Why Plague Doctors Wore Strange Masks

Why Plague Doctors Wore Strange Masks


CLIVE ANDERSON: Back
in the Middle Ages, there was no cure
for the plague. But that didn’t
stop people trying pretty much anything
to avoid succumbing to this terrifying illness. The Wellcome
Collection in London holds records of
many of the supposed and rather bizarre
cures for the plague. So one of the
things I have here is a manuscript from the
end of the 15th century. CLIVE ANDERSON:
Dr. Elma Brenner is an expert in the strange
world of the medieval doctor. The plague charm that
we have here on this page, they’re using the kind of the
format of the circular diagram, which is a kind of
universal medieval format to give protection
against pestilence. These charms quite
often have some kind of instruction to write them on
the body, sometimes in blood. But you could do other
things with this. You could write– you could
copy it onto a scrap of paper and carry it on your
body, for instance. CLIVE ANDERSON:
Of course, doctors did exist in medieval times. Unfortunately, they were as
clueless as their patients as to the real
cause of the plague. But that didn’t stop
them profiting from it. Physicians quite often
got bad reputations for being very wealthy and
shamelessly charging a lot of money for their advice. CLIVE ANDERSON: Now, another
thing I want to ask you about– because, see, the
image I have in my mind is of a plague doctor
with a special costume. So I’ve actually acquired
for myself the sort of thing that people would wear. ELMA BRENNER: Yeah, and although
it’s something that looks strange to us, it actually had
come from continental Europe, particularly France and Italy. CLIVE ANDERSON: The Europeans
settled on this look in the 17th century,
proving they could even deal with the plague
more stylishly than we could. So this is the outfit. I’ve got on all but the top bit. ELMA BRENNER: Yeah. So the gloves are
more like motorcycle gauntlets, which
obviously would protect against the germs getting in. And I’ve got a big stick. Now, what’s this? This is just a standard stick? Or did it have some function,
do you think, as plague doctor? Yeah, I mean, I think
it adds to the distance from the patient.
– Yes. He wouldn’t have to
go up close to them. So he could say, look,
you’ve got bubos there. Exactly. This is virtually the
barge pole that you don’t want to touch things with. Now, I suppose this is the
most fascinating thing. The beak was there so that
there would be something in front of the respiratory
area that was filled with heavily aromatic
plants that were understood to purify the air. Is this what the plague
doctor might look like? Yeah, I mean,
what we can say is that this would be a physician
that you would encounter, and you would not be able
to see his face at all. So in that sense, it’s
more of a negative than a positive encounter,
I think it’s likely to say.

60 Replies to “Why Plague Doctors Wore Strange Masks”

  1. Imagine you're a student or learner entering a room just as that guy put on the full custom.
    ?????????? Plague??????

  2. That woman is a bloody disgrace for not wearing gloves while touching artifacts. How dare she even think she can handle historical items like its a public library, its so painful to watch. Im sure she knows her history but does she know respect for the fragility of the past?

  3. This was too short… I wanted to see more…lol OMG that mask was scary as could be….imagine being really ill and seeing that nightmare….

  4. Interesting that Europeans who believed in spontaneous generation and thought that plague was brought by bad air are blamed for the diseases that decimated the native New World populations – especially when those same diseases had such horrendous effects on themselves.

  5. Interesting short video. But in less than those 3 minutes I got seasick from the camera movement. Either the production should hire a real camera person, or if this drunken shaking is meant to be a cool gimmick … then stop, please.

  6. Does that lady have any sense of humor or is she just British?? 🙄 lol. Didn't even break into a grin once, even after one of Clive's Lines Anyway…

  7. Why she is so poker faced?! The guy did try to make a joke by acting as medieval doctor at the end by asking for money in return for checkup and she was nodding as if it’s real medieval times and she’s got plague 🤨

  8. So why do we have to watch clips when the Smithsonian is funded by the US Tax payer??? – I want the whole show…not for free because our tax money paid for it….

  9. That was a lovely skit, the girl played the part with verve and energy. The plague doctor was puckish and lent a humor to this bit of theatre.

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