The Mythology of Plague Masks

The image of the plague doctor is an icon. A creepy, anthropomorphic bird face peeking out from a black hood, wire-rimmed glasses drawn on in a caricature of an educated person. Ask anyone, and they will tell you that this haunting image is how doctors looked during the Black Death, owing to a belief that aromatic herbs kept in the beak of the mask would prevent the doctor from falling ill. As modern peoples, we look back at this image and scoff. Obviously, those herbs would have done nothing to stop someone from contracting plague. And what a horror, to dehumanize the face of the one person meant to care for you. And yet, right now, we are running out of surgical face masks, because people wrongly believe it will prevent them from contracting COVID-19.

I wrote before about the strange parallels between the Black Death and COVID-19, and once again I emphasize that these similarities shouldn’t scare us, but instead they should make us critical of our response to this disease. But things took a turn for the comically eerie when I saw someone share this meme.

Image by Fat Cat Artistry –>

It’s cute, it’s clever, and it gets the point across. It’s the perfect example of an icon, or, its modern internet equivalent, a meme. It uses all our associations with the plague doctor mask – of superstition, of ineffective medical practice, of the Black Death itself – to convey a simple message. Just for good measure, it throws in some plants and vials that evoke the herbs that the doctors would have worn in their masks.

All of this can make a very good point about how people are responding to COVID-19 right now. You don’t need a face mask to protect yourself from getting sick – it will only help prevent you from spreading the disease to others. Instead, best hygiene practices like hand-washing and not touching your face will help keep you healthy.

But that’s probably not what this meme is supposed to mean. Its point probably isn’t about face masks, although some people seem to have interpreted it that way, based on the comments under the original post by the artist. The more immediate response to this image is to read it as a threat – wash your hands, or you’ll end up with the plague, and we all know how that turned out. And that’s really the problem with how we remember major infectious disease events of the past – we remember that people died, but we don’t think a lot about how we might be repeating their mistakes. Because it’s just as unreasonable to think that a piece of paper gauze will stop you from getting sick as it is to think that a plaster mask stuffed with herbs will.

But here’s the kicker – plague doctors probably didn’t even wear these masks. The image of the plague doctor mask doesn’t appear until after the Black Death pandemic ended. According to Christine Boeckl (via Wikipedia), the doctor costume was invented in 1630, almost 300 years after the height of the Black Death, and another 35 years before the next virulent outbreak. Like other images of the Black Death, this costume is an impression of how European society dealt with the disease from long after it ended. A similar example is the image of the danse macabre or “dance of death”, that is often falsely believed to depict medieval attitudes about the precariousness of their mortality. Even the source material for the danse macabre, the Ars moriendi or “art of dying” poetry, was also an artistic interpretation of the pandemic a generation after its height. These representations were therefore not only too removed to be accurate expressions of the disease in its own time, they were intentionally stylized depictions. We can understand these interpretations as models for how most of us hear about COVID-19 now – we consume information from unreliable sources that is meant to be appealing (read: viral) and plays on our fears about the disease.

For Early Modern (15th-18th century) peoples, the Black Death wasn’t just a terrifying story about death, it was a cautionary tale about false authorities. The image of the plague doctor represented some of the anxieties surrounding medieval physicians more generally. Confusingly, medieval physicians were not typically practitioners of medicine, but instead educated individuals who studied the theories of medicine, likely without much practical knowledge or experience. We assume now that depictions of the plague doctor were sincere, showing a genuine belief in the prophylactic powers of a mask and some herbs, when attitudes of the Early Modern period suggest that these depictions were mocking caricatures. This period was the era of the Scientific Revolution, of Humanism – it was a time when the educated classes that would be consuming such imagery were obsessed with rationality, evidence, and experimentation, to the point that they often saw previous traditions as mere superstition. Even though Early Modern doctors also used healing herbs (as do we, just in more refined or manufactured forms), they wouldn’t have seen their pharmaceuticals as equivalent to the nonsense of the plague doctor costume.

In the modern and post-modern eras (19th-20th and 21st centuries, respectively), the Black Death plays on our anxieties of a connected but unregulated world. We see it as a tragedy of overcrowding, poor hygiene, and a lack of modern medicine and technology (incidentally, you can still die from the plague, it’s a legitimately terrible disease). We tell stories from the Black Death about people fearing their neighbors, not knowing when they were sick, and hiding out from infected foreigners. This should all sound very familiar as we observe the response to COVID-19. These reactions have little to do with the disease itself – the disease is a canvas on which we paint our social concerns, such as xenophobia, our obsession with technology, and even well-founded fears of climate change.

As I said in my previous post on the subject, our response as both individuals and groups, needs to be to stay calm and follow hygienic practices. And doing that means being self-aware of our reactions, and where our fears are really coming from.