Whilst researching the value of face masks I came across some of the thoughts about containing the epidemics of the Plague that swept through Europe in the Middle Ages and Early Modern times. Hope you might find it interesting to see that the same questions were asked then (and with a Shakespearian connection!)
What is the plague?
- Infection by flea carried by rats of the bacteria Pasteurella pestis
- Nasty infection causing typical swellings and pneumonia
- Can spread by droplets from an infected person
- Caused millions of deaths
What was thought about the cause of the disease
- Of course no one knew about the bacteria that caused the disease
- There was much superstition about evil spells
- Main concern was that the disease spread through the bad air or ‘miasma ‘surrounding an infected person
Origins of quarantine
- In middle ages there was concern that plague could spread
- Ships in Venice with cases of plague had to isolate at anchor for 40 days (hence the word quarantine)
- Most famous case in England was the village of Eyam in Derbyshire where 260 villagers who self-isolated died but protected thousands from surrounding villages
The first face masks
- To prevent breathing in the bad air physicians at the time wore, what we might call today hazmat suits
- They were made of leather and covered with wax
- The characteristic mask had a beak (with herbs to prevent infection)
- The beak had a hole at the end to allow breathing
- Some medical historians thought the design was to scare the evil spirits but others believe that the need for a physical barrier was understood
- Physicians also had a long stick, so that they could stand on the doorway and poke away the patients’ clothes, to see the swellings without having to touch them!
And the Shakespearian connection!
Coincidentally I am reading the new novel, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. The novel reimagines the sad story of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet (almost certainly the source of the play Hamlet) who died of the plague aged 11 whilst dad was away being famous in London. Last night I came across this dialogue:
A physician in full mask has come to visit Hamnet’s sister who is very ill with plague, Hamnet is very scared by this man and asks his mother
….”But why is he…?” Hamnet gestures to his (the Physician’s) face, his nose
“He wears that mask because he thinks it will protect him” she says
“From the pestilence?”
His mother nods
“And will it?”
His mother purses her lips and shakes her head
“I don’t think so. Not coming into the house however, refusing to see or examine the patient, might” she mutters!!!
Discussion of the scientific data to address this will come in the next blog post!