I’ve been having bad luck with costumes lately. It started back in 2016, when my great idea was to go out as a Low Information Voter. But as fate would have it, the actual low-info voters that year would have the last laugh on me. Ha ha ha.
A year later, my wife and I were in New Orleans for Halloween (which is something everyone really should put on their bucket list). She was smart and packed a costume. Me? Nah. But come the big day, I felt I was missing out. We hurriedly found a costume store — of all cities, New Orleans is the place for costume stores — and we put together what we could. The result? A heavy black woolen cape from Spain, a bowler hat from England and a pencil-thin moustache painted on by wife. And so, Captain Collateral Damage was born — my superhero, or supervillain, let’s be honest — alter ego. But as you can see, as fun as this was (and it was!) there were some amazing costumes in New Orleans that night, and I knew I should step up my game.
Enter my next great idea: Dr. Schnabel, the Renaissance plague doctor. This idea was amazing. I love black. It’s a creepy costume. Perfect for Halloween. I even bought the mask. But then, well … 2020 happened. And all of a sudden, it wasn’t quite as funny anymore. Plague doctors, hilarious, right? Sigh.
No matter what, it seemed my costume ideas were always the wrong idea at the wrong time. But for another group of people, their costume was exactly the right thing at the right time — they just had no idea why. And as fate would have it, they were also wearing the Dr. Schnabel getup as their uniform.
Something in the air tonight
So by this point in 2020, I think we’re all familiar with the almost cartoonish image of the old-timey plague doctor. If not, I wrote about them a little while ago, when the idea of an epidemic that could grind your entire world to a halt was something that either happened centuries ago or in some distant science fiction future. Otherwise, you may have seen them as the black robed, bird beaked, pokey-stick carrying guys nobody wanted showing up when somebody got a case of the sniffles.
But why, in god’s name, would a doctor want to don such a creepy outfit and go make rounds of people who were at death’s door? Did they all have some sick sense of humor? Trying to speed along the inevitable? Were they perhaps trying to rouse one last laugh from expiring patients? Was it fashion?
I’d heard long ago that the beak mask was actually a place to hold a bouquet of flowers — the “posey” in the child’s rhyme “a pocket full of posey” — which was thought to ward of plague. But why?
An article from History of Yesterday demystifies the plague doctor’s costume and show’s why Dr. Schabel go it right — for all the wrong reasons.
Basically, our ancestors were as ignorant about the cause of disease as your average crowd at a #StopTheSteal rally is today, while thinking themselves quite clever indeed. To the oh-so modern Renaissance doctor, Medieval healers with silly notions of disease caused by witches in league with the devil or too many planets in alignment were embarrassing. They were ready for something new. They were ready for science! Unfortunately, they didn’t really have it yet.
What they had was miasma. Not in that they were despairing — though they may have been doing that, too. They literally believed that miasma, or bad air, caused disease. And the cure to that? Good air! Not that they advocated and end to using canals as sewers. Maybe just carry some flowers under your nose. Or have your big beak hold them for you. That should do the trick.
So that explains the big beak mask, which is without a doubt the creepiest part of Dr. Schnabel’s uniform. In fact, sometimes those bundles of flowers and spices were set on fire like incense, so there would actually be smoke coming out of the bird beak, if you weren’t scared enough lying there on your deathbed.
But what about the rest?
Right for all the wrong reasons
Here’s where the Renaissance doctors were unintentional geniuses.
The black robes were made of black Moroccan leather, good and tough, into which the macabre mask was tucked. On his hands, leather gloves also tucked into the robes. This makes good sense, right? The last thing you want to do when you’re tending to a plague patient is touch his open, weeping bubo. Gross.
But that’s not what the plague doctor had in mind. His concern? Keep away from that icky smell coming from the patient, because it was that smell that was transmitting disease (he thought). Being covered head to toe in leather created a handy barrier from that miasma.
But wait, there was more. It wasn’t good enough to just have that leather. The doctors wanted extra protection. So those robes were actually waxed. Instead of a flat, black look, think of something more shiny. Patent leather, perhaps. Or a vinyl record.
This also explains the long stick they carried. Again, you might think they were wisely keeping away from the Yersinia Pestis bacteria that was causing all the, pardon, collateral damage. But no, it was just to keep away from the stink. This way, they could poke at that festering bubo in your armpit without, you know, getting a whiff of it.
And what about that wide-brimmed hat you always see them wearing? Well. That, my friend, is how you know they’re a professional doctor. Like the way wearing a pope hat makes someone the pope.
In their zeal to stay fresh, the Renaissance doctor was inadvertently inventing, you got it, social distancing.
Cute outfit, but does it work?
As it turns out, Dr. Schnabel really hit on something when he made himself look like the world’s scariest blackbird. While his neighbors were dropping dead to the right and left, he stood a fighting chance of getting through the Great Plague without succumbing to it himself.
According to History of Yesterday, one effect of the peculiar costume was that fleas bounced off the dang thing. A priest in Venice saw that and made note of it happening — I like to think in a fit of envy. He had no idea what that really meant, but we do today. And it meant everything.
That’s because fleas were the jet planes for the plague bacteria.
Remember how at the start of COVID-19, that thing leapt across the globe with alarming speed? First, it was only in China. Then, it was in Japan. Suddenly it was in Iran and Italy. Then Germany. Then Seattle and New York. Then everywhere. This year, it was planes (and the odd cruise ship or two) that made that happen. But for the Black Plague, the flea did the work of the plane, transporting the bacteria from one person to another in cases of bubonic plague.
However, against the pneumonic or setpicemic forms of the plague, spread by coughing and droplets in the air or direct contact with an infected person’s wounds, waxed robes weren’t helping. It’s not clear how much the bird mask did, either, because even that thing had open nose holes for ventilation. Droplets of plague could reach Dr. Schabel with relative ease and cause these forms of the disease. Unfortunately, pneumonic and septicemic plague are far more fatal; fortunately, they are less common.
Dr. Schnabel’s costume wasn’t a failsafe by any measure. But it’s inventor, Dr. Charles de L’Orme — personal physician to both the Medici family and the French King Louis “the Sun” XIV — did live to the age of 96.
For his patients, though? Having a doctor in a birdsuit didn’t do any good. Most medicine was limited to tried-and-untrue methods like bloodletting, with or without leeches, and traditional medicines like poultices. That might work for a toothache, but it won’t help against the plague. The most forward thinking doctors might be experimenting with modern-day medicines like mercury and arsenic. If the disease doesn’t get you, the cure just might.
One last thing before you flea
There’s one last thing about this plague doctoring that just delighted me, if I can use that word in such a ghastly business. And it has to do with the fleas.
And the wax.
Because I’m just tickled to think of fleas flopping themselves against Dr. Schnabel’s robes and riding them down like the greatest waterslide on earth. Some disgruntled at being denied an evening snack. Some throwing themselves against the waxed leather again and again just for the fun of it all, riding that robe down after a hard day’s work spreading pestilence and disease far and wide.
I can almost hear their tiny voices now.
I hope someone gets to have fun during a plague year.