Monday 4 January 2021

A Post From 2016

This week four years ago, Bob and Steph were both laid low by the norovirus. I wrote a blog post about The Plague, and Quarantine. Back then, none of of could have envisaged a time when we'd all be wearing masks, and medics would be unrecognisable behind their PPE, and self-isolating would be commonplace. Here's part of that post...

The Plague Doctor Costumes looked scary but there was a lot of sense behind them, at a time when germs and infection were not properly understood. In the 17th century, it was believed that illness was transmitted by bad smells [the miasma theory] a French physician, Charles De Lorme designed this outfit.
The hat is simply the badge of the physician - you knew where someone fitted into society by their headgear - royalty had crowns, soldiers helmets, nuns wore coifs, and medics had silk hats.
The robe is sewn from leather or oilcloth to make it waterproof so nasty liquids, blood or whatever could not leach through onto the doctors skin. Underneath they usually wore a simple cotton robe.
The cane was used to indicate things or move clothing so that the doctor did not have to touch the patient and could keep his distance.
The doctor wore gloves for his hands, round spectacles to protect his eyes - and most importantly the beaked mask. This was made of bone, and the tip was a primitive respirator, filled with mint, spices and aromatics, camphor, dried roses and carnations, and a vinegar sponge. Lorme wrote that the mask had a "nose half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and to carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the drugs enclosed further along in the beak" The sight of a man like this [always men!] on the streets put the fear of death into people [understandably] and he was often nicknamed 'Dr Beaky'. 

 A poem of the time says

As may be seen on picture here,
In Rome the doctors do appear,
When to their patients they are called,
In places by the plague appalled,
Their hats and cloaks, of fashion new,
Are made of oilcloth, dark of hue,
Their caps with glasses are designed,
Their bills with antidotes all lined,
That foulsome air may do no harm,
Nor cause the doctor man alarm,
The staff in hand must serve to show
Their noble trade where'er they go

And as for quarantine - the word comes from 'quarantine sanitaire' - the enforced 40 days of isolation of a ship before passengers could go ashore during the time of the Black Death. In the system of maritime signal flags, plain yellow indicated the letter Q - hence this choice of colour for a warning flag. Nowadays ships fly a black and yellow flag if there is disease on board, and a plain yellow flag indicates they believe themselves free of illness and are requesting an inspection and clearance to disembark. The wisdom of separation during illness has been recognised since Old Testament times [see the book of Leviticus] and the  people of Eyam back in 1665 probably saved many lives by their self sacrificial actions. Typhoid Mary, however went about spreading germs willy-nilly, and thousands died because of that.

I wrote that four years ago. I never dreamed this would be so relevant today.


  1. 17th century PPE looks terrifying.

  2. Who'd have thought it would be so relevant!?

  3. Amazing how nothing has really changed.

  4. I believe Typhoid Mary was a Northern Irish woman. Sorry. I blogged last January about reading la Peste, a tad too smugly it now feels. The world has certainly been through this before.

  5. Probably even more relevant, today, than when you first wrote it!


Always glad to hear from you - thanks for stopping by!
I am blocking anonymous comments now, due to excessive spam!