Another Romania-related one as I catch up with material that I’ve been sitting on since my visit to Romania in 2020. On that trip I stayed briefly in the beautiful old walled town section of Sighișoara, which I thoroughly recommend. Like many westerners my interest in the city, the country and indeed the historical Vlad III Dracula was sparked by a love of vampire fiction, but like at least some, I have also found the real history so much more interesting than the actually quite loose connection between Count and Voivode. I was well aware that the historical Dracula had no connection to Bran Castle, but I knew little of the Sighișoara connection. I was skeptical of the connection myself and researched it as best I could at the time, but didn’t get around to posting about it. I was pleased to see Dr Adrian Gheorghe of the Corpus Draculianum project covering all of the major ‘Vlad’ sites in a recent YouTube video (in Romanian, with English subtitles). The focus of Vlad claims in Sighișoara is the ‘Vlad Dracul House’ or Casa Vlad Dracul, supposedly where Vlad II was living when the future Dracula was born. The evidence given is the presence of the coin mint that Vlad II was known to have operated at the time, the supposed age of the house itself, and a fresco depicting a mustachioed chap identified as Vlad II. Gheorghe cites three reasons why this cannot be the Drăculești family residence, two of which I had figured out and can add a little to, one of which I had missed. I’ll summarise these several arguments against, but please do watch Dr Gheorghe’s video as it covers other sites such as Poenari Castle, which I will one day write about, and the infamous Bran);
Gheorghe states that the current building dates from the end of the 17th century, since it would have been destroyed in the great fire of 1676. From my own research I can add that this is supported by writer Dieter Schlesak and historian Michael Kroner. I should also mention that the cellar is claimed to be significantly older – 14th – 15th century based on the extant architecture with occupation even further back than this, based upon unpublished pottery finds by archaeologist Georghe Baltag (of whom more in a moment). Some sources claim that the facade of the building is circa 1500, but this is academic since that’s still significantly post-Vlad II. The building as it stands cannot be Vlad’s house. At best we can say that the cellar could in theory be that of the purported Drăculești residence. Unfortunately we’re not done yet…
He also points out that if this was Vlad’s house, the mint could not have been co-located there because of the constant loud noise. However, we don’t even need to speculate on the tolerance or deafness of Vlad, his family or his neighbours, because if there is any archaeological evidence for a mint at this site, it has never been published (again, by Baltag) as this report laments.
Gheorghe confirms that the figures in the fresco supposedly including Vlad II are wearing high status clothing from the 18th century. Others say 17th century, including career Dracula grifters McNally and Florescu, who spuriously claim that it must be a copy of an earlier original. Whether copied or entirely much later, there’s no reason to think that a high status resident of Sighișoara (almost certainly a Saxon) would be celebrating this controversial Wallachian figure. Quite apart from all of this and despite M&F’s insistence that the resemblance of the fresco is “uncanny”, it’s pretty naive and cartoonish. There is in any case no known depiction of Vlad II with which to compare it. Almond-shaped eyes and olive skin with a big moustache aren’t enough, I’m afraid.
Finally, something I missed but shouldn’t have since it was mentioned in an article I found – Gheorghe informs us that foreigners were not even permitted to live within the city walls and that there is no historical evidence for any exception made for Vlad II.
So where did this claim originate? Gheorghe references an unnamed Romanian historian that wanted to help create a more Romanian (i.e. Wallachian) past for Sighişoara by placing a Romanian noble (specifically the new national hero that was Vlad III) in the city at this early date. There are in fact two Romanian historians responsible for this myth. One is Gheorghe Baltag, who is criticised pretty hard in this article. Baltag’s original claim was published in Magazinul Istoric in 1977, specifically Vol. 11 No. 1 (issue 127, which is available behind a paywall here). In this he cites the fresco, the age of the building, and “local tradition” as his evidence and does not even mention the mint. However, as the Romanian magazine ‘Historia’ revealed earlier this year, this “local tradition” dates back only as far as 1945, when a medical doctor by the name of I. Culcer, who knew of the original discovery of the fresco circa 1900, first made the connection to Vlad II (I have not been able to identify where this was published or exactly what was claimed). Both men sought to better tie the Saxon city of Sighişoara into the modern nation of Romania, but did so on the flimsiest of evidence. Romanians have a fascinating and important history that does not need or deserve this kind of spurious approach. To be fair to Baltag, he retracted his own claim in another issue of Magazinul Istoric (Vol. 40, Issue 2, February 2006, pp. 13-16) in which he admits that “…today the hypothesis is rejected by most serious historians and can no longer be taken into account in any case.” He helpfully explains that the house, known prior to its spurious modern name as the Casa Paulinus, was named after Mayor Johannes Paulinus, under whose ownership it was documented as having burned in the 1676 fire, being rebuilt in its present form by his descendants. There is no mention of the survival of an older facade or even cellar (not that it would matter as noted above). Baltag doesn’t even mention the house in the chapter (‘Sighişoara – istorie şi arhitectură’) that he wrote for the 2009 book ‘Turism Cultural’ (edited by Teodorescu, pp. 18-20). Neither source references a mint at the site (he would know – he did the excavations in 1979) and in both publications he states that the house post-dates Vlad II. So the primary proponent of the theory completely abandoned it, albeit he leaves the possibility that Vlad II could have lived within the walls and states that his mint must have (which does make sense if sited away from major dwellings and/or below ground). I’m still not sure who first claimed that Vlad II’s mint was located at Casa Paulinus. Cazacu claims that the house was “known” for having the mint on site prior to the association with Vlad (2017, ‘Dracula’, p.2) but I can find no evidence for this and surely Baltag of all people would have mentioned it.
Thus the association with the Drăculești begins with the fresco that almost certainly does not depict Vlad II in a house that is too new to have housed him. It never had a mint – the claim that it did follows from the flawed identification of Vlad II and is not based upon any archaeological or historical evidence. Dracul and family, whilst they probably did live in the city, could not have lived within the walls of the Old Town. That is definitively not the house where Vlad Dracula was born or where he or his father lived, despite ongoing efforts from the tourism industry, ignorant westerners, and even some Romanian academics.
I’ve been following John Campbell’s YouTube channel since early on in the current COVID-19 pandemic. He does a good job of science communication, but something he mentioned recently had me reaching for my internets. He claimed that in the great plague of 1665-6, the villagers of Eyam in Derbyshire had selflessly quarantined themselves to protect their neighbours and suffered disproportionately. Most retellings (notably Wood’s 1859 ‘The History and Antiquities of Eyam’) link those two facts, emphasising that people opted to get sick and die rather than spread the disease. I hadn’t heard of Eyam, but the claim is widespread, and there’s even a museum dedicated to the event. It’s so widespread that it’s essentially now an accepted fact. It’s no surprise that this evidence of the capacity for altruism in the face of infectious disease was wheeled out during the current pandemic, including by the BBC. This is quite a nuanced one. The village certainly did suffer from the plague, and there was a quarantine. However, Patrick Wallis’ 2005 article ‘A dreadful heritage: interpreting epidemic disease at Eyam, 1666-2000’ (he’s written a more accessible summary for The Economist as well) shows that there is really no evidence that this was voluntary in any meaningful sense. Instead, as elsewhere in England, restrictions were imposed by those in charge, and neither the village’s isolation nor its high death toll (36% of the population, in line with the average mortality for the British Isles) were particularly unusual. Even the museum (which owes its existence to this traditional story), today gives accurate mortality figures (previously wrongly estimated at more than half the population) and explains that it was the local religious authorities who were responsible for the lockdown rather than the ordinary folk. The story of the supposedly willing sacrifice of the population only emerged some two hundred years after the fact and only became more mythologised over time (complete with made-up love story!). In Wallis’ words:’
“Only a limited body of contemporary evidence survives, the principal artefacts being three letters by William Mompesson, which powerfully convey the personal impact the death of Catherine Mompesson had on him, and, in passing, mention some of the villagers’ responses. There is a copy of the parish register, made around 1705. Finally, there is the landscape of the parish, with its scattering of tombs. Two of the earliest accounts claim indirect connections through their authors’ conversations with the sons of Mompesson and Stanley. Beyond this scanty body of evidence, a voluminous body of ‘oral tradition’ published in the early nineteenth century by the local historian and tax collector William Wood provides the bulk of the sources.”
Mompesson, the rector, wrote three letters, which don’t mention anything about villagers volunteering for a cordon sanitaire. In one of them Mompesson describes the suffering of his fellow villagers and does describe anti-plague measures – the ‘fuming and purifying’ of woollens and burning of ‘goods’, ‘pest-houses’, and of course prayer – but there’s nothing on quarantine, voluntary or otherwise. Early printed accounts confirm that one was put in place, with provisions supplied by the Earl of Devonshire. They praise the behaviour of Mompesson and/or Stanley, his unseated nonconformist predecessor (who had remained in the village) in keeping inhabitants from leaving (even though Mompesson sent his children to safety) but again there is nothing about the residents choosing to sacrifice their freedom for the greater good (the greater good). The community spirit element of the story doesn’t enter the picture until 54 years later when Richard Mead updated his ‘Short Discourse Concerning Pestilential Contagion’ (8th Ed., 1722, see here) with this account:
“The plague was likewise at Eham, in the Peak of Derbyshire; being brought thither by means of a box sent from London to a taylor in that village, containing some materials relating to his trade…A Servant, who first opened the foresaid Box, complaining that the Goods were damp, was ordered to dry them at the Fire; but in doing it, was seized with the Plague, and died: the same Misfortune extended itself to all the rest of the Family, except the Taylor’s Wife, who alone survived. From hence the Distemper spread about and destroyed in that Village, and the rest of the Parish, though a small one, between two and three hundred Persons. But notwithstanding this so great Violence of the Disease, it was restrained from reaching beyond that Parish by the Care of the Rector; from whose Son, and another worthy Gentleman, I have the Relation. This Clergyman advised, that the Sick should be removed into Hutts or Barracks built upon the Common; and procuring by the Interest of the then Earl of Devonshire, that the People should be well furnished with Provisions, he took effectual Care, that no one should go out of the Parish: and by this means he protected his Neighbours from Infection with compleat Success.”
The information is pretty sound, coming from the rector’s son and so within living memory, and is much more plausible than a more ‘grassroots’ motive. Of course, the source is likely to emphasise his own father’s role, but the bottom line is that the actual primary sources are few, and none suggest that the villagers took an active role. As Wallis puts it:
“The leadership of Stanley and Mompesson, respectively, is praised, but there is no hint or romance, tragedy, or even of distinction accruing to the rest of the community.”
He also suggests that the few villagers with the means to do so probably fled (certainly Mompesson ensured that his two children left and tried to persuade his wife to). The majority could not afford to leave and at this period likely wouldn’t have friends or family elsewhere that they could go and stay with. They were also being provided with supplies to encourage them not to leave. This leads me to what I think is the key to whether you regard this one as myth or reality; the extent to which the quarantine can be seen as voluntary. The contradiction of a ‘voluntary’ quarantine that was actually instigated by those in charge is highlighted by this contradictory phrasing from the website;
“…Mompesson and Stanley, the Rector of Eyam at that time [sic], who had persuaded the villagers to voluntarilly [sic] quarantine themselves to prevent the infection spreading to the surrounding towns and villages.”
I suppose the quarantine was ‘voluntary’ insofar as they didn’t nail people into their dwellings, but this wasn’t standard practice in the countryside anyway as far as I can tell. This was done in towns and cities where too many were infected to quarantine them in pest-houses or hospitals, and the risk of escalating infection was too great not to do it. Personally, I don’t think you can meaningfully call what happened at Eyam ‘voluntary’. The people of Eyam were most likely just doing what they were told and, as noted above, had little other option. This aspect of the situation isn’t that different (save the much worse fatality rate of plague) from that in countries today where lockdowns have been put in place due to the current pandemic. Yes, these have a legal basis, as did period quarantines in urban centres, and we can at least admit that Eyam’s quarantine was voluntary in that it was not governed by any formal law, and there’s no evidence that force or the threat of it had to be deployed. However, the same is true of the recent lockdowns in England; aside from a handful of fines, there has been no enforcement and, in the vast majority of villages, very high levels of compliance. The same was true in the 17th century; people mostly did what they were told and in any case had little other option. For this reason I think praising Eyam’s population for not (other than some more well-off people, including Mompesson’s own children) breaking their lockdown is akin to praising modern English people for not breaking theirs. Indeed, we may get lip service gratitude from our governments for complying, but we are (rightly) not hailed as heroes. Obviously I’m not comparing the fatality rates of the two diseases, just the power relationships at play. The rector of a parish held a great deal of sway at that time, and going against his wishes in a matter of public health would have been bold. Finally, and something that Wallis doesn’t seem to pick up on, is that (as I mentioned above) Mompesson explicitly mentions ‘pest houses’ in the context of them all being empty as of November 1666. These would have been existing structures identified for use to house and attempt to care for anyone diagnosed with the plague. No-one placed in one of these houses would have been permitted to leave, for the good of the uninfected in the village. Thus although those yet to be infected could in theory try to leave the village (although, where would they go?), anyone visibly afflicted certainly could not. Those free of plague would have even less reason to leave, as they weren’t being asked to live in the same house as the infected.
Overall, I think Eyam is an interesting and important case study (especially the rare survival of 17th century plague graves in the village) and, as Wallis capably shows, a reflection of changing knowledge and opinion on management of infectious diseases. In the 20th century the ‘meme’ shifted from heroic sacrifice to tragic ignorance. Quarantine and isolation didn’t work, and Eyam was proof. We are now witnessing another shift back toward quarantine as a viable measure and, along with it, a reversion to the narrative of English people ‘doing the right thing’ in the face of deadly disease. However we reinterpret their fate to suit ourselves over time, the people of Eyam were just some of the many unfortunate victims of disease in the 17th century, no more or less heroic than any others.
Almost every county in the UK has some story about a tried or convicted 16th or 17th century witch; it’s an unfortunate part of our history. Yorkshire has several noted ‘witches’; one with a surprisingly persistent local legacy is Mary Pannell (or Panel, or Pannel, or Pannal, or Pennell), supposedly a local ‘wise woman’ or sometimes just an ordinary girl with some knowledge of herbal medicine, who offered medical help to William Witham of the local Ledston Hall (renamed ‘Wheler Priory’ in ‘Most Haunted’ for security reasons), and supposedly ended up executed for witchcraft and/or for killing Witham when he died in 1593. Pannell’s story is still current in local news and oral tradition, she has her own (not very good) Wikipedia entry, and even featured in TV’s ‘Most Haunted Live’ 2007 Halloween Special. Her story has appeared both in print and online, but the oldest is an internet version from 1997 (this version revised 26.4.2006; the Internet Archive only has the 2000 version onwards).
The first thing I should tackle are the modern embellishments introduced to the story in the retelling. First, William Witham was not the young son of the owner of the Hall, he was the owner, and was 47 when he died! Witham did have sons, two of which were also called William, but one died in infancy years earlier and the other survived his father and went on to have his own son. There is also no evidence that Pannell was an employee of Witham’s (a claim that has expanded in very recent versions to include Witham taking advantage of her). In fact, we know nothing about Pannell for sure, although (as Wikipedia informs us) it’s possible that she may be the same ‘Marye Tailer’ of nearby Kippax who married a John Pannell in 1559 (see these parish records, p. 11). Anyway, these modern changes have likely crept in to make Pannell and Witham more sympathetic victims of the unthinking posh folk who in some versions of the story kill their own innocent son and an innocent woman who was trying to help. Originally, Pannell is an evil woman to be feared; today she is feared in death as a wronged spirit, but otherwise pitied as a victim of prejudice and ignorance.
The good news is that Mary Pannell did exist circa 1600, and was indeed believed to be a witch, as proven by Edward Fairfax’s 1622 manuscript ‘Dæmonologia: A Discourse on Witchcraft’ (p. 98):
“…that the devil can take to himself a true body, or that he can make one of this man’s leg, the second’s arm, and the head of the third (as a great divine hath lately written), or that he can play the incubus and beget children, as the old tale of Merlin, and our late wonder of the son of Mary Pannell* (not yet forgot) seem to insinuate.”
Unfortunately, the footnote on the same page containing the above details i.e. that Pannell was executed in 1603 and ‘bewitched’ William Witham to death was added by Grainge, based on an earlier source (see below). Fairfax’s original manuscripts (there are several versions) do not include any of this. We do know from unrelated period records that William Witham of Ledston Hall did die in 1593 and, again, that Pannell existed and was thought a witch; but there is no primary evidence connecting these facts. It’s by no means clear that Pannell was actually executed, or even tried for witchcraft. Court records for that area and period don’t survive, and unlike other witchcraft suspects, there are no other primary sources to fall back on. The earliest version of Pannell’s own story (most likely Grainge’s source) dates to 1834, over two centuries after the fact. This is Edward Parsons’ ‘The Civil, Ecclesiastical, Literary, Commercial, and Miscellaneous History of Leeds, Halifax, Huddersfield, Bradford, Wakefield, Dewsbury, Otley, and the Manufacturing District of Yorkshire’ (p.277):
“William Witham, who, from the pedigree of his family, appears to have been buried on the ninth of May, 1593, was supposed to have died in consequence of the diabolical incantations of an unfortunate being called Mary Pannel, who had obtained a disastrous celebrity in this part of the country for her supposed intercourse with malignant spirits. About ten years after the death of her imagined victim, she was apprehended on the charge of sorcery, arraigned and convicted at York, and was executed on a hill near Ledston hall, the supposed scene of her infamous operations. The hill where she died was long afterwards called Mary Pannel’s hill, and was regarded with abhorrence and alarm by the ignorant rustics in the neighbourhood.”
It’s interesting that this earliest written version suggests that Pannell was convicted of witchcraft in general, not of killing or even necessarily bewitching Witham specifically. Anyway, there are many later sources but all either reference each other or don’t cite a source at all, making Parsons ground zero for the legend. This makes it all the more frustrating that we don’t know his source, and certainly no period records survive today that would enable us to check this (perhaps they did in the 1830s but it seems unlikely). As Jim Sharpe states in his 1992 book ‘Witchcraft in Seventeenth Century Yorkshire: Accusations and Counter Measures’ (p. 2), ‘for the years between 1563 and 1650 assize records do not survive in quantity outside of the south east…’. This is ironic, because Sharpe is (in the same volume, p. 4) one of several scholars to treat the Grainge footnote in Fairfax’s Discourse as though it were a 17th century primary source rather than a 19th century secondary one, stating “In 1603 a woman named Mary Panell [sic], whose reputation for witchcraft stretched back at least to bewitching a man to death in 1593, was executed at Ledston.” Again, all we know is that Pannell existed at that time and was thought a witch. Gregory J. Durston includes the same details on p. 79 of his 2019 book on specifically (and ironically) witch trials, and doesn’t even bother to give a reference. Regardless, I have to assume, given Parsons’ repeated use of the word ‘supposed’ and his snide dig at ignorant locals, that he was in fact recording an oral tradition, perhaps related to him by said locals, or by members of Parsons’ own social class, scoffing at the superstitions of their peons (although as Fairfax shows, some of the upper class also believed in witchcraft).
Grainge’s 1882 footnote is actually cribbed from his own 1855 book ‘Castles and Abbeys of Yorkshire’, in which he disagrees with Parsons on the method and location of her execution;
“In 1608 [sic], Mary Pannell, who had long been celebrated for supposed sorceries, was hung at York, under the impression, that, among other crimes, she had bewitched to death William Witham, who died at Ledstone, in 1593.”
However, he (or his publisher) also ballsed up the date, so it’s possible that he was mistaken and didn’t necessarily have access to alternative sources of information. Or he may have been deliberately correcting Parsons. The assumption that she was actually executed at York makes more sense for the time and place; witches weretypically executed in the town or city of their conviction/incarceration. Incidentally, there’s no reason that Grainge would consider that Pannell was actually burned; this punishment was very rare for witchcraft suspects in England. The very suggestion doesn’t appear until 1916 with J.S. Fletcher’s ‘Memorials of a Yorkshire Parish’ (p. 97).
“On the right of the road there is a hill covered with wood, called Mary Pannal Hill. Upwards of two hundred and fifty years ago, when the country was covered with forest, when our villages and hamlets were scantily populated, and when superstition reigned in the place of education, Mary Pannal, clad as a gipsy, haunted this neighbourhood, hiding in the old quarries or sheltered nooks in the forest, and gaining a precarious living by begging or pilfering – being, in short, a poor, outcast, homeless, wandering mendicant. In winter time , the old villagers say, she would beg coals of the cartmen as they passed from the pits at Kippax to Ledsham or Fairburn, bewitching all those who refused to supply her with bits of coal, so that the horses could not get up the hills with the load. The drivers, however, devised a simple remedy; they got whip – stocks of wiggan, which enabled them to defy the powers of the witch and surmount the hills without trouble. In those days witches were put out of the way on very slender testimony. They were feared and abhorred. Ridiculous tests were employed to assist in detection; one test being to throw the suspected one into deep water, and if she sank and was drowned it was a sign that she was innocent, but if she floated it was a sign that she was guilty, and she was forthwith taken and executed. This kind of demonopathy prevailed for several centuries. For various acts of supposed witchcraft , and especially for having “bewitched to death ” one William Witham – one of the ancient race of Withams , owners of Ledstone Hall, — Mary Pannal was condemned to suffer on the gallows. The local tradition is that she was taken to the top of the hill, which still bears her name, and which is within full view of the windows of Ledstone Hall, to be hanged on a tree; but each time she was suspended on the cord, it snapped and let her to the ground unhurt, the cord being bewitched. The hangsmen were baffled, but whilst consulting and marvelling one amongst another, a bird of the crow tribe flew over, muttering slowly as it flew, “A withy, a withy, a withy!” whereupon the hangsmen got a flexible withy of wiggan from the adjoining thicket, and suspending the witch upon it, the execution was immediately consummated. Old inhabitants of Ledstone can remember seeing the identical tree felled.”
NB a ‘wiggan’ is another name for rowan, which was thought to have apotropaic properties against witchcraft.
From this we learn that there was a local tradition not just of the hillside where Pannell was supposedly executed, but of a specific purported hanging tree as well. Based on this description it had that reputation for some time prior to being cut down before Parsons ever wrote down his version of the story. Although this story was related in 1882, the ‘old inhabitants’ mentioned would have been young people when Parsons first recorded the basic story.
A couple of decades later (by which time various heraldic and genealogical sources have picked up the story, having never done so prior to Parsons and Grainge) several periodicals (‘Autocar’ mention it also, with the authentic-seeming quotes referencing the phrase ‘devilish arts’ and the word ‘sorceries’; common enough period terms that they could easily have been adapted from other cases. One example, an account of the trial of Isobel Young, even includes the Scots word ‘pannell’, as in a panel of accused people (although that’s probably coincidence and not the source of these references to Mary Pannell). If not this, it’s likely to have become associated with Pannell’s story in the same way as the phrase ‘counsell and helpe’ did in 1918 when it was implied to be a phrase from Pannell’s trial but was actually borrowed from a 1916 source that referenced Pannell and the phrase separately (it’s actually from a York Archdeaconry ‘Article’ against witchcraft in general). Regardless, I can’t find any pre-1913 or post-1922 instance of any variant of ‘sorceries and devilish arts’ with reference to Pannell.
We then encounter a gap in the storytelling record until the early (1997) internet version that I mentioned at the beginning. It maintains the basic elements, the 1916 claim of Pannell being burned at Ledston, and adds new embellishments of Witham the boy, Pannell the non-witch herbalist maid, and her ill-fated attempt to help him (plus new aspects to the ghost story):
“Turning left towards Kippax we arrive back on the Roman Ridge Road at a crossroads called ‘Mary Pannell’. It is named so after the unfortunate woman who was burned here as a witch.
Mary Pannel or Pannell was a maid at Ledston Hall towards the end of the 16th century. She, like many others, had a knowledge of ‘old’ medicines and prepared a lotion to be rubbed upon the chest of the young son of the house, one Master William Witham Esq. who was suffering from a chill. His mother mistakenly gave it to the lad to drink and poisoned him. She blamed Mary and accused her of being a witch. This was in May 1593. Mary was tried in 1603 at York and convicted. She was burned to death on the hill that bares [sic] her name that same year. Local tales tell that she haunts the hill and its Roman road leading a horse. Anyone who witnesses the apparition will have a death in the family soon after
At this crossroads was an Inn which survived from medieval times until the beginning of this century – only short sections of stone wall mark it’s existence today.”
“Mary Pannell, of Ledston, lived in a small hut and mixed enchantments and made curses and is said to have had dealings with evil spirits. She is said to have bewitched to death William Witham, Esq., of Ledston Hall, in 1593, and was convicted in York in 1603 and put to death by burning on Mary Pannell Hill, on the edge of Castleford.”
By 2004 it had been revised based on information from ‘John & Carol’ to fit the earlier (1997) version, albeit with the ‘health warning’ that it was a ‘local legend’;
“She is said to have bewitched to death William Witham, Esq., of Ledston Hall, in 1593, and was convicted in York in 1603 and put to death by burning on Mary Pannell Hill, on the edge of Castleford. Local legend has it that Mary was a maid who knew a little about medicine. She gave a lotion to rub on a child’s chest for a chill but the mother (an important person of the time) gave it to the child to drink. The lotion killed him and Mary was burned as a witch for it.
Her ghost, leading a horse, is supposed to haunt the Pannell Hill and it is claimed that anybody seeing her will have a death in the family. [Submitted By: John & Carol]”
The story also appears in ‘Horrible Histories: Gruesome Great Houses’ (2017) by Terry Deary who like other 21st century writers is keen to ‘reclaim’ Pannell as a village ‘wise woman’, i.e. a magic practitioner and not simply an innocent herbalist. This fits the modern popular view of witchcraft suspects as well-meaning ‘white witches’ targeted by the patriarchy (although any pagan will tell you that there’s no such thing as ‘black’ or ‘white’). Mary’s popularity in ‘Mind Body & Spirit’ books and online has turned her into something of a meme, but in this case I don’t think that’s all she is.
The geographical evidence – the hill being named after Mary Pannell – is important here, especially in light of the folklore recorded by Parsons and Roberts. It’s not much of a hill and is therefore often confused with the more noticeable and spookier-looking wooded western slope of the adjacent Sheldon Hill (often locally called ‘Mary Panel Wood’). Despite this it is an officially named location, appearing on the current footpath sign directing walkers from nearby Kippax and on Ordnance Survey maps drawn up in the late 1840s (labelled separately to Sheldon Hill). For the name to appear on official government maps, the name must have been quite long-standing. Although all of the written evidence for the Witham story (and ghostly Mary) centres around the early 19th century, it’s quite plausible that it could be 18th century or even older. It’s more likely that it emerged within living memory of Witham, local folklore to explain his untimely death, which may have attracted extra and sustained local attention due to the fame of his daughter, Lady Mary Bolles. Whether there was any historical connection between Pannell and Witham, we will probably never know. At the very least, Mary Pannell really existed, was really thought to be a witch, and the story of her and William Witham is genuine folklore, not some recent urban myth.
This is a fun one. I’ve recently learned from this Atlas Obscura post about the ruined Norfolk church at East Somerton village. As local tradition goes, the tall oak tree growing in the middle of the nave sprouted magically from the wooden leg of a witch that was buried there. Yes, I know, pretty silly, but I couldn’t help look into this anyway. I was initially curious as to how old this legend really was and ended up looking at the whole thing. Other than the physical impossibility of a wooden leg becoming a tree of course; I think we can take that as read. Disclaimer; this is not intended as a dig at Atlas Obscura; I am a fan of the site and have worked with them a couple of times. They are careful to call it a ‘legend’ and also use the phrases ‘said to be’, ‘said to have’ and ‘it’s believed’.
The first thing to cover is what this 13th-15th century building actually is. It’s described as both a church and a chapel, and several sources state that it used to be a church before becoming a chapel for the residents and workers of the nearby Burnley Hall. In fact, the Hall wasn’t even built until 1710, by which time the chapel was already derelict, and it seems that this is a misunderstanding of what a ‘chapel’ in this context actually is. East Somerton (dedicated to St Mary but not dubbed ‘St Mary’s’) was always technically a satellite church or ‘chapel of ease’, dependent upon the nearby Holy Trinity church at Winterton, which was the actual parish church from the beginning (see here and here). So, the East Somerton site is still a ‘church’ in terms of historic purpose and function, but was never actually dubbed ‘St Mary’s Church’ (‘Chapel of St. Mary’ seems to be the correct name) nor was it ever East Somerton’s parish church per se. All of this confused me during research (some sources can be read as implying both a church and a chapel in the village), so I thought I’d try to clear it up for others.
I then looked at when the chapel was actually abandoned and when it became a ruin, in case these dates didn’t line up with the witch narrative. However, most sources (including Heritage Gateway, referencing Batcock’s ‘The Ruined and Disused Churches of Norfolk’, available here) do state that it was already in ruins by the late 17th century. There are later references to the chapel (for example these and from the 1760s), but these persist until at least as late as 1821, by which time we know for sure the chapel was ruined. These references are clearly nominal, referring to the fact that the chapel site and its former function were still in theory part of the rectory overall. So I am quite content to say that it was indeed ruined by the end of the 17th century (meaning that a tree could have started growing there). Certainly, by 1781 the building had been ‘made use of as a barn’ and had been ‘in ruins many years’ (from ‘The History of Norfolk’, p. 46). However, there is no sign of a tree in 1822 in J.B. Ladbrooke’s lithograph of the site (see above and linked here). As an aside, the place being ruined and roofless by that time is on the face of it at odds with its second life as a barn. Perhaps it fell into greater disrepair in the meantime, or perhaps the roof was partly intact. Or maybe landowner just wasn’t that fussy and used it for storage despite its ruined state. Anyway, there’s also no mention of a tree in the 1824 book ‘Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen’; just of the undergrowth that we see in the contemporary artwork. It’s not until 1875 that we read in the ‘Post office directory of the Norfolk counties’ (p. 445) of ‘a large tree growing in the midst’ of the ruins.
Which brings me to the tree itself. If it was ‘large’ in 1875, could it have been seeded during the witch trial era? This could make the legend an old one, perhaps even based upon some actual historical event, and of course for believers in the paranormal, it would vindicate the whole story. Well, based upontheavailableevidence the tree is no more than 1.5 in trunk diameter (less than that, I suspect). That would equate to a 471 cm circumference which, divided by the 1.88cm growth rate for the average oak tree, gives an approximate age of 250 years. That would place the tree as a sapling in the mid-to-late 18th century and make it too young to fit the story. Witch trials were halted by the Witchcraft Act of 1735, operated under the new Enlightenment assumption that magic wasn’t real and so anyone claiming to practice it was a fraud. The last trial in England for actual witchcraft took place in 1716, by which time belief in such things was well on the slide (hence the new law, repealing the 1604 Act under which Mary Hicks and her daughter had been prosecuted and executed). This brings me to perhaps the biggest problem with the East Somerton witch tale; no convicted witch would have been buried in consecrated ground, much less in the nave of a church!
The historical background to this story is also lacking. There’s the total lack of any evidence (online, at any rate) for any witch being tried or even suspected in this area. Most local stories about witches usually at least relate to a specific case; not so here. Then we have a lack of references even for the story itself; nothing any further back than this 1992 book. That in itself does not of course mean that the story isn’t an older oral tradition; it probably is. All we actually have is the story, which is likely a local legend that grew as the tree did, although it is unlikely to be even as old as the tree, given that the site was covered in other foliage earlier in the 19th century (and probably wasn’t noticeable until mid-century). I don’t think a tree growing inside the church is going to attract much attention as long as the place is overgrown, until such time as it becomes prominent. We know it’s at least 30 years old, and as the tree was large enough to be remarked upon in 1875, I suspect that the myth arose some time in the Victorian period (although it could of course be more recent).
As for the ‘ghostly monks’ mentioned in the Atlas Obscura entry, I don’t know where that comes from, but I haven’t even seen that claimed anywhere else. That one debunks itself really, since East Monkton was never a priory, abbey, or monastery.
This is an odd one. Some idiot has claimed as fact a stupid joke about the ‘muffin man’ of the child’s song/nursery rhyme actually being an historical serial killer and some credulous folk (including medium.com) have fallen for it. Snopes have correctly debunked it, yet despite a total lack of any evidence for it being the case, have labelled it ‘unproven’. I hope they figure out that this isn’t how history works. The onus is on the claimant to provide a reference. They aren’t going to find a definitive origin for a traditional song like that that would allow the (patently ludicrous) claim to be disproven. It’s moderately endearing that Snopes had to find out via furious Googling that ‘muffin men’ were a real thing. I learned this when I was a child. Maybe it’s a British thing that Americans have lost their cultural memory of. The very concept of the muffin man is very clearly enough to debunk this bollocks on its own. The muffin man was a guy who went door to door selling tasty treats that kids enjoy, not some ‘Slenderman’ bogeyman figure. It would be like suggesting that there was a serial killer called ‘Mr Whippy‘. Anyway, this Jack Williamson guy is just another internet attention-seeker who will hopefully disappear forthwith. As for Snopes, I can’t fault their article, but I suspect their ongoing foray into political fact-checking has made them a little gunshy of calling things ‘False’ without hard evidence.
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.
‘…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.’
‘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).
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.
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.
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.
Oh, this is a classic. I can hardly believe that I’ve never heard it before; the amazing BS claim, made by the so-called ‘History Project’ on YouTube (and apparently tour guides on HMS Victory), that the phrase ‘pull your finger out’ derives from the world of artillery.
‘…cannons [sic] were loaded with black powder through a small ignition hole which was held in place by a wooden plug. In the rigours of battle though, this job was carried out by a crewmember who used his finger. Artillerymen hadn’t just to [?*] engage the enemy, would shout at the crewmember to ‘pull his finger out’ enabling him to fire.’
*I’m actually from the UK and have tried three times to get what the presenter is saying here; I still have no idea.
Although garbled and inaccurate, this is based on real historical drill, which you can read about here. I don’t know what they mean by ‘held in place by’, but the real need top ‘stop the vent’ was to prevent premature ignition of the next charge being loaded. By preventing air (and therefore oxygen) being sucked into the chamber as the sponge was pulled out, any embers left still glowing might be reignited, resulting in premature ignition of the fresh charge as this was rammed home (more on this here).
Importantly, the gun’ captain was to cover the vent with the thumb, not insert a finger! Vents in gun breeches weren’t even big enough to achieve that – typically they were just .2” or 5mm – see this National Parks Service manual! Not to mention the risk of getting it stuck if you could somehow jam it in there. Then there’s the heat problem; gun captains were supposed to wear thumbstalls to protect them, but if you had to stop the vent in the ‘rigours of battle’ you’d suffer far worse if you had your fingertip, never mind your finger, stuck in a red-hot vent. Then there’s the ridiculous idea that an order of command would be as long as five syllables. In a world where even the two syllable word ‘Present’ was shortened to one for speed and convenience (‘P’sent’), there’s no way this phrase would have been used; and sure enough, there’s zero evidence that it was.
‘The first known use of it in print is in Aussie: The Australian Soldiers’ Magazine, March 1919 :
“Tell the bloke who issues the prizes to pull his finger out.”
It began to be used in the UK during the Second World War, presumably due to the mixing of Australian and UK forces.
What finger was being referred to and where it was supposed to be pulled out from we can only speculate.’
In other words, it’s an Empire/Commonwealth version of ‘pull your thumb out your ass’.
Verdict: total BS. But it made me chuckle at least. I feel that I must point out that ‘The History Project’ also has a video on ‘the whole nine yards’, another bogus phrase origin that I’ve debunked before. They also have one on ‘bite the bullet’, which is still wrong, but more plausible/arguable. I might do that one next. Or maybe I’ll be nice and cover their explanation of ‘Sweet FA’, which actually seems to be true…
I watch (or, being ridiculously busy these days, listen to) a lot of YouTube videos and really appreciate some of the historical channels like ‘Shadiversity’, which covers medieval history. They are a great introduction to the subject for the layperson and especially for visual learners, people with limited time and/or interest. The danger of them is exactly that of traditional TV documentaries – that the viewer assumes that the content is 100% factual and authoritative. Just like TV, YouTubers lack the time and often the means (often the motivation, it has to be said) to be academically rigorous about their ‘content’, which is entertainment first and foremost, not to mention a source of income (whether directly from YouTube monetisation or indirectly by crowdsourced funding).
For example, a recent video from Shad (who does normally try hard with his historical accuracy) included two very questionable claims, both from Abbey Medieval Festival organiser Edith Cuffe.
Claim 1: ‘Alms to the poor’ originates with the donation of used trenchers
Cuffe describes the medieval practice of donating the stale bread plates used at the banquet table, known as ‘trenchers’, to the poor, stating ‘…giving alms to the poor…that’s where that saying comes from’.
This is just not true and doesn’t even try to explain the word ‘alms’, what it meant in the wider sense, or where it came from. ‘Alms’ is actually ancient, from ancient Greek via Latin, and from very early on described any charitable gift to the poor, whether money, clothing, food or drink. This is like claiming that the concept of ‘drinking’ originates with alcoholic beverages – the idea of drinking obviously pre-dated that of the alcoholic drink, and the same logical failure applies here. Naturally I wanted to work out where this mistake originated, and as far as I can tell this isn’t something that is widely claimed. I suspect that Ms Cuffe simply misspoke or perhaps has become confused over this point. Trenchers really were given to the poor, although the sources seem to be limited. The main one (and I am no expert here either) seems to be ‘A Fifteenth Century Courtesy Book’ (British Library manuscript ‘Additional’ no. 37969).
This explains that between courses various food and drink including (but not limited to) used trenchers would be collected along with an unused trencher and a whole loaf of bread in the ‘almes dyshe’ and then taken to be given to the poor. However, this was not some special dish just for leftover food – an alms dish was just a receptacle for any charitable donation – money, food, drink, or other. Incidentally, have a go at reading that Middle English source – it’s fascinating and great fun when you get into the swing of it. 15th century English is readily understood with a bit of effort, once you realise that words are spelled how they are pronounced (so this has changed somewhat over time), there’s an additional letter, the *Thorn* (looks like a ‘p’) which was a ‘th’ sound – and of course some of the vocabulary is a bit tricky, but easily Googled. For example, the ‘sure howse’ that the alms dish was taken to was a church, chapel, or other religious building (specifically, ‘church’ was ‘chirche’). There was an actual church job role of ‘almoner’ (mentioned in the same MS), the official receiver and distributor of alms – again, much of which was simply money – it was not just a medieval food bank per se (although it did partly perform that role).
Claim 2: The modern ‘pinky in the air’ was invented for the medieval dinner table
The other piece of ‘Medieval Misconception’ in the video (again given by Cuffe) is the idea that the present-day custom (popularised in the 19th century) of holding one’s little (pinky) finger out to one side/in the air comes from the medieval practice of reserving certain fingers for picking up spices at the dinner table. This seems to originate with Dr Madeleine Pelner Cosman of the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, City College of New York, who made the same claim several times in non-academic level publications, e.g. from her 1981 ‘Medieval Holidays and Festivals: A Calendar of Celebrations’ (p.7):
‘Even today many people keep a pinky finger extended when holding a tea or coffee cup. Why? Because polite banquet rules imitate the medieval manner of keeping particular fingers free of sauces, the spice fingers.’
All subsequent references seem to come from Cosman’s claims. Unfortunately Cosman seems to assume, without evidence, that the practice of reserving the little finger for tasting spices somehow has a direct line of tradition to the modern table etiquette idea of holding out the little finger. Rather like ‘archer’s salute’, this is a massive leap from a single source that vaguely sounds like something that’s done later on in history; *much* later on in history. Without wishing to be uncharitable, Cosman was definitely not a medieval scholar. None of her degrees were in a history subject, never mind medieval history, and her actual academic career was in comparative and English Literature. Her medieval expertise was essentially that of a re-enactor (not a bad thing in itself of course) running a living history group and being involved in the US ‘Renaissance Fair’ pastime. This makes her logical leap all the more questionable and means that her claims have never been challenged by credentialled medieval scholars.
In all, this is another case of an academic straying out of their area of expertise, and at the same time, of the re-enactment community inventing historical facts and reinforcing them through repetition and also publication. As for where the little finger in the air really comes from, it’s hard to say for sure but the explanation that it arose in the 18th century with the first teacups, which were small and lacked handles. Grasping one of these with thumb and forefinger/middle finger encouraged the little finger to be held out to one side, and this certainly became the fashionable way to do it. The book ‘Forgotten Elegance’ by Wendell and Wes Schollander (2002) refers to an artistic depiction of 1740 (actually earlier, see my image above) that shows different ways of holding a teacup including one with the little finger extended. In any case, by the late Victorian period the extended little finger had become passé and was used by the upper classes to differentiate themselves from lower class tea drinkers who persisted in its use (see for example Frederick Gordon Row, ‘The Victorian Child’, 1959, p.53). The rigorous thing to do would be to say that we don’t really know – it was just a fashion in etiquette. But it almost certainly doesn’t come from 15th century table practicalities.
So, as elsewhere, don’t believe everything you hear on YouTube…
Myth: the mummies of St Michan’s are a crusader, a thief, and a nun who died aged over 100
Reality: the ‘crusader’ is an anonymous 3-400 year-old Irishman, the thief might have been a murderer but could be neither of those, and there probably was a nun, but we don’t know which body is her – if any!
I have been meaning to write something about the mummies of St Michan’s church for years now, and this recent sad tale of head theft is a good reason to do it now, not least because of the disgustingly racist comments that have sprung up about it. Just as I was going to (word)press, the head and one of the loose skulls from the vault had been recovered, although of course the damage to the corpse where it has been torn/cut off is permanent. by the logic of the rabid internet loons, apparently the only possible culprit for the desecration of a ‘crusader’ must be a Muslim immigrant or a ‘liberal’. The BBC article does a decent job of relating the break-in and desecration of the corpse, but makes no mention of the important fact that the ‘Crusader’ is definitely not one. A crusader I mean. It’s definitely a corpse. The crypt at St Michan’s has been home to unusually well-preserved (naturally mummified) corpses for some time, with particular attention in modern times to three mummies, dubbed ‘the thief’ (the very tall body in the middle, whose right hand and both feet are missing), ‘the nun’ (currently said to be the left of the three in the middle of the vault) and yes, ‘the crusader’ (arranged transversely behind her, against the wall). Don’t ask me why the other exposed mummy on the right doesn’t have a special identity. There’s a weird tradition that visitors should touch the hand of the ‘crusader’ for good luck. I don’t believe in superstition, but I touched him anyway. After all, how often do you get actively encouraged to touch dead people?
‘This chamber contains altogether ten coffins, two on the left, four on the right, and four in the centre without lids. The centre one contains the body of a lady brought here about the year 1790. All these have once been covered with black velvet, some of which still hangs on the sides in strips. It is a popularly received idea that these bodies are several hundred years old, and people go even so far as to say that the body of a man with his legs crossed in the coffin nearest the wall is a crusader. The absurdity of this wild notion is obvious when we look at the coffins, which we have reasons for thinking are the original ones in which the bodies were first placed. They are of the ordinary shape of the present day, of which I believe I am correct in stating one of the earliest examples known is that of Lancelot, Bishop of Winchester, buried in 1626 in S. Saviour’s, Southwark, whose coffin was discovered in 1830 (Gent’s Mag., Aug., 1830, p. 171). Everyone knows now that the cross-legged crusader theory is long since exploded. There is not much to guide one in guessing the date of the coffins in S. Michan’s, but I should scarcely think that there are any prior in date to about the end of the seventeenth century, if indeed so early ; the greater number are much later than that. We were informed by the sexton that in another of the vaults, some years ago, he saw ” E. Rook, 1690,” marked in nails on the lid of a coffin of a child. The lock of this vault being out of order we were unable to visit it, though I have since had this statement corroborated by another ; but whether or not my informants mistook the 1790 for 1690 will, however, never be ascertained, for the coffin in question has since fallen to pieces. I don’t remember, however, having seen any dates on my previous visits. At all events, whatever their dates may be, the coffins must certainly have been here many years, and quite long enough to set people wondering how it is that time and the usual process of decay seem to have had no effect on them.’
Note that the ‘nun’ was, in 1888, claimed as the ‘middle’ corpse, not the one on the left. This must surely be a mistake, because the middle mummy is very clearly extremely tall and physically robust – one of two men out of the four mummies. The present building is no older than perhaps 1750, but the church itself is older. It was founded in 1095, making the crusader story plausible on the face of it, but only assuming that there were older vaults of some kind there previously such that the body could have been disinterred and reinterred in the new vaults. Which seems unlikely. Irish author Leon Ó Broin in his ‘Miss Crookshank agus Coirp Eile’ (1951) came to the conclusion that St Michan’s crypt was first opened in 1686, and that the oldest of the three corpses dated from 1780. My research suggests that interments actually started from 1641 onwards. ‘A story of Dublin: the people and events that shaped the city’ (John McCormack, 2000) mentions the repair and re-use of the vaults below the church circa the arrival of Thomas Wentworth in 1633. The earliest written accounts (there is another, also from 1822, in the New Monthly Magazine) make no mention of a ‘crusader’ or knight, so it seems that particular legend emerged at some point between 1822 and 1888:
‘Among these remnants of humanity, for instance, there is the body of a pious gentlewoman, who, while she continued above ground, shunned the eyes of men in the recesses of a convent. But the veil of death has not been respected. She stands the very first on the sexton’s list of posthumous rarities, and one of the most valuable appendages of his office. She is his buried treasure. Her sapless cheeks yield him a larger rent than some acres of arable land ; and what is worse, now that she cannot repel the imputation, he calls her to her face ” the Old Nun.” In point of fact, I understood that her age was one hundred and eleven, not
including the forty years that have elapsed since her second burial in St. Michan’s. Death, as has been often observed, is a thorough Radical, and levels all distinctions. It is so in this place. Beside the Nun there sleeps, not a venerable abbess, or timid novice, or meek and holy friar, but an athletic young felon of the 17th century, who had shed a brother’s, blood, and was sentenced for the offence to the close custody of St. Michan’s vaults. This was about one hundred and thirty years ago. The offender belonged to a family of some consideration, which accounts for his being found in such respectable society.
-(‘The Vaults of St. Michan’s’ in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal Vol.5, p.395)
This account matches up very well date-wise; the oldest of the displayed bodies (whether or not the ‘felon’ is one of those still displayed) being from c.1710. If we assume that the ‘nun’ was correctly identified as either the left or right hand female body in 1822, this raises the fascinating possibility that the ‘thief’ in the middle may indeed be a criminal; but a murderer, not a thief. In any event, this story was apparently forgotten by 1888, and it’s perhaps less credible that this knowledge would have persisted after 130 years. Still, there’s potential for some consistency around the story here, if indeed the 1888 account is in error – it does seem to be at odds in this respect. The other accounts can be reconciled as the crusader being the one at the back, the criminal in the middle, and the nun next to him (most likely his left). Also mentioned in 1822 are the bodies of John and Henry Sheares, executed for their part in the 1798 Rising (only 16 years earlier than this source). These two were still being shown to visitors in 1888 and, I believe, until shortly before I visited in 2009. They now reside in a different vault, having been moved to the vault nearest the entrance in the 1850s.
The only constant in all of the accounts is the ‘nun’, the titular ‘Miss Crookshanks’ of Ó Broin’s book. Note that I haven’t actually been able to read this, because it’s in Irish, but from comments elsewhere and judiciously translated Google Books snippets, it seems that Ó Broin did in fact debunk the existence of a nun or any woman of this name. But let’s give the benefit of the doubt and see what else we can say. One might think that this woman having been interred only 40 years before the anonymous 1822 account above, that we could be sure of her identification as a 111-year-old nun called Crookshank. Wright (1825) reinforces this;
‘In one vault is shown the remains of a nun, who died at the advanced age of 111 : the body has now been 30 years in this mansion of death, and although there is scarcely a remnant of the coffin, is as completely preserved, with the exception of the hair, as if it had been embalmed. In the same vault are to be seen the bodies of two Roman Catholic clergymen, which have been 50 years deposited here, even more perfect than the nun.’
-’An historical guide to the city of Dublin’ by George Newenham Wright (p.62).
This puts the nun/Crookshank’s approximate year of death at 1795. As to the clergymen mentioned, I have no idea whether any of the remains in the current vault might be these men, or even if that ID was correct at the time. Richard Robert Madden’s 1842 account of Miss Crookshank suggests a much older corpse, relocated twice; first from her own tomb (presumably also within the specially preservative vaults, or perhaps another sepulchre on site?) and then in what was then recent times to a different vault (possibly the current one) – shortly before Wright saw her:
‘One of these bodies, “whose antiquity is of an ancient date,” for the tenants of European sepulchres, is still existing in the same vault in which the Sheares’ remains are interred : the remains are those of a person, in former time renowned for her piety — a member of a religious community — of the name of Crookshank. Some sixty or seventy years ago, the wonder-working effects produced by this good lady’s remains, used to bring vast numbers of visitants to her tomb — till the spirit of whiskey unfortunately mingled a little too much with the spirit of veneration for the virtues of the nun, and the rudiments of a fine ” pattern” were spoiled by the intervention of the authorities. Poor Miss Crookshank’s relics, from that period till about the year 1816, when I first saw them, were visited only by curious boys and scientific gentlemen. In the month of February in the present year, after a lapse of twenty-six years, I found the remains of the nun removed from the place where they were originally deposited, as likewise those of John and Henry Sheares, and deposited in what is called the parish vault. Up to the time of the removal, which took place some five or six years ago, the remains continued, I was informed, in the same perfect state in which they have been long known to exist. But the exposure to the air, consequent to the removal of her remains, and those of the Sheares on the same occasion, had proved injurious to them, and to the latter especially.’
That’s a lot of potential for misidentification. I do think that this veneration of the unusually well-preserved nun is interesting in light of the present-day traditional of touching the finger of the ‘crusader’. I’m not aware of this kind of veneration of a corpse that wasn’t some sort of saint, priest, or nun, so I do wonder if the practice has been transferred over the years from one corpse to another. Possibly more than once, even. It’s possible that the age of the corpse beforerelocation got confused with its age at death. An ‘old mummy’ isn’t necessarily old in lifespan terms.
In any case, the broken jumbled corpse currently identified with the ‘nun’ was examined for the TV show ‘Mummy Roadshow’ in 200 (aired 2003) and shown to have been a female no older than 60 years old when she died, and not the over 100 years of age that both 19th century written sources and modern oral tradition hold. The findings are detailed in the book ‘Mummy Dearest’ (2005) by the same guys (Ron Beckett and Jerry Conlogue). Their theory as to why the ‘nun’ was thought to be so old is interesting, but I found it surprising that within a single generation, local people could have forgotten that this woman was actually half that age when she died. Beckett and Conlogue’s findings on the ‘nun’ were as follows;
‘She had a multitude of bumps on her arm, which sort of gave her the appearance of great age. We were not sure how her legend originated, but from what I saw inside her skull, she was not close to 122 years old. In fact, from the sutures in the skull plates, she appeared to be no older than sixty, and perhaps as young as her thirties. As for being a nun— we weren’t able to determine this. The bumps turned out to be very interesting. When we took a closer look, we noticed the nun had two elbows on her left arm, which suggested this was a mix-n-match mummy. We asked our friend, pathologist Larry Cartmell, about the bumps, and he thought they could be calcium deposits, probably a result of chronic kidney failure. He also added that the arm did not belong to the nun, because its owner would have had these awful bumps all over his or her body. You could see how this condition would have made someone believe this was an incredibly old woman, but the evidence pointed to someone much younger.’
Now, here I note that the fourth mummy, the one with no traditional backstory, turned out to also be female. The book states that they weren’t able to say any more about this one, and given that in 1888, this corpse was the nun/Miss Crookshank, I’m not sure how significant this conclusion actually is. We only know the relative positions of these three bodies, so there’s a reasonable chance that this is actually ‘her’. Interestingly, looking at the photos from 1888, recent times, and sometime in between (early 20th century I think – the poses are very similar and there is still some velvet hanging from the right hand coffin) you can see that the jumbled body on the left has been extensively messed with (broken up, in fact) and its coffin replaced between the first and second photos (and then rearranged between the second and third). This might support the idea that this body was a ‘supporting cast member’ of sorts and not the precious ‘nun’, who looks virtually identical and intact in all three images. Contradicting this however is the 1842 account suggesting that the nun was moved (not so much that she had deteriorated, as it’s fair to say that any of these may well have seen better days by 1822). The female on the right does not look as though she’s moved since her coffin broke apart – but perhaps that began when she was moved to this position, which could have been from elsewhere within this vault, or, if she was ever the ‘nun’, from the other vault mentioned. The fact is that we just don’t know which, if either of these, might originally have been the real-life Miss Crookshank, or if she even existed.
‘Mummy Dearest’ continues on the subject of the ‘thief’:
‘As for his hand, it was definitely severed cleanly, which indicated that he probably lost it after he died. We didn’t think this was done as punishment, which was the story that had long been circulating about this person.’
Note that Vicars in 1888 thought this, the middle of the three then and now, was a female corpse, but also believed it to be a post-mortem injury.
‘Given that his feet were sawed off so that he could fit in the coffin, it is just as likely that his hand was removed and sold to a medical student.
Finally, on the ‘crusader’:
‘Because he was a large individual, we surmised he simply did not fit into the one-size-fits-all coffins of the middle ages [sic]. It was not uncommon back then for a body to be crammed into a coffin too small for it. What we did not expect to find was that the feet and legs were much smaller, proportionally, when compared to his hands. As we looked closer, we also found that he had an extra pair of knees (and no, he didn’t have four legs). When Jerry’s X-ray showed two spines, it was clear that we were dealing with two corpses here – or at least one corpse on top of another partial one. Of course, there was one big question we couldn’t help but ask: Was he (or they) really a crusader? When crusaders returned from the Middle East and died, their legs were crossed when they were buried. This mummies’ legs were crossed, which was probably how the story originated. But we noticed that his pelvis had split apart at some point, and whoever had put the pieces back together had crossed the legs. This did not preclude him from being a crusader, but it didn’t prove anything, either. The definitive answer came courtesy of a fabric sample I found in his chest cavity. I was able to remove it with the endoscope, and then sent it to be carbon-dated, along with a sample of lung tissue. The numbers that came back said he had lived two hundred years after the crusades.
Frankly, I find even this unlikely. Even a date of c.1565 (assuming we call the Sack of Alexandria the latest of the crusades) would be far older than any of the other evidence would support, and would pre-date the present vaults themselves by at least a century. I suspect that the actual C14 dates were older, given that the authors talk about ‘the middle ages’ (a fellow blogger suggests 1364, but this would be less than 100 years after the last proper crusade). Of course this body could have been reburied and might in fact be older, although I think it unlikely. In any case, the only available scientific dating definitely didn’t give a date consistent with the crusades.
The St Michan’s section of the book (I recommend getting hold of it for the many other mummy stories included) closes with the musing ‘I wonder if St. Michan’s would have let us investigate the mummies had they known the the outcome of our study.’ The authors suggest that the custodians of the vaults, relying on the income that it generates, would not change their story, but the leaflet I have from 2009 is very upfront about the age of the vaults and the reality of the crusader (‘…in reality he never lived to see the Crusades!’). Worryingly though, interviews with the clergy following the recent theft show no sign of this sceptical attitude. This enlightenment period Dubliner is back to being misidentified as an ‘800-year old crusader’.
I should note that not everyone shares my scepticism. The article ‘Bodies preserved from the days of the Crusades in St Micham’s Church, Dublin’ (L M McKinley. J Pathol May 1977 (Vol. 122, Issue 1, Pages 27-8). This focuses only on the remarkable preservation in evidence (the author’s area of expertise and interest), not on the age or history of the bodies. Oh, and the author couldn’t spell ‘Michan’. Suffice to say that he didn’t carry out his due diligence on this one.
In passing/closing, I should note that the recent theft is not the first time that a head has been stolen from the vaults. Vicars relates the story ‘many years ago’ (from his 1888 perspective) of the head of John Sheares was stolen ‘for a wager’ but was recovered and replaced. Sadly, I doubt that the same is true this time, but I also find the suggestion that it must be muslims/immigrants/liberals rather unlikely and the outrage misplaced. This poor dead person may not have been a ‘crusader’, but he was a human being deserving of some respect and dignity (and that’s coming from someone who has no real problem with the managed display or even the ritualised touching of the corpse).