Tomb of Dracula 2: The Revenge

Snagov monastery (Wikimedia Commons)

Some years ago I debunked (as well as others) a ridiculous claim about a supposed tomb of the infamous medieval prince and nominal fictional vampire, Vlad III. In that post I commented that part of the reason Vlad couldn’t be buried in Naples was because he was known to be buried elsewhere; probably Snagov monastery. Well, it doesn’t change my prior conclusion that the Naples claim was total BS, but I was definitely off-base regarding Snagov. Atlas Obscura tells us that;

This solitary monastery may hold the remains of Vlad the Impaler (but probably not).”

I’d go one further; Vlad definitely isn’t at Snagov. This 2002 article (in Vol. 4 of the Journal of Dracula Studies), written by Constantin Rezachevici of the Nicolae Iorga Institute of History, explains that this claim is completely fabricated. The short version is that it is a totally invented tradition starting with a 17th century claim that Vlad founded the monastery – he didn’t – on top of which was layered an assumption that he must therefore have been buried there. The famous 1933 excavations that failed to find evidence of Vlad were carried out on the second church built on the site, well after his death. Rezachevici points to the various executed 16th and 17th century boyars buried at Snagov (which seems to have functioned as something of a mini Tower of London) as a likely reason why people started to speculate on a Vlad association, as well as a general tendency for monks to seek famous historical figures to associate their monasteries with in order to garner kudos and, perhaps, money for the upkeep of their ageing sites. It’s not so different to somewhere like Roslin Chapel, albeit the Church of Scotland definitely didn’t court the spurious associations that now bring thousands to the site who would not otherwise have brought their tourist money.

Now, the Rezachevici article also outlines the case for Vlad’s grave being at Comana, itself quite speculative but a stronger claim than Snagov, as there is good evidence for Vlad having that monastery built. However, no tomb or grave has been located there either. Rezachevici reports a grave “set in the proper place for a founder” that could be the one. He does not mention any details of the human remains or any efforts to search for Vlad or his grave, either in the original 1970s excavations or later on. All I could find online was a Facebook post by one of the authors of the book ‘Corpus Draculianum’, who have investigated the ’70s excavation reports and corresponded with the archaeologist responsible, and identified no likely candidates. Notably, no decapitation burials were allegedly found. I found the published report online here, and ran most of it through Google Translate. It details the many burials, which were mainly of monks and members of the local community. Considerable effort was made to identify individuals, and needless to say, Vlad was not one of them. No named individuals could be identified prior to the 17th century, meaning that he could in theory be there, however by the same token there is no sign of any higher status burials of Vlad’s era (whereas there are voivodes of later centuries) and no skeletons were found to be missing a head (see below). Nor is any skeletal trauma described (although perhaps detailed analysis was not carried out). Of course, when this work was carried out there was no over claim that Vlad III’s remains might be there, but the possibility must have occurred, and in any case, as noted, the archaeologist involved has since been asked about this and has confirmed a lack of any evidence. The Comana claim seems to be Rezachevici’s (pet?) theory in particular, with only circumstantial evidence to support it.

Now, I mentioned the fact that Dracula had been decapitated; this is worth digging into in itself; the more bits he ended up in, the more resting places he might have, and the lower the chances of there even being a grave for him; there is certainly no extant tomb. According to Cazacu (2017, p. 180), Vlad’s body was ‘cut to pieces’, which some have taken to mean literally dismembered, so I decided to try to verify which bits he’s actually missing. I couldn’t get hold of the primary source here (Leonardo Botta), but even if he did say ‘cut to pieces’, this is frequently used in the figurative sense. Defeated enemies of nobles might be quartered and their bits sent to different cities (like William Wallace, famously) but here the evidence for dismemberment is lacking. On the other hand the decapitation is attested by more than one source. M.J. Trow’s English translation from Jakob Unrest’s 1499 Austrian Chronicle says;

“Dracula was killed with great cunning, because the Turks wished to avenge the enmity which he had borne against them for so long and also the great damages inflicted upon them. They hired a Turk as one of his servants with the mission of killing him while he served him. The Turk was apparently instructed to attack Dracula from the back. He was then to cut off his head and bring it back on horseback to the sultan.”
-M.J. Trow, ‘A Brief History of Vampires’ (digital edition)

Antonius Bonfinius, (Italian) Hungarian court historian for Matthias Corvinus, in his ‘Rerum Ungaricarum Decades‘, compiled between one and two decades of Vlad’s death, reports;

“In Turcico demum bello cesus, caput ad Maumethem dono missum.”
“Beaten in war with the Turkish, [Dracula’s] head was sent to Mehmet.”

We will likely never know what happened to Dracula’s remains, but he’s not in Naples, he’s not at Snagov, and he probably isn’t at Comana either. Wherever Dracula is, he’s likely still in two bits; his head somewhere in Turkey and the rest somewhere in Romania.

Count Cholera 2: Revenge of the Half-Baked Hypothesis

These two get it.

As I noted in my first post on Marion McGarry’s Dracula=Cholera hypothesis, I’m always wary of criticising ideas that have been filtered through the media (rather than presented first-hand by the author or proponent), because something is almost always missing, lost in translation or even outright misrepresented. So when a kind commenter directed me to this recording of McGarry’s talk on her theory that Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ was inspired by Stoker’s mother’s experience of the early 19th century Sligo cholera outbreak, I felt that I had to listen to it (I never did receive a reply to my request for her article). Now that I have listened, I can confirm that McGarry is reaching bigtime. The talk adds very little to the news reports that I referenced last time and covers much the same ground, including spurious stuff like the novel having the working title of ‘The Undead’ (‘undead’ already being a word as I noted previously). There is some new material however.

Early on McGarry references recent scholarship regarding the historical figure of Wallachian ruler Vlad III being the inspiration for the Count and the novel that features him. She is right about this; Stoker did indeed only overlay Vlad’s name and (incorrect) snippets of his biography onto his existing Styrian ‘Count Wampyr’. However, needless to say, just because ‘Dracula’ was not inspired by the historical Vlad III, it does not follow that it/he was inspired by cholera. As I noted before, Stoker did not invent the fictional vampire, and had no need of inspiration to create his own vampire villain. The only argument that might hold weight is that he was inspired to tackle vampirism by his family history. McGarry’s main argument for this hinges on the fact that Stoker did research for his novels in libraries. As noted last time, this actually works against her theory, since we have Stoker’s notes and there is no mention of his having read around cholera in preparation for writing ‘Dracula’. Whereas we do have his notes on his actual sources, which were about eastern European folklore; vampires and werewolves. The aspects that Stoker did use, he transplanted almost wholesale; it’s easy to see, for example, which bits he lifted from Emily Gerard. Stoker did not in fact do ‘a great deal’ of reading; he found a couple of suitable books and stopped there. Which is why the only other new bit of information from this talk is also of limited use. McGarry cites this 1897 interview with Stoker, claiming that ‘…the kernel of Dracula was formed by live burials…’ This is not, in fact, what Stoker was asked. He was asked what the origin of the *the vampire myth* was, not the inspiration for his taking on that source material:

“Is there any historical basis for the legend?”

Stoker, who was no better informed on the true origins of the Slavic vampire than any other novelist, answered:

“It rested, I imagine, on some such case as this. A person may have fallen into a death-like trance and been buried before the time. 

Afterwards the body may have been dug up and found alive, and from this a horror seized upon the people, and in their ignorance they imagined that a vampire was about.”

Yes, this has parallels with cholera victims being buried prematurely, but it is by no means clear that Stoker was thinking of this when he made this response. Certainly, he does not mention it. There is every chance that this is purely coincidence; plenty of others at this time lazily supposed, like Stoker, that vampire belief stemmed from encounters with still-living victims of premature burial, or (apocryphal) stories of scratches on the inside of coffin lids. Stoker’s family connection with premature burial is likely a coincidence. Had he included a scene involving premature burial, or even a mention of it in the novel, McGarry might be onto something.

McGarry tries to compare Stoker’s victims of vampirism with descriptions of cholera patients; lethargy, sunken eyes, a blue tinge to the eyes and skin. Unfortunately the first two fit lots of other diseases, notably tuberculosis, and the third symptom doesn’t actually feature in ‘Dracula’ at all. I have literally no idea why she references it. She also tries to link the blue flames of the novel with German folklore in which ’blue flames emerge from the mouths of plague victims’. I have never heard of this, nor can I find any reference to it. I do know, however, that Stoker took his blue flames from Transylvanian folklore about hidden treasure; taken again from Emily Gerard (Transylvanian Superstitions), confirmed once again by Stoker’s notes. If there is folklore about blue flames and cholera, no reference appears in his notes, and it is most likely coincidence.

In an extension of her commentary that storms preceded both outbreaks (cholera and vampirism) McGarry asserts that the first victim of cholera presented on 11 August – the same date as Dracula’s first British victim in the novel, the evidence being William Gregory Wood-Martin’s 1882 book ‘The History of Sligo County and Town’. This is not correct. Lucy, Dracula’s first victim, does indeed receive her vampire bite on 11 August. MEanwhile however, back in the real world, the first case of cholera in Sligo was identified on 29 July 1832. Wood-Martin mentions 11 August only because a special board was created on that day, precisely because the first case had happened some time previously. McGarry does admit that 11 August ‘..may have been randomly chosen by Stoker’, yet still lists this piece of ‘evidence’ in her summing up, which is as follows;

‘It cannot be a coincidence that Bram Stoker had Dracula tread a path very similar to cholera; a devastating contagion travelling from the East by ship that people initially do not know how to fight, a great storm preceding its arrival, the ability to travel over land by mist and the stench it emits, avenging doctors and Catholic imagery, the undead rising from the dead, all culminating in the date of august 11th of the first victim.’

Just to take these in order;

  1. ‘It cannot be a coincidence’ It can absolutely be a coincidence. All of this is literally coincidence without any evidence to support it. This is not how history works. 
  2. ‘…a path very similar…’ Dracula comes from Western Europe. Cholera came from the Far East. Both are east of the British Isles, but the origins of the two contagions are hardly identical. The ship aspect I dealt with last time; this is how people and goods travelled across continents at that time. Not to mention that all of these similarities with cholera are similarities with any disease – and most agree that the idea of the vampire as contagion is a legitimate theme of ‘Dracula’ (indeed, historical belief in vampires has strong ties to disease). There’s nothing special about cholera in this respect. The same goes for idea of people not knowing how to fight these afflictions; all disease outbreaks require learning or relearning of ways to combat them. One could just as easily claim similarity in that cholera had been fought off previously, and that Van Helsing already knows how to defeat vampires; just not necessarily this one… 
  3. ‘…the ability to travel over land by mist and the stench it emits…’ earlier in the talk McGarry claims that Stoker invokes miasma theory in ‘Dracula’. In fact he doesn’t. Bad smells abound, sure, but the only mention of miasma in the novel is metaphorical (‘as of some dry miasma’) and relates to the earthy smell of Dracula’s Transylvanian soil, not to the Count himself. Nowhere is smell cited as a means of transmission, only biting. ‘Dracula’, famously, takes a very modern, pseudoscientific approach to vampirism, even if its counter is good old-fashioned Catholic Christianity. Speaking of which…
  4. ‘…avenging doctors and Catholic imagery…’ as noted, ‘Dracula’ does treat vampirism as a disease, so the doctors follow from that; not bearing any specific relation to cholera in Ireland. As for Catholic imagery, well, Stoker was from that background, and Dracula is very overtly Satanic in the novel. You need religion to defeat evil just as you need medicine to defeat disease. Once again, this is coincidence.
  5. ‘…the undead rising from the dead…’ how else does one get the undead? Seriously though, I’ve dealt with this above and previously. Stoker chose to write about vampires, therefore the undead feature. 
  6. ‘…all culminating in the date of August 11th of the first victim.’ Except it doesn’t, as I’ve shown.

I make that a 0/6. The themes identified by McGarry in Stoker’s book stem from his choice of vampires as the subject matter, and his take is shaped by his knowledge, upbringing, etc etc. Was he in part inspired to choose vampires because of family history with cholera? Maybe; it’s plausible as one of many influences (not, as McGarry implies, the main or sole influence) but there is literally zero evidence for it. 

Plague Doctors – the Last Word

Disappointingly, this is probably what most plague doctors actually looked like.
Ivory figurine, circa 1700 (DMMI object no. AB / 0315)

To finish up what’s become a series of articles on this subject, I wanted to get back to the nub of things; what did plague doctors really wear, for the most part? How common was the beak mask really? It almost certainly did exist, but what was the typical plague doctor’s outfit, and by ‘typical’, I mean the outfit that was commonly used. If, as seems to be the case, the birdlike beak was the exception rather than the rule, the rest of the outfit is actually really common. So common, in fact, that it was worn by anyone that could afford it who found themselves dealing with the plague, not just the doctors (more on this later). Now, for all we know, the form of the waxed cloth robe for use by clergy may have differed from that worn by medical staff, but it’s the same idea. This is because the waxed coat or robe as protection from disease was pretty much received wisdom by the early 18th century, and had been around for at least a century, as we’ve seen in my previous witterings.

We’ve seen Muratori’s advice on waxed linen clothing in my last article – see also my first article for the advice of Delorme (c.1620) and Chicoyneau (1721) in France, and the wording of the Italian engraving (1656). I’ve since found more evidence for the clothing. Waxed canvas and smooth leather are the top recommendations pretty much across the board. Carlo M. Cipolla’s book ‘Fighting the Plague in Seventeenth-century Italy’ does a great job of showing how widespread the advice around clothing was in the Italian states. Intriguingly the waxed robe seems to have been an invention of Florence, and around the same time as the French were using smooth leather. Cipolla does rather conflate the beak mask version of the outfit with the more common waxed linen robe; I’ve chased down his various sources and none clearly detail the beak mask. He implies (p. 11) that the classic plague doctor costume was worn in Bologna, Verona, Lucca, Florence, and ‘minor Tuscan communities such as Montecarlo, Pescia, and Poppia.’ His quoted source for Verona (Pona, Il Gran Contagio, p. 30) states “During this bad epidemic, following the practice of the French physicians, the town of Lucca made a provision that the plague-doctors ought to wear a long robe of thin, waxed cloth. The robe had to be hooded and the doctors had to visit the patients with the head covered and wearing spectacles.” There’s no mention of a beak or even a mask here; just a hood and spectacles. Likewise, his source for Florence actually states; ‘…surgeons, and apothecaries wore a robe made of waxed cloth and garnished with a red color; this sort of apparel is useful and protects from contagion and for this reason is also worn by the clergymen when they administer the sacraments to the sick” (Catellacci, ed., “Curiosi ricordi,” p. 38). Cipolla also references Rondinelli, Relazione del contagio, p. 54, but this doesn’t seem to address protective clothing at all, as far as I can tell, and is part of a section discussing quarantine. If anyone can find anything relevant in this source, please comment below. Page 89 does mention a waxed canvas habit for clergymen visiting the sick, but again, no details of a beaked mask or hood. Cipolla (p.11 again) explains that in 1631 the ‘health board’ at Florence was supplying waxed robes to doctors in other communities that could not obtain suitable robes otherwise. He also mentions one of the approved alternatives; silk “or other material with little or no hair,’ from a Piedmontese ordinance of 1630. This is also the source for barbers wearing these robes, not just physicians and surgeons.

I’ve found more to add to his cited sources too. ‘Trattato della peste’ by Giovanni Francesco Fiochetto (1631) specifies ‘…che si facino sopravesta di tela incerata ben allistciata…’ that those at risk wear an overcoat of waxed canvas. ‘Ricordi di Fabritio Ardizzone fisico intorno al preservarsi, e curarsi della Peste’ (1656, p. 36) also recommends waxed robes, but gives another option; taffeta:

‘…oltre che può anco rimediarsi con rener sempre sopra i vestimenti una cappa di coio bagnata d’aceto, è vero di taffettà, è tela incerata.’

Accounting for archaic spelling, this translates as;

‘…it can also be remedied by always wearing over the clothes a leather cloak covered with vinegar, or taffeta or waxed canvas.’

This isn’t the only source that I found specifying soaking in vinegar, presumably following the same ‘strong smells’ logic as the herbs in the plague mask’s beak, or simply recognising the (actual) cleansing potential of dilute acetic acid. Finally, travelling antiquarian, Domenico Sestini, also reported advice on dealing with the plague, in this case that of Constantinople in 1778, in ‘Della Peste di Constantinopoli del MDCCLXXVIII’ (1779):

‘Assistendo infermi, o associando cadaveri, dovrebbero essere obbligati a lavarsi frequemente.

E converrebbe per quanto soffe possibile, che usaffero abiti di materie meno suscettibili. Nell’atto poi, che soffero in attuale assistenza di malate peste, converrebbe che soffero coperti di una cappa d’incerato.’

‘When assisting the sick, or associating with corpses, they should be forced to wash frequently.

And it would be worthwhile, as far as possible, that they should wear clothes of less susceptible materials. In the event that they must assist victims of the current plague, it would be worthwhile that they would be covered with a waxed canvas cloak.’

This advice goes way back. ‘Informatione del pestifero, et contagioso morbo’ by Giovanni Filippo Ingrassia was published in 1576 (p. 203), stating;

‘La terza cautela farà quanto ai loro vestiti, cioè che si facciano una coverta sopra i suoi vestiti di tela incerata, molto ben allisciata, di modo che maneggiando le robe, non si piglino quei seminari principi; da quelle infettate, è li còmunichino poi alle altre non infette, come farebbono con vestiti di lana, o altri pelosi, Inoltre si lauino, & nettino spesso, che non stieno sozzi, come è le solito, che in questo modo essi mantenerebbono la peste.’

My terrible machine-assisted translation being;

‘The third caution will take as far as their clothes are concerned, that is, that they cover themselves over their very well-smoothed waxed canvas clothes, so that when handled in seminaries the infection is not passed to other uninfected people, as would occur with woollen or other ‘hairy’ clothes, moreover they wash and clean often, so as to not be filthy, as is usually the case, that in this way they maintain the plague.’

There are also two other depictions of plague doctors – or others rendering aid to plague victims wearing presumably this waxed canvas gear, this time with a hood-style mask, albeit without the iconic beak (or for that matter, the Bautta & Larva). Significantly, these hoods feature the same long bib at the front as two of the recorded Italian beaked examples that I’ve covered previously; but they lack the beak and are floppy cloth, not stiff leather (or whatever those photographed and sketched beak masks were actually made of). These depictions are both French and both from the Deutsche Medizin Museum – an ivory statuette (see top of this article) dated circa 1700 (DMMI object no. AB / 0315), and an 1826 watercolour painting depicting a doctor (or other medical person?) of the Marseille plague of 1819 (DMMI, Hyg 354 1826-2 Europe). Both are published in Marion Ruisinger’s recent chapter ‘Fact or Fiction: Ein kritischer Blick auf den »Schnabeldoktor«’ (part of this German-language book, but there is a series of blog posts available on the museum’s website, including a summary of her very sceptical take on the museum’s own plague doctor’s mask here). 

Plague clothing from the Marseille plague of 1819
(DMMI, Hyg 354 1826-2 Europe), 1826. Note the clogs – 18th century crocs?

These guys look a little KKK for modern sensibilities, but the idea is a cheaper, easier version of the plague doctor outfit. There’s no hat, and no glass eye lenses. The old rod or cane is replaced by a stick with a burning end, used to burn plague bruises (!), or by a long wooden handle with a basket of smouldering material to essentially fumigate indoor spaces against miasma. As a quick aside, Muratori mentions this as well (1710 edition, p. 103);

‘Entrino colà portando avanti a se vasi di fuoco, che faccia fumo. Entrati aprano le finestre, e gli uscì, ritirandosi, finchè l’Aria abbia fatto un poco di ventolamento, e dispersi que’ maligni vapori.’

‘They go in there, carrying pots of fire ahead, making smoke. Once inside they open the windows, and retire until the air has made a little ventilation, and the evil vapors are dispersed.’

The sleeves on this get-up are tight to the wrist like modern protective gear, which fits the admonition above to not wear fancy sleeves (Ruisinger questions the 1656 engraving on this basis; the man has voluminous sleeves and may not even be wearing gloves. To this I would suggest that views on miasma were a matter of opinion, not science). The most interesting aspect for me is that the hood has a long bib at the front; a feature shared with two of the Italian beaked masks that I featured in my other article. Perhaps those were the ‘Gucci’ option, or just an alternative view on what would work best? There is an interesting parallel for the simple simple with eyeholes a century later in China, by which time miasma theory was obsolete and so the doctors are wearing buttoned-up white coats and gloves, and the workers (because again, this get-up was not just for doctors) have overalls. 

Whilst writing this follow-up I realised that I hadn’t addressed the rod, staff, or cane of the plague doctor. Muratori gives us an indirect confirmation that this was, in fact, a form of ‘social distancing’;

‘…gli espurgatori abbiano manopole, legni lunghi, graffi di ferro, mollette, forchette ed altri ordigni per maneggiare il men che potranno con le mani le robe.’

‘…the expurgators have gauntlets, long wooden sticks, pitchforks, clothespins, forks and other devices to handle things as little as possible.’

Ruisinger also provides a further source for plague clothing in Marseille in 1720-21; Swiss doctor Johann Jacob Scheuchzer, who described the clothing worn in the Marseille plague based upon letters he had received from colleagues;

“Der Kleideren halb hat man sich zu hüten vor allem, was auß Tuch, oder Baumwolle gemachet wird, weilen das Gifft sich leicht an dergleichen Sachen henket. Besser sind die leinernen, seidenen, tafteten Kleider, oder von Cameel-Haaren, noch besser, sonderlich vor die, so um die Kranken seyn müssen, dicht lederne, oder gar von Wachs- und Harz-Tuch, welche von denen Marsilianischen Doctoribus sollen gebraucht worden seyn. Alle Kleider aber sollen reinlich gehalten, offt abgeänderet, zuweilen beräucheret, und in freye Lufft gehenket werden.”

“You have to be careful of clothes that are mostly made out of cloth or cotton, because the poison is easily attached to such things. Better are clothes of linen, silk, or taffeta, of camel-hair, or even better in front of those who are sick, thick leather, or even wax and resin cloth, which are used by the Marsilian doctors. But all clothes should be kept clean, often changed, sometimes smoked, and aired out.”

Again we see the same materials and extensive coverage recommended, the idea being not just that bad smells caused disease, but that particles from rotting tissue were carried into the air. Smooth clothing and cleanliness, as well as a mask to stop you breathing the particles in, would help prevent the spread of disease. This isn’t so far removed from modern science as all that, and the full get-up would have done much toward preventing infection from other people with the pneumonic form of plague, and along with scrupulous hygiene and cleaning of clothes (which these slick fabrics aided in) would have helped against fleas passing on the primary, bubonic form. This was certainly believed at the time, as this line from ‘Li lazaretti della citta’, e riuiere di Genoua del 1657’ by Father Antero Maria di S. Bonaventura (1658, p. 518) shows; 

‘…apertamente li dissi, se voi entrate nell’Infermarie, siate certi di restar uccisi, ò feriti, perché la tonica incerata in un Lazaretto, non hà altro buon effetto, solo che le pulici non si facilmente vi s’annidano, e la spongia [spugna impregnata di aceto] al naso, non serve ad altro, che a mitigar il fetore.

Se parlassimo di quelli, che pratticano solamente per la Città, e che alla sfugita passano ne’ luoghi infetti, non negarei, che qualche cosa valessero li preservativi, e contraveleni, ma in un Lazaretto bisogna mettere la mente in pace, che niente vagliono.’

‘… openly I told them, if you enter the Infirmary, be sure of being killed, or injured, because in a Lazaretto the waxed tunic does nothing other than prevent fleas from lurking in it, and the spongia [sponge impregnated with vinegar] to the nose serves no other purpose than to mitigate the stench.

If we talked about those, who practice only for the city, and who pass through the infected places in passing, I would not deny that sheaths were worth anything, but in a Lazaretto you have to put your mind in peace, that nothing will help.’

In his 1744 follow-up book ‘Lazzeretti della citta, e riviere di Genova del 1656’, Father Antero confirms that he was made to wear ‘una sopraveste di tela incerata’ or a waxed canvas overcoat (1744, p. 190). Clergy wearing anti-plague clothing seems to have been somewhat common. Here’s more evidence from the source that I referenced in my previous piece, ‘Del Governo della Peste’ by Lodovico Antonio Muratori (1721, p. 245);

‘Nel portare il Viatico ai malati, usino i Sacerdoti Veste corta con Cotta e Stola, lasciando stare il Piviale, in cui vece terranno sopra la Cotta una veste di tela incerata.’

‘In bringing Communion to the sick, the priests should wear a short robe with surplice and stole, over which they should wear a waxed cloth robe instead of a cope [priest’s mantle or cloak].’

‘A Doctor of Marseille’

A third variation of plague costume depicted as in use during the Marseille plague is the bulbous-nosed ‘quack’ doctor shown in this engraving by Johann Melchior Füssli (1677 – 1736). I included this last time because Wadd’s 1827 impression of a plague doctor was partially based upon it (plus Manget’s 1721 version). Füssli’s version was popularised by Robert Fletcher’s much later (1898) ‘A tragedy of the Great Plague of Milan in 1630’ (available here). Füssli’s work is another piece of German satire, but rather than copying an original like the Italian-derived ‘Doctor Schnabel’, this piece is an original; a grotesque depiction of a French doctor in his prescribed leather clothing including, perhaps coincidentally as this is France and not Italy, a version of a bautta with the integral buff-like cover for the lower face. Rather than a proper facemask, he has just the nose portion, enlarged and filled with smouldering plant material. The caption translates as ‘Sketch of a doctor of Marseilles clad in Cordovan leather and equipped with a nose-case packed with plague-repelling smoking material. The wand is to feel the patient’s pulse.’ The latter claim is obviously made in jest, implying that the doctor is literally out of touch with his patients. Despite leveraging a fair bit of artistic licence, this is still something of a key source for the existence of masked plague doctors; the impression of the artist at least is that this is something that French doctors – plural – were doing. Unless, perhaps, this is a direct dig at Chicoyneau, but he was stated to wear Morrocan leather aka goatskin, not Cordovan leather, which is a type of horse leather. in which case it may not speak to multiple doctors so dressed. But then again we have the Italian source above suggesting that multiples of doctors there really were wearing masks with snouts. In any case, it certainly reinforces the prescribed dress of the plague doctors across several centuries and numerous countries; enveloping clothing made of a smooth, pliant fabric – and adds another approved option; horse leather. It’s important to note that waxed cloth wasn’t restricted to Italy; Salzmann’s “Masques Portés par les Médecins en Temps de Peste” (Aesculape, vol. 22, no. 1, 1932, pp. 5-14) explains that other doctors wore robes made of ‘toile-cirée’; the waxed linen cloth so common in Italian states.  

L0025226 Plague doctor as a quack Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Quackery: a plague doctor as a quack, anon., n.d. Aesculape Published: 1932 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Taken together, all of this evidence supports Ruisinger’s position that the beaked mask was less common than either the hood (with or without glasses) or no head protection at all; just the robe. The hat (which I’ve yet to find mentioned or depicted outside of the iconic engravings) and the rod or staff were optional, although as previously noted, gentlemen typically carried these anyway. Even the hood and glasses were not universally worn, and despite my discovery that Venetian doctors used larva masks – these too would not have been common outside of Venice (where they were conveniently available). Only those with the money, personal preference, and belief in the prophylactic power of plant material would have donned a pointy-faced mask. At this point, it’s even possible that only one idiosyncratic doctor in Rome wore the avian-style beak mask, and thanks to artistic licence, we don’t even know that this is a true representation. The French masks, described with respect to Delorme and Chicoyneau, may well have more closely resembled the surviving examples; hoods with conical ‘beaks’. And of course there are the Larva masks in Venice, which sort of fit the bill (ha, ‘bill’) but didn’t contain any herbs. There’s no evidence of such masks outside of those two regions of Europe, and there’s no real evidence even of the leather or wax-cotton/oilcloth robes beyond these regions either – nothing from the British Isles, for example (I’m sure Pepys would have informed us otherwise if England had had its own variant).

It’s fair to say that robes with KKK-esque hoods don’t really fit the modern gothic image of the plague doctor, and there is much more evidence for robes without masks (either with built-in hoods or no head covering at all) than for outfits with masks of any kind. And of course plenty of doctors would have attended plague victims without even the robes. Still, I’m comfortable in saying that many doctors operating c. 1620 – 1820 wore the leather or waxed cloth robes, some also wore a beaked mask (even if most of these weren’t styled after a bird per se) with glasses, and many would have affected a hat and/or staff too. The full outfit just wasn’t as ubiquitous, as standardised, or as bird-like as popular culture would have us believe.

The Yorkshire Little Man

I’ve only just discovered the ‘reblog’ feature on WordPress. This is an excellent article involving some questionable historical claims about a celebrated Yorkshire ‘little man’, so definitely up the street of my readers…

All Things Georgian

For regular readers you may recall that we have written several articles about ‘dwarfs and giants’, John Coan, ‘The Norfolk Dwarf’ and at the other end of the height scale, Frances Flower, the ‘Nottinghamshire/Yorkshire Giantess’ (1800-?) and in our latest book, ‘All Things Georgian  Caroline Crachami, ‘The Sicilian Fairy’.

A lovely reader, Ged Burnell, alerted me to another story about a small person, who was also exploited by one of the Georgian/Victorian unscrupulous showmen, who travelled the country showing off their ‘freaks’. Shows like this were immensely popular with the paying public, not to mention extremely lucrative for the showmen and obviously completely abhorrent in today’s society. This young gentleman was Joseph Lee, so let’s find out a little more about his life.

Joseph was born in November 1809 to parents Joshua Lee and his wife Ruth, nee Saynor who were married in 1794…

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Dead Woman’s Ditch – Only Half Right

The Ditch in question. Note the lack of dead woman.
Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons

My wonderful wife has just amused me with an interview aired this morning on This Morning conducted Josie from Big Brother, wearing an hilariously rubbish halloween Ghostbusters costume and apparently fending off two ‘ghost hunters’ with a boom microphone. The story is this one, reported in local and national news, despite the fact that it didn’t even ‘happen’ recently and is literally not ‘news’. The couple in question, who I won’t name because it’s wicked to mock the afflicted, host this hilarious Geocities-esque ghost website, complete with ‘The Exorcist’ autoplay WAV file. It’s like a parody of ghosthunting activity, bless them.

All of the reports make it seem that the couple are claming to have actually heard a ‘spirit’ shout at them to ‘fuck off’, but when pressed, they reveal that they ‘heard’ the abuse on their ‘EVP machine’. When asked about obtaining the recording, they claimed to have since lost it, as it was uploaded to their ‘old website’. However, none of the Wayback Machine copies of their site going back to 2005 have any sign of a recording from Dead Woman’s Ditch and has virtually nothing on that ‘case’. 

What *does* appear on their 2005-6 website is a transcript from a *different site*, taken on 28 August 2004 – Walford’s Gibbet on Exmoor, a long way away from Dead Woman’s Ditch and, as the ghost hunters themselves point out, unrelated; the ‘Dead Woman’ in question is not Jane Shorney, wife of John Walford. In fact there *is* no ‘Dead Woman’ – it’s just a traditional local name for a prehistoric earthwork. It’s actually amusing that locals are imputing some ghostly/tragic significance to the site based purely on its colourful name.

The clips from Walford’s Gibbet sadly haven’t been archived, but the transcript is as follows;

Christine: It’s getting a bit muddy here ….  I think I’ll go up here

E.V.P.: F@~k off you bastards.

The F@~k off can be heard clearly you must listen closely to make out the you Ba:~?$%ds

So is this the ‘old website’ recording they meant? If so, it’s from the wrong place. If not, where is the evidence of the Dead Woman’s Ditch version – and why would the ghost behave in exactly the same way at two unrelated sites?

Rifle musket or rifled musket?

A Rifled musket. Also a rifle musket. And a rifle.

Tl;dr – 

‘Rifle’ = short for ‘rifled gun’

‘Rifled gun’ = any firearm with rifling

‘Rifled musket’ OR ‘rifle musket’ = any musket with rifling

‘Musket’ = any shoulder-fired enlisted infantry firearm

*i.e. not an artillery or cavalry carbine, or an NCO or officer’s fusil or pistol.

Having seen the Smithsonian TV channel’s YouTube channel describe an India Pattern ‘Brown Bess’ musket as a ‘musket rifle’ – which is a nonsense term – I thought it was time to roll out my research on the term ‘rifle musket’ – which is an actual historical thing. Firstly, I should point out that their ‘test’ of the musket vs the Dreyse needle gun is typically flawed and superficial modern TV stuff, as Brandon F. details. Brandon corrects ‘musket rifle’ to ‘rifled musket’, with a ‘d’ but in fact both forms – ‘rifled musket’ and ‘rifle musket’ were used interchangeably in the period in question. Said period is from c.1850, when the technology of spiral grooves in the barrel or rifling, known for more than 300 years by this point, was first applied to standard issue infantry firearms. 

The most important thing to say is that the use of ‘rifle’ or ‘rifled’ is just a matter of preference around verb inflection, like ‘race car’ in American English (a car for use in a race) and ‘racing car’ in British English (a car for racing in). This linguistic difference was less pronounced in the 19th century (although did exist as we’ll see), and so ‘rifle musket’ and ‘rifled musket’ were genuinely interchangeable. More on this later, but the main thing I want to address – and the ‘BS history’ here – is that they don’t mean different things. Some (including the former Pattern Room Custodian Herbert J. Woodend in his British Rifles book) have suggested that the term ‘rifled’ denoted a conversion – a ‘musket’ that had been ‘rifled’ – whereas a ‘rifle musket’ is a musket-like rifle that was designed and made that way. Although logical enough, there is literally no evidence for this, no consistency in the actual use of the two variant terms, and plenty of evidence to suggest that they are just linguistic differences. 

A quick word on the word ‘rifled’ or ‘to rifle’ – as this period dictionary shows, this originally meant to raid, loot, ransack or, and this is where the grooves cut into a barrel come in – ‘to disturb’. Gunmakers running a sharp tool on a rod in and out of a gun’s bore were indeed disturbing the otherwise smooth surface of the metal. Incidentally, the term ‘screwed gun’ is a synonym for ‘rifle(d) gun’ as this 1678 source shows. The etymology is pretty clear, but had apparently been forgotten by the end of the 18th century, when ‘to rifle’ either meant just ransacking or looting, or to cut spiral grooves in a gun. At any rate, this was in use from at least 1700, and was short for ‘rifled gun’ or ‘rifle gun’. Inventor of the Baker rifle, Ezekiel Baker, refers to the generic rifle as ‘the rifled gun’ in his own 1806 book, so this long form term was still in current use at that time, but was already commonly abbreviated. Almost from the off therefore, ‘rifled gun’, ‘rifle gun’ and ‘rifle’ were all used to refer to any shoulder-fired firearm with rifling, whereas ‘rifled musket’, ‘rifle musket’ or ‘rifle-musket’ referred specifically to a military weapon with rifling. Military rifles in the age of linear tactics had to serve as both gun and half-pike, so that infantry could fight without shooting, and especially engage with cavalry. There was little need for the precision offered by the rifle, a lack of training to allow soldiers to exploit it, and in any case they were much more labour-intensive and therefore costly to make. Rifles were also slower to load, and it was more effective for the majority of troops to be drilled in musketry using quick-loading and cost-effective smoothbore muskets than to provide them with rifles. The typical rifle was designed for hunting or target shooting. Of course, during the 18th century they were adapted for limited use in war by specialist troops, and light infantry tactics developed for them, but the standard soldier’s weapon remained the musket, and until the 1840s was invariably a smoothbore musket and not a ‘rifled musket’.

Although we are used to thinking of a musket as a clunky, inaccurate, short-ranged and smoothbore weapon therefore, the actual distinguishing characteristics of the musket were really only twofold. First, it had to have a long barrel to allow for more complete powder burn and therefore sufficient velocity (especially important with the lack of gas seal at the breech) as well as enough reach to engage in bayonet fighting (especially against cavalry) and secondly, a bayonet. This is why the Baker rifle could be called a ‘rifle musket’ – and its users fought as line infantry as well as light infantry – and also why the famous Winchester company marketed a long-barrelled, bayonet-capable version of its lever-action rifle as a musket. By the end of the 19th century the smoothbore musket had fallen out of use, and so there was no longer a need to differentiate between ‘(smoothbore) musket’ and ‘rifled musket’. Of course, we could have just called rifles ‘muskets’, but ‘rifle’ was already in common usage, and the word ‘musket’ had become associated with the smoothbore musket amidst the hype of the superiority of the rifle musket. ‘Rifle’ or ‘Rifled’ was the key part of the name, so once again the standard infantry weapon was abbreviated to just ‘rifle’ – which was in any case used throughout this whole period. The P’53 Enfield was always a ‘rifle’, a ‘rifled musket’, and technically, a ‘rifled gun’ as well.

All of this would tend to suggest that ‘rifled musket’ only came in with general issue percussion rifles like the Enfield and the Springfield, but in fact early military rifles like the famous British Baker were also ‘muskets’. Rifled muskets. The 1816 ‘Encyclopaedia Perthensis; Or Universal Dictionary of the Arts, Sciences, Literature’, Volume 18 (p. 383);

‘A telescope with cross-hairs, fitted to a common rifled musket, and adjusted to the direction of the shot, will make any person, with very little practice, hit an object with more precision than the most experienced marksman.’

De Witt Bailey’s ‘British Military Flintlock Longarms’ shows that the Baker itself was in fact sometimes called a ‘Rifled musquet’, and not just in its rare ‘musket bore’ variant either. It was a musket because it was a military long gun with a bayonet. It was a rifle gun, rifle musket, or just plain ‘rifle’, because it was rifled! By this stage however the shorthand ‘rifle’ was not only in common use, but was part of the formal designation of the weapon (the ‘Infantry Rifle’). It also helped to further differentiate the specialist weapon from the common musket. However, the term ‘musket’ did survive for a long time afterward in the context of ‘musketry’ – military marksmanship. The British ‘School of Musketry’ was only formed in 1854, when rifles were already standard issue – in fact that’s primarily why it was formed; soldiers now had to learn how to hit their mark at distance. Note that Wikipedia erroneously calls this a My mention of ‘musket bore’ raises a third differentiating aspect that I ignored earlier; because it becomes irrelevant in the 19th century, which is a larger, heavier bullet than the typical rifle, carbine, or ‘fusil’. This held broadly true from the inception of the musket in the 1530s to the 19th century when (rifle!) musket bores reduced as velocities went up. However, even in this earlier period, a carbine could be of ‘musket bore’, just as it could also mount a bayonet. Terminology is a thorny problem that is just as often driven by the armed force that’s doing the naming as it is by logic; but here I’m just concerned with sorting out the ‘rifle(d) musket’ issue. 

The official British term for an infantry rifle intended for use by ‘line infantry’ (i.e. not light infantry or specialist riflemen) during the period of the Pattern 1853 rifle was ‘rifled musket’, in keeping with the modern British English grammatical preference. As noted though, this was less set in stone in the mid-19th century and ‘rifle musket’ was also used, notably by Henry Jervis-White-Jervis in his 1854 ‘The Rifle-musket: A Practical Treatise on the Enfield-Pritchett Rifle’. ‘The Rifle: And how to Use It’ by Hans Busk (1861) uses both terms, leading with ‘rifled musket’, and is referring to the Pattern 1853 rifle, so again, there’s no question of ‘rifled’ meaning a conversion of a smoothbore musket. In the U.S. also, both terms were used. Peter Smithurst in his Osprey book on the P’53 refers to the records of the 10th Massachusetts Volunteers of Springfield (July 1861);

‘….Friday morning the regiment marched to the U.S. Armory and returned the muskets loaned them for the purpose of drill, and in the afternoon we received our full supply of the Enfield rifled musket.’

Yet the ‘Catalogue of the Surgical Section of the United States Army Medical Museum’ by Alfred A. Woodhull (1866, p. 583) lists various weapons, using ‘rifle musket’ for the U.S. Springfield, but ‘rifled musket’ for foreign types including the P’53. Once again, interchangeable terms for the same thing. 

There you go – call them ‘rifle muskets’, ‘rifled muskets’, ‘rifle guns’ or just plain ‘rifles’ – all are correct and all refer to the same thing – a military rifle. The only reason we don’t call an M16 a ‘musket’ is fashion, basically.

Was Dracula Inspired by Cholera?

Sometimes a cholera victim is just a cholera victim…
Wellcome Collection (Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0))

Note – I requested Marion McGarry’s paper, ‘Dracula = Cholera: how Sligo’s 1832 cholera epidemic influenced the novel by Bram Stoker’ via, but so far have not received a reply. I’m conscious that the below is therefore a response to articles in the media about her research and that I may therefore be missing something – the press are notoriously poor at handling historical research. That said, I’ve been interviewed for an Atlas Obscura article myself, and it was the most professional press interaction I’ve ever had, so I’d be surprised if her findings have been misrepresented. And if she does respond, I will gladly modify my views accordingly. Anyway, disclaimer over…

I recently read this story claiming that Bram Stoker was inspired by the history of cholera in Ireland. This is not the first time that a connection has been drawn between Stoker’s background and his literary works. Notably, Martin Willis’ ‘”The Invisible Giant,” “Dracula,” and Disease’ (available with a free limited account) detail the influence of his mother’s writing on the cholera outbreak on Stoker’s children’s story ‘The Invisible Giant,’ and tries to connect this to ‘Dracula.’ However, Willis’ thesis is very much an ‘intertextual’ reading of the book that, like the current claims, lacks hard evidence and ignores the much simpler explanation for the disease motifs of ‘Dracula’ that a) it’s about a vampire, and b) Stoker lifted his knowledge of vampire lore straight from a handful of sources. Sure, there is a clear Victorian, British/Irish pseudoscientific/Catholic Christian ‘gloss’ in his interpretation of the basic vampire lore (Van Helsing, transfusions, depictions of sickness), and perhaps the Irish cholera epidemic was part of his inspiration to write the book, by way of his previous work, but the actual disease-parallel content of ‘Dracula’ is about vampires, not cholera. You can read Dracula as a piece of art as being about cholera, but there’s just no evidence that’s it’s actually about it. Even the depictions of Dracula’s pale, ailing victims (and the blood on the mouths of his converts) brings to mind tuberculosis more than it does cholera (another popular speculative ‘reading’ of the book). I suggest reading Willis’ article for the actual disease parallels present in ‘Dracula’. At best, there is a connection with cholera through several degrees of separation – ‘Dracula’ is about vampirism as a Victorian idea of disease, one Victorian disease with a personal connection to Stoker was cholera. That’s it. That’s the evidence. It’s like saying that a particular band is influenced by another, because we can hear similar chord progressions in their music – but the band itself never stated any link in interviews, memoirs etc. It’s speculative.

There are some very specific claims in the AO article, most of which I think are way off: I will take them one by one:

‘Bram as an adult asked his mother to write down her memories of the epidemic for him, and he supplemented this using his own historic research of Sligo’s epidemic…’ This is quite true, but this was around 1875, twenty years before he wrote ‘Dracula.’ It’s possible that he was beginning to think along the lines of ‘The Invisible Giant’ (published 1881), but despite the implication here that he got information from his mother in preparation for ‘Dracula,’ there is no evidence that Charlotte Stoker’s letter has anything to do with that novel. She did write

‘Charlotte says cholera enters port towns having traveled by ship, and can travel overland as a mist—just like Dracula, who infects people with his unknown contagion.’

Yes, and William Peter Blatty probably saw a doctor’s bag once when he was young. Should we be lauding this as the inspiration for The Exorcist? Seriously, this is incredibly weak. It’s not as though ‘Dracula’ could have hopped on a 737 or hitchhiked across Europe. Travel by boat was the only practical way to get the Count to the shores of England; even if Stoker had chosen rail travel, as used later in the novel, there is still the matter of the English Channel, and as Stoker was clearly taken with Whitby as an arrival location, he had to get him across the North Sea. Likewise, oddly enough, ships were the only effective means for infectious disease to spread prior to the advent of motor vehicles, air travel and even (in 1832) railways. This is the one of the more transparent cases of a straightforward coincidence in an historical claim that I have ever come across. An RTE article from 2018 gives a variant of this claim that arguably makes it stronger; that Dracula’s arrival and the first death of the 1832 Sligo epidemic were both preceded by unusual storms. This is true, but could simply be a coincidence. Murder at sea, a storm and a shipwreck is rather more dramatic than the Count strolling casually off the Demeter in broad daylight. If this choice was inspired by Charlotte Stoker’s mention of a storm in a letter that she sent her son twenty years before, any influence is likely to be subconscious or non-existent. Her 1873 article on the epidemic ‘Experience of the Cholera in Ireland 1832’ fails to mention a storm – if it appears in her c.1875 letter (which I can’t find), that might be a start. The wording of the two is also entirely unalike. Charlotte apparently wrote of .’..thunder and lightning, accompanied by a close, hot atmosphere,’ whereas the closest description in ‘Dracula’ is ‘…the glare of the lightning, which now came thick and fast, followed by such sudden peals of thunder…’. Had Bram mentioned a close atmosphere, we might be able to see a connection here. As it is, it’s another coincidence.

‘Dracula’ was ‘…inspired by the idea of someone being buried before they were fully dead.’ This is not a new connection – journalist Barbara Belford implied this as an influence upon Stoker back in 1996 in her ‘Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula,’ painting a colourful picture of Stoker’s mother telling him stories of the Sligo cholera outbreak and its grisly consequences. Richard Walker directly quotes Charlotte Stoker’s account of a woman presumed dead yet still alive in his 2007 book chapter ‘The blood is the life: Bram Stoker’s infected capital’ (p. 256). He calls the idea that the ‘…supposed dead could still be animate’ ‘…intrinsic to this discussion’ and of course is quite correct about that – the state of living death features in both the history of disease and that of folkloric vampirism, and vampires were often scapegoats for disease outbreaks. Neither Belford nor Walker suggested any causal link between Stoker’s knowledge of cholera in Ireland and the text of ‘Dracula’ however. Wallis’ article contains several readings of the novel, but none feature this aspect – he simply uses the coincidence as an introductory framing device before devoting the rest of the article to parallels with drug addiction. ‘Vampirologists’ McNally and Florescu went further in their popular (as in, not academic) history ‘In Search of Dracula’ (1994, p. 137):

‘[Charlotte] told young Bram not only Irish fairy tales but also some true horror stories. An Irish woman from Sligo, she had witnessed the cholera epidemic there in 1832; later Bram recalled her accounts of it, suggesting that the vampire pestilence in his novel owed much to the frightful stories told by his mother.’

Although the media reports don’t actually make clear what aspects of ‘Dracula’ McGarry thinks the cholera stories ‘inspired,’ given that the concept of the animate or living dead is ancient and universal, the only thing that she and McNally/Florescu can possibly mean is that Stoker was influenced to write a horror novel with similar themes. This is plausible enough, but again, we still have nothing written from Stoker, his family, friends, or his contemporaries, to evidence even this modest claim. Once Stoker (for whatever reason) chose vampirism as the theme of his novel, he was bound to include the idea of the living dead along with it. Nor is the Sligo cholera connection evident in Stoker’s take on vampirism – he lifted his understanding of vampire beliefs directly from Gerard’s book and a few other reports, and although many aspects are a product of Stoker’s late Victorian influences, this isn’t one of them. The slavic figure of the vampire had been well-known in western Europe since the early 18th century, and various authors had already tapped it for subject matter (Stoker was certainly influenced by Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ for example). In any case, if this is, as Atlas Obscura states, the ‘strongest link’ that McGarry has found, then I’m afraid she is not onto a winner with her hypothesis. Oh, and the article seems to imply that Stoker coined the term ‘undead.’ He did not.

Not only are these claims dubious, but there’s no other evidence of a direct connection. Stoker’s annotated notes for ‘Dracula’ don’t contain a single word about cholera, and the only reference that he makes to disease is a research note from Emily Gerard’s ‘Transylvanian Superstitions’ (1888), which was Stoker’s main source for all of his vampire folklore;

‘Finger pointing to rainbow seized with gnawing disease’

This is a paraphrase of a line from Gerard;

‘The finger which ventures to point at a rainbow will be straightway seized by a gnawing disease…’

Absolutely nothing to do with cholera, and not one of the superstitions borrowed by Stoker for his book. ‘Dracula’ itself does not draw any comparison with cholera, nor even consumption, although Van Helsing does call Lucy’s vampirism ‘the disease’ at one point. The irony here is that there’s no need to make these reaches to connect ‘Dracula’ to the town or county of Sligo, when the author has such strong genuine connections to the area in particular and the country of Ireland in general.

Plague Doctors and the ‘Bauta’ Mask

‘The Meeting’ by Pietro Longhi, 1746.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/Wikimedia Commons –

This is part three of what’s turned into a series on aspects of the plague doctor costume, and a rather cool little discovery that I think actually adds something to the scholarship around this admittedly niche subject. I’ve found a previously unrecognised source – in this specific context at least (and I can’t find any reference to it online. It is ‘Del Governo della Peste’ by Lodovico Antonio Muratori, first printed in 1710. On page 74 we find detailed advice on protective clothing for the plague;

‘…allora per tutti quei, che escono di casa, ma certo sarà spezialmente bene anzi necesario chi dee praticar gente ammorbata, il postare una sopraveste di tela incerata, o pure di Marocchino o d’ altro cuoio sottile (queste si credeno milgliori di tutte) ovvero di Taffeta, o d’ altra manifattura di Seta, perchè alle vesti di lana troppo facilmente s’attaccano gli spiriti velenosi del morbo, ma non già s’attaccano se non difficilmente (per quanto vien creduto) alle incerate, e a Marocchini, e non si possono ritener lungo tempo dalla Seta spiegata. Avvertasi però, che le vesti di Seta non debbono essere fatte con lusso, nè con gran cannoni, e piegature, ma hanno da farsi povere, e piu tosto corte, avendo lasciato scrito il Mercuriale, che alcuni medici nella peste di Venezia de’ suio di si tirarono addosso la rovina per aver nelle visite de gl’Infetti portate vesti lunghe e larghe, e belle pellicie, secondo l’uso d’allora. Chi non ha seta, ne altro di meglio, usi almen lino, a canape, piu tosto che lana.’

‘…it would be good then, for all those who leave the house and especially those who need to treat afflicted people, to wear an overcoat of waxed cloth, or even of Moroccan or other thin leather (these are believed to be the best of all) or taffeta, or other type of silk, because because the poisonous spirits of the disease attach themselves to woollen clothes too easily but they do not attach as easily (as far as is believed) to waxed fabrics, Moroccan leather, and smooth silk. It should be noted, however, that the silk garments must not be made with luxury, nor with great sleeves and folds, but they have to be made simple and more courtly, according to the writings of Mercuriale, that some doctors in the Venice plague of the swine ruined themselves by wearing long and wide robes and beautiful furs during visits of the infected, according to the custom of that time. Those who have no silk, or anything else better, use at least linen, hemp, more quickly than wool.

This is interesting confirmation of what we already knew; the discovery comes in the next sentence;

Alcuni hanno tavolta usato di coprir’ anche la faccia con una maschera, o bautta, a cui mettavano due occhi di cristallo; ma non e necessaria tanta scrupitolisita.’

Some have even used to cover their faces with a mask, or bautta, to which they put two crystal eyes; but there is no need for such scrupulousness.’

A Bautta or bauta (the latter spelling is favoured today) was a traditional Venetian headgear for the well-off to wear during carnival and at masked balls, designed to be worn with the larva facemask. Both are still sold and worn today, although the larva is more common and has today taken on the name (i.e. ‘bauta’/’bautta’) of the hood portion, probably because it’s the more visually striking part of the ensemble. Of course, there is a much greater variety of Venetian masks worn today, making the larva just one of many choices. It was practically de rigeur at the time, alongside the black oval moretta worn by some women. The so-called ‘bauta’ (henceforth ‘larva‘) was, and still is, a (usually) white facemask with a protruding lower face that allows the wearer to eat and drink. It is sometimes mistaken for a plague doctor mask, which by sheer coincidence, turns out to be somewhat appropriate. Unlike modern takes on the plague mask, the modern larva still looks just like it did 200 years ago, as you can see from these depictions.

Now, it is not clear whether the use of the bautta for medical purposes involved a form of the button-up hood on its own, with added eye glasses, or whether both hood and mask were worn. Francesco Romani’s ‘Ricordi su la peste redatti in un sistema teorico pratico’ (1816, p. 112) is useful here. Romani first relates the usual advice regarding clothing;

‘…trattar con persone o contagiate o sospette, è grandissima la utilità delle sopravvesti di taffettà o di tela incerata.’

‘…[when] dealing with people or infected or suspicious, the utility of the taffeta or tarpaulin overcoats is very great.’

He then explains the role of the bautta, with an interesting budget alternative;

‘I più scrupolosi ricopron la faccia con maschera, o bautta di cera munita di due grandi occhi di cristallo, od iu vece la velano con fazzoletto bianco inzuppato di aceto.’

‘The most scrupulous cover their face with a mask, or waxed bautta with two large eye glasses, or instead they veil it with a white handkerchief soaked in vinegar.’

Given that no period sources mention the larva, and Romani only mentions the bautta, it’s possible that only the latter was worn. However, I believe the larva is implied. Firstly, the bautta itself is already made of silk, which is one of the prescribed anti-plague fabrics. Waxing silk might be possible, but I haven’t come across waxed silk anywhere else. Secondly, the bautta alone didn’t cover the face, as you can see from period artwork, and as Englishman Peter Beckford explains in his ‘Familiar Letters from Italy: To a Friend in England, Volume 1’ (1805, p. 261):

‘A bautta is the best dress on all these occasions; and, though it gives a disagreeable gloom to every assembly, is very convenient, particularly to the women, who have no longer the trouble of a toilette, but as they are in the morning, remain all day. The bautta, with its white mask, is frightful; with the mask off, though they all look like Edward the Black Prince with his beaver [bevor] up, is not unbecoming: it buttons over the lower part of the face, and hides the chin only; the hair is pulled forward, and when the hat is well put on, most of the women look handsome.’

This portrait from the US National Gallery is the maskless look that Beckford mentions, by the way. Returning to my second point; according to the logic of the time (or of now, for that matter) there would be little point in covering the eyes if most of the face was left exposed. Finally, other period sources than Beckford lump the hood and mask together. This French commentator explains that the version imported to Tuscany was called ‘masque a bautta’, and this book on theatre masks, written in Rome, compares a mask worn by an actor playing Cupid with the Venetian bautta, hinting that Italians outside Venice may also not have appreciated the difference between the hood and the facemask. Ultimately though, I can’t be sure; if these sources don’t mean to include the larva, then they must be referring to a specialist form of bautta that did cover the face.

Whether the full bautta and larva combo or a modified bautta, I think the idea of doctors turning the Bautta into a plague mask is a fascinating discovery, even if there’s no suggestion of using the short ‘beak’ of the mask for fragrant herbs. Here it is used as a convenient smooth face-covering, retro-fitted with lenses to cover the eyes, and using the sheer silk of the hood as a protective fabric – silk being one of the smooth fabrics universally recommended to those working with the sick in Italy and France in order to prevent plague from adhering to the clothing. Incidentally, this didn’t just cover (literally) physicians providing actual medical care – it included surgeons, barbers, cleaning staff, those dealing with bodies, and priests, too. More on this in the next (and probably final) post on this subject.

Plague Doctor: 1827?

I’m continuing to research the plague doctor’s costume; including a small but interesting new discovery that I believe I’m the first to make. My first of two follow-ups however is just a quick post intended to help those interesting in the above image, which seems to have lost its proper sourcing. It generally shows up online without attribution or, in this case, as ‘source unknown.’ Well, no longer! All I had to go on was the publisher’s information at the bottom of some versions of the image, i.e. ‘Published, August 1827, by Callow & Wilson, London’ – but with (if I do say so myself) some black-belt level Google-Fu, I was able to turn up the original source, which is ‘Mems. Maxim, and Memoirs’ by William Wadd (1827, p. 109).

This is important because when we critically assess the actual source, the image becomes of questionable utility. It isn’t contemporary – it’s actually supposed to illustrate the look and approach of a previous and bygone age: 

‘Among other regulations, in some countries the physicians were ordered to dress in a peculiar costume, of which the annexed sketch is a representation, and the surgeons were to wear something resembling the scapulars of the friars.’

The author was apparently not aware of the likely contemporary use of the later style of mask in lazaretto plague hospitals (see my previous article). The artist seems to have combined the engraving featured in Manget’s 1721 ‘Traité de la peste’ (itself an update on the 1656 version) – with similar hood, cane, and gloves – but gives the doctor knee-length buttoned-up coat and leather over-trousers of this other c.1721 satirical depiction by Johann Melchior Füssli (the linked version is unattributed and undated, but Marion Ruisinger’s chapter ‘Fact or Fiction: Ein kritischer Blick auf den »Schnabeldoktor«’ in the 2019 book ‘Pest!’ gives the correct attribution).

Above: L0025226 Plague doctor as a quack Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Quackery: a plague doctor as a quack, anon., n.d. Aesculape Published: 1932 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

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

This 1827 engraving is sometimes associated with a mention by a Cardinal Giovanni Carlo de’ Medici that doctors in Florence in the mid-17th century had to wear ‘a knee-length coat’, which apparently comes from the article ‘La peste dell’anno 1631’ in Bollettino Storico Empolese by M. Bini (1961-1962: 5, p. 273). This may be true, but is of limited relevance to any of these three artistic renditions, and especially not the 1827 ‘lash-up’ of the two others. 

So, not only is this not a period depiction, it’s clearly a rip-off of two actual period depictions, one of which was satirical. The sources that students of the plague doctor have to work with are already problematic – engraved by artists hundreds of miles away, likely based on hearsay information – without introducing this anachronistic effort. It does of course have some value as a Georgian impression of what was, in Britain at any rate, already considered a relic of the unenlightened past. So were masks like this really in use at lazaretti in Italy in the early 19th century as I suggested in my previous article? Or were those tatty-looking bulbous hood masks actually older; more like early-mid 18th century? Perhaps contemporary with the waxed fabric and leather ones now in the German museums? It’s hard to say without an original to look at, and even then, it would be hard to date them (just as the German examples evade a firm date). 

Rats and the Black Death

Another excuse to feature Ghost…(relevant video here)

NB I’m going to publish this now and update it as I continue to read around the subject. I tend to ‘miss the boat’ on popular subjects by taking weeks to publish; this is an attempt to still critique things properly, but come back and correct (or bolster) myself later…

This is one that I’ve been meaning to catch up with for a while; the historical role of rats in the spread of Plague. Having seen the ‘Shadiversity’ ‘Misconceptions’ YouTube video on the subject I thought it was time to dig in. In this, Shad states that rats were responsible for later outbreaks of plague, but not the 14th century ‘Black Death’ pandemic:

“…the assumption that it was spread by the fleas on the rats… there’s actually no evidence for this…no such correlation exists for the medieval black plague.’ 

The video fails to provide an alternative explanation, other than something about a combined effect of the Bubonic, Pneumonic and Septicaemic forms of plague, which speaks to its severity, not its transmission or spread. Incidentally, whilst correctly pointing out that the plague doctor ‘beak’ mask is not medieval, it just as incorrectly states that it dates ‘from the Renaissance.’ As I covered previously, the ‘beak doctor’ is actually an Enlightenment phenomenon (and not a common sight at that).

So is the video right to say this? Yes, but with a hefty caveat that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; the rat hypothesis is shaky, but so are all the others. And rodents or one species or another were almost certainly responsible for the spread of this plague… 

The Evidence

As far as I know there is no controversy over the role of fleas in carrying the Yersinia pestis bacterium, and to be fair I don’t think he is trying to claim that the fleas weren’t the main carrier. I have previously seen reports that the role of rats had been overstated, so I was prepared to accept that for this particular pandemic, scholarship had identified another mammal as the carrier of the infected fleas. However, I’m also very wary of the ‘pendulum’ effect in the media narrative of historical events; similar to medical reporting, where every new study is hailed as the new gospel truth, rather than just another datapoint. This is how the tabloids are able to claim that everything either causes or prevents cancer… 

Regardless, fleas have to live on some species of mammal in order to spread disease. I was aware that other mammals had been blamed instead/as well of rats, such as gerbils, but as noted, wasn’t sure what the current consensus on rats was. Although his video and description cite no sources, Shad does provide one in response to a commenter; a popular history website article from ‘’. His video appears to be based very closely on this one article, including the author’s confusing description of rat population changes. The article conflates rises and falls in populations, implying that an epizootic (animal-caused) outbreak must necessarily be preceded by a boom in the local rat population. The real indicator of a rat-borne plague in the various literature is die-off, not population increase. This is the real meaning of the term ‘rat fall’, not some sort of waterfall of rats as Shad seems to think. As Theilmann and Cate point out (more of them later);

‘…chroniclers, however, paid so little attention to the plague that their failure to mention rats is hardly a surprise.’

So a lack of reports of a multitude of rats in the medieval period is irrelevant. The bigger problem for the rat fans is that Black Rats don’t seem to have been very common in 14th century Northern Europe. One of the first academics to challenge the rat hypothesis was David E. Davis, who published his article ‘The Scarcity of Rats and the Black Death: An Ecological History’ in The Journal of Interdisciplinary History in 1986 (Vol. 16, No. 3 (Winter, 1986), pp. 455-470). This is free to read at JSTOR with a free account, and I recommend it. However, even this also makes clear that a lack of ‘rat fall’ does not mean that rats were not spreading the disease;

“…mortality of rodents was not noted in some epidemics when it seems likely that Rattus was present.”

There is no mention of large numbers of rats preceding an epidemic here either; nor in the other sources that I checked. This seems to be a misconception borne of popular culture (meaning that Shad was right to query its appearance in a video game; but he should also be querying it in historical reality as well). It’s the die-offs that matter, but even these don’t preclude a given species as a factor. Having said this, Davis is emphatic that the evidence against (or rather, in favour of) rats is overwhelming; the rapidity of spread seen in the 14th century could not be down to rats alone (or even at all, as he argues). He also highlights the problem of sustaining the disease on board ship, when rats, being susceptible to plague, will die off in the course of a voyage and therefore be unable to spring from the gunwales and infect the landlubbers. Their fleas, on the other hand, and any infected humans, would have remained to spread the disease. This seems a little semantic though; in this scenario the rats have still spread the disease, possibly at both ends of the trip; they just weren’t physically there to pass it to their European cousins. Note that Theilmann and Cate challenge this; rats could survive some strains of Y. pestis, and/or survive through hibernation long enough to pass on the infection.

Ultimately, Davis’ article throws much doubt on Rattus rattus as the main carrier, but is not conclusive and nonetheless forms part of a broad consensus that it Y. pestis was in fact spread by as the University of Michigan puts it, “various rodents,” whether water voles, gerbils, some other species, or a combination of two or more of them. Paul D. Beull confirms in his article ‘Qubilai and the Rats’ (Sudhoff’s Archive, Vol. 96, H. 2 (2012), pp. 127-144) that “many other rodents are common vectors.” Yet there is clearly the same dearth of medieval references to mice, voles, or other rodents. The argument that there’s no evidence for rats spreading this plague is seriously undermined by the lack of evidence for any other species having spread it. Perhaps also by the significant part that rats did in fact play in other plague outbreaks. Basically, if rodents weren’t involved, and of these rats remain a prime suspect, then bubonic plague wasn’t involved either; the Black Death would have to be one of the other forms of Plague or another disease entirely. If it was, then there is very clearly still room for rats to have some role. Even if the main disease of 14th century Europe wasn’t the bubonic form, it could still have originated in bubonic form within rats. If so, rats are ‘to blame’ (not that we should blame animals going about their business) just as much as the (likely) bats that originated the present pandemic. Bats aren’t flying around infecting us, yet we still blame them (rightly or wrongly). All we can say with any surety is that rats were not the only spreaders; the speed of the spread means that other mammals (including humans, as some emphasise) were involved. Still, it’s useful to know that the rat hypothesis is based upon such thin evidence and became received wisdom in the absence of a better explanation. It’s an educated guess more than a scientific hypothesis and as such should continue to be challenged. 

There’s a twist, however. Not only might rats not be involved in the Black Death, we don’t even know for sure that the three forms of plague caused by Y. pestis were actually the problem. If they weren’t, then the involvement of rats is obviously moot. Perhaps the real misconception here is that we know much of anything about the Black Death. It’s all hypothetical and/or speculative. We have no conclusive historical, DNA, or other evidence. All we know is that the pandemic doesn’t fit with the other outbreaks of plague. This is painfully clear from Samuel K. Cohn’s article ‘The Black Death: End of a Paradigm’ (The American Historical Review, Vol. 107, No. 3 (June 2002), pp. 703-738). Cohn offers no answers, and I’ve seen nothing to suggest that we are any further forward in our understanding. In ‘A Plague of Plagues: The Problem of Plague Diagnosis in Medieval England‘, John Theilmann and Frances Cate (The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Winter, 2007), pp. 371-393) make the very valid point that;

‘In one sense, the question of whether the Black Death was Yersinia pestis or some other ailment is a moot point, because only laboratory testing can provide conclusive evidence for a clinical diagnosis.’

As other authors do, they also explain that the medieval history is too sparse and too vague to support a conclusive identification. They do fall into the Y. pestis causal camp, as it were, and they still support rats as hosts. This alone challenges Shad’s confidence that there is ‘no evidence’ for rats causing the Black Death. There is as much evidence – more in fact, given the close association of Y. pestis with rats – as there is for any other possible host. The exclusively human hypothesis remains unproven and unlikely. Yet at the same time the article acknowledges that the rate of spread and mortality rate does not support plague alone – the devastation of the Black Death was likely not just a combination of plague variants, but of other diseases as well. The fact that there remains healthy debate about what diseases were even present renders the question of specific species of rodents involved almost irrelevant. We may never know the level of involvement of plague in the Black Death, never mind the extent of transmission or spread via rats. Of course, you might argue that this makes the formerly confident blaming of rats even less justified and even more in need of debunking. As usual, the more you know, the less you know…