thing to do would be to say that we don’t really know – it was just a fashion in etiquette. But it almost certainly doesn’t come from 15th century table practicalities.

So, as elsewhere, don’t believe everything you hear on YouTube…