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…
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…
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?
‘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.
Note – I requested Marion McGarry’s paper, ‘Dracula = Cholera: how Sligo’s 1832 cholera epidemic influenced the novel by Bram Stoker’ via researchgate.net, 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.
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 Trattato’ 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 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.
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).
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).
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…
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 ‘historyextra.com’. 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…
Well, maybe. But you aren’t likely to find out from this programme.
‘Lost Relics of the Knights Templar’ is another low-effort effort from the so-called History Channel. The preamble before each episode states that this and the other objects were “gathered in the 1960s from the Templar Convento de Cristo and castle complex at Tomar in Portugal and then scattered before being ‘brought back together’ by two ‘self-made millionaires’, Carl Cookson and Hamilton White.
I can find absolutely nothing online about this alleged ‘hoard’ or this sword prior to the announcement of this series (there’s a fairly detailed press release here that explains that these are only parts of a supposedly much larger cache – two caches in fact). Not one mention of a sword associated with Tomar at all, never mind one with Templar provenance. If these artefacts are genuine discoveries, they should have been presented to subject specialists for examination and analysis, yet they apparently have not been. Series historian Dan Jones even alludes to this in a Daily Mail article;
‘The scholar in me says take them to the British Museum and ask the curators there to verify them… The rebellious streak in me says go and find all about them yourselves.’
Ridiculous, and all too common in sensational ‘finds’ (whether relics or bits of Sasquatch) that are kept from expert scrutiny and invariably turn out to be fake or lacking in relevant provenance when they do see the light of day. As for the two owners, these quotes from the same article are hardly encouraging;
‘Carl and Hamilton are cagey about where they procured them, but are in no doubt about their authenticity.’
‘I’d be happy to go to court and fight the first clown who says these items are not real,’
Seems legit doesn’t it? Refuse to reveal the immediate provenance and threaten any sceptics with legal action. Classy. Happily for my non-existent legal fund, I am not about to claim that they aren’t real. But it’s a long old chalk from ‘real’ to ‘actually associated in any way with the Knights Templar.’
I simply haven’t the time to cover the whole series, so I’ll focus here on episode 3, which features an alleged Knights Templar sword. The sword appears to be a genuine relic condition European sword, and the three crosses pattee – two encircled crosses inlaid into the blade and another simpler cross on the pommel – also appear to be original to the piece. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, the thing seems to lack any provenance whatsoever, despite appearing in a 45 minute long programme supposedly devoted to finding some.
First the two show the sword to Dan Jones, who although a bona fide historian, is no arms and armour specialist. Why did they not approach the Royal Armouries or the Wallace Collection? Probably because the curators would not wish to be associated with yet another dubious ‘documentary’ about the endlessly mythologised Knights Templar. The crosses do seem to have flared tips, which would make them subtle examples of the cross pattée. As usual with these programmes however, the ‘investigators’ leap to the assumption (and do not discuss any other possibility) that a cross pattée is necessarily a KT cross. This is just not so. As actual medieval historian Karen Ralls states in the ‘Knights Templar Encyclopedia’ (2007, p. 151);
‘The red cross was a symbol of martyrdom, added to the mantles of the Knights Templar in 1147, when Pope Eugenius III regarding this and other matters. Although a cross is referred to in this bull, the exact design of the cross is not specified. Generally, the Templars did not use crosses that were unique only to them, as they were also used by other religious communities as well, so it cannot be said that the Templar order had only “one type” of official cross.’
Ralls does also state that ‘…one of the more commonly employed designs was the croix pattee—a four-sided cross with equidistant arms that “splay” out at the ends’, so it’s certainly plausible that it could have belonged to a Templar knight. It could equally have belonged to a knight of another religious order, or even just about any knight. Knights in general were big fans of Christianity, funnily enough.
Dan Jones tells us that the sword’s ‘…got a real weight on it…’ (thanks Dan) and asks if it is ‘late 13th century’? The sword’s owner, who claims to know his swords, states that it is (and it is, in fact). Unfortunately he then shows his ignorance of edged weapons by grabbing a 14th century longsword and correcting Dan that it’s not for stabbing but rather for ‘…trying to bash your way through very severe plate armour’. This is completely, hilariously wrong. Having already made a big leap from ‘probable medieval sword with crosses on it’ to ‘Knights Templar sword’, we then make the equally ridiculous jump to the idea that this could be the sword of the Templar ‘Grand Master who fell at Acre’. Jones says ‘we know that the sword survived’, referring to the fact that de Beaujeu’s sword was apparently collected by the Knights and could therefore have been smuggled to safety, but in terms of posterity, what does it matter whether it was rescued by the KT or not? Captured swords, if anything, would have been more likely to survive as trophies, yet none have survived to the present day with provenance intact. We have no description of the sword belonging to Grand Master Guillaume de Beaujeu to which we could try to match this sword. It’s of the right period, and has the right iconography. If it had a secure provenance to Tomar or another KT site, we could at least say that it is likely a KT sword, but we could still not say that it is likely de Beaujeu’s.
Jones is, to be fair, very circumspect about the sword in this scene, and even the two owners refer to the ‘limited amount of evidence’ that they have; they ‘can’t state that it did’ because there is ‘not enough evidence’. This is an unusual level of honesty for a programme of this nature, and if this were a 15 minute short, we could end there and it would have been quite an interesting find of a previously undocumented medieval sword. But of course there are another 40-odd minutes to fill… They first take the sword to ‘antiques restorer’ Jonathan ‘Jonty’ Tokeley-Parry who is, shall we say, a very…’colourful’ character with an interesting past. Tokeley-Parry says ‘nobody will doubt the sword unless they are a complete idiot’. Weirdly defensive again, but OK. He is at least correct not to doubt it. He looks at the inlaid crosses on the blade and pommel, confirming that the copper inserts are genuine because a medieval decorator would have hammered a ‘raggedly jaggedly splintery circle’ to receive the copper, and shows what he says are visible hammer blows. These aren’t visible on-screen amidst the many corrosion pits, but I will take his word for it (again, there’s no reason to doubt that the sword is a genuine medieval sword).
Sadly, literally no evidence is forthcoming for the rest of the episode as we follow the presenters on the usual fruitless foreign travel talking to barely relevant people and looking at barely relevant buildings. They manage to conclude only that it is possible that Templar relics could have been smuggled to safety, and the episode ends abruptly at that point. No new provenance is uncovered, no firm link to de Beaujeu or even the KT is made. This is ‘Hunting Hitler’ levels of filler that leads absolutely nowhere.
That’s it, really. Not much meat to get into on this one. I started into episode 4 just out of morbid curiosity, but ten minutes in and we’re already onto Nazis….and, I’m out. Maybe the final episode reveals where this sword really came from, but I doubt it.
Something a bit left-field, but still about BS and history (sort of) and another in a series of time travel-related posts. One of the greatest time travel stories ever is the original Twelve Monkeys (1995); I love it. It’s an absolutely flawless, self-consistent time loop with a wonderfully bleak ending where (spoiler alert………….) the hero dies and fails to prevent the end of the world. However, it isn’t actually as bleak as it seems. The whole point of the movie, which some people have missed, is that the outbreak cannot be prevented. To do so would prevent the very future that sends James Cole back in time in the first place. What the future scientists *can* achieve is to obtain a sample of the virus to engineer a cure for the survivors in the future. They dub this an insurance policy of sorts, hence the future scientist – the ‘Astrophysicist’ in the credits and the script – introduces themselves as ‘…in insurance…’. Some take this literally, perhaps a deliberate jibe at the incompetent future rulers; she wasn’t even a trained scientist – just some business type (this argument has taken place, amongst other places, on the Wikipedia article ‘talk’ page)! This is not the case. The woman on the plane is definitively the scientist we see in the future, and she is a key part of the plan to save what’s left of humanity in the future, not in the past.
If the apparent age of the actress herself (who does not wear age makeup or even sport grey hair in the future scenes) doesn’t make this clear, the available drafts of the film’s script, dated June 27 1994 and February 6 1995, do. The future scientist is meant to appear the same age as he (given the late dates of the scripts, they must simply have not bothered to change the scientist’s gender after Carol Florence was cast in the role) is in the future scenes; ‘…a silver-haired gentleman…’.
INT. 747 CABIN – DAY
PETERS closes the door to the overhead luggage rack containing his Chicago Bulls bag and takes his seat. Next to him, a FELLOW TRAVELER, unseen, says…
FELLOW TRAVELER’S VOICE (o.s.)
It’s obscene, all the violence, all the lunacy. Shootings even at airports now. You might say…we’re the next endangered species…human beings!
CLOSE ON DR. PETERS, smiling affably, turning to his neighbor.
I think you’re right. sir. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.
PETERS’ POV: the FELLOW TRAVELER, a silver haired gentleman in a business suit, offering his hand congenially. DR. PETERS doesn’t know who this man is, but we do. It’s the ASTROPHYSICIST!
ASTROPHYSICIST Jones is my name. I’m in insurance.
EXT. PARKING LOT/AIRPORT
As YOUNG COLE’S PARENTS (seen only as sleeves and torsos) usher YOUNG COLE into their station wagon, the boy hesitates, looks back, watches a 747 climb into the sky.
The Astrophysicist we see in the final cut likewise looks no older in the future than she does in the past. Although the date of the future scenes is never given, we are looking at a minimum of 30 years from 1996; Jose specifically mentions ‘30 years’ in the closing scenes, and Bruce Willis is very clearly at least 30 years older than his child actor self. This is a Hollywood movie with a 30+ million dollar budget; they could have afforded a little more latex if they had wanted to change the intent of the script.
The real clincher though is the wonderful documentary ‘The Hamster Factor’, which you can find (illegally of course) on YouTube. I’d encourage watching the whole thing, but from 45 minutes in we hear, despite director Terry Gilliam’s misgivings, the filmmakers’ clear intent that this scene is indeed a ‘happy ending’:
‘…a shot which has caused considerable conflict between Terry and Chuck. Chuck wants to follow the original script which ends with young Cole in the airport parking lot. As far as Terry is concerned though he has his final shot; the shot of young Cole in the airport witnessing his own death. …from early on reading the script and in discussions I’ve always felt that the ending of the film would take place in the airport between Railly and the boy, their eye contact, I mean, that’s why I started the film with, on his eyes, and end on his eyes, and the boy is touched, scarred, damaged by what he’s just seen, something that’s going to stay with him for the rest of his life. The scene that then came after that, was a scene in the airplane where Dr Peters and his viruses meet the astrophysicist and we know that somehow, the astrophysicist will get the virus and will be able to save the human race. [there is then a short clip of Jones the astrophysicist on the plane with Peters]. There was an argument that we needed that scene because otherwise Cole’s death would have been in vain, that he wouldn’t have achieved anything; this way we the audience can see that he has achieved something, that his death has led them to the virus and he saves the future, and um I was convinced that was all nonsense anyway, it was unnecessary and emotionally it would weaken the emotional ending.’
Note that although Gilliam talks about ‘reading the script’, the aeroplane ‘happy ending’ scene was definitely in there from at least a year before filming began; Gilliam as director was proposing that they should leave it out as it might be ‘giving too much away’, but producer Chuck Roven (and no doubt others, given the difficulties experienced with test audiences) were insistent that it remain. Later in the documentary, Mick Audsley (sound editor) explains the tricky balance being struck between giving the audience enough information or too little. We see Gilliam and others in the edit, watching first the scene of young Cole seeing older Cole die, and then the scene on the plane. Audsley even laughingly asks if this scene might actually be a setup for a sequel (!), something which Gilliam denies immediately before explaining that they are preparing two different edits for test audiences, one that ends on young Cole’s face, the other with the plane scene. As he puts it; ‘There are definitely two camps here on this one about whether that detracts from the ending or enriches it a little bit by tidying up certain plot.’ Then Gilliam states outright that ‘…she’s actually come back from the future, and Cole effectively has led them to this point…’ to which Audsley (at least, I think it’s him, it’s said off-camera) admits that this ‘didn’t come through’ for him. According to Gilliam, ‘quite a few people’ didn’t get it either. So if you were one of those people, don’t worry; you are in good company!
On the ‘somehow’ of the means by which the future scientists will retrieve the sample from Peters (which definitely is unclear), I actually suspect that the handshake is also meant to represent the scientist willingly contracting the virus herself to obtain the virus sample by physical contact. This would be consistent with the Terminator-style naked time travel that we see; she couldn’t bring back a phial of virus, but she could contract the virus and bring herself back. Alternatively, perhaps there is a means of bringing back a sample without killing herself (assuming no actual virus has yet been released, she could even achieve this, er, drug mule style… I’ll say no more than that). The important point is that whether or not the scientists thought they might be able to stop the outbreak, they had a contingency plan to use the pinpointed location, time, date and ID of the perpetrator to obtain a sample and at least have a chance of engineering a cure. Although it isn’t clear how the unmutated virus would help them combat the mutated future strains, but still, the filmmakers are clear that this is the ending. It’s ambiguous enough, and the plan desperate enough, that you can still read it as the beginning of the end of humanity if you wish. For me it’s the right balance of bleakness, but I can see why many, including Gilliam himself, wanted the movie to end on young Cole watching himself die as a futile loop is completed.
tl;dr – although not in use until the Enlightenment era (sorry, the plague doctor is not a medieval or renaissance figure) the beak doctor outfit really was an historical reality of the early 17th – early 19th centuries, but was likely rare; especially in its iconic form with corvid-like mask and separate hood.
Update: my original intent was to write something up for the lovely people at Fortean Times, who very kindly allowed me to do so, but after I’d posted this initial debunking of the claim that they didn’t exist. As I’d already written it, and the angle is somewhat different, I’ve left this up. But if you get the chance, do grab a copy of Issue 393, because they did a cracking job with the much revised and enhanced text that I gave them and the illustrations look great; including a never-before published original of the Zwinger painting. Anyway, read on…
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’
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.’
‘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 by an unknown artist, pubilshed by 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. For Sebastiano Zecchini, 1656.
Pretty similar; and the type of cloth or leather used to make the clothing isn’t specified. I 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 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. However, the BM points out that Columbina was a character in the commedia dell’Arte, the implication (given that this attribution does *not* appear on the Italian version and that no other reference to an artist of that name has ever been found) being that this was a joke; i.e. this bizarre person was sketched by a fellow weirdo – Columbina… That in itself is pretty speculative though.
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 but likely a close copy (whether period or later it’s hard to say) of the more detailed original in the in Historisches Museum Basel, which is painted on copper plate (I have a copy of this but won’t post it online; it appears in my Fortean Times article (Issue 393, 2020). It shows a very gothic-looking black robed figure with very birdlike, curved beak, complete with dividing line between upper and lower:
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.
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.
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 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.
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.