plague doctor 17th century
A physician wearing a seventeenth century plague preventive costume. C. 1910. Photo courtesy of Wellcome Library, London. [CC BY 4.0].

Art historian Yassana Croizat-Glazer sheds some light on the historical context of epidemics like COVID-19.

How long can you hold your breath? I’ve timed myself and I can manage 44 seconds without much trouble, which I’m pretty pleased with considering I’m a former smoker. I’ve never really thought this might come in handy, that is until COVID-19 restructured reality. Now anytime I need to take the elevator or a person strays too close to me I automatically shut off my air supply for fear of inhaling something I shouldn’t. Fortunately for my brain cells, such occasions are very rare, as I do my part to flatten the curve by practicing social distancing. Like most of the people I know, though, I am perpetually holding my breath metaphorically, wanting—yet fearful—to know the ultimate price of this pandemic.

The art historian in me (the one who had such a hard time quitting smoking), can’t help but think in this moment of how humans have historically dealt with fighting invisible, potentially lethal, foes. The plague particularly springs to mind, since it has had a tendency to manifest itself in large outbreaks across the world, the most infamous being the so-called “Black Death,” which hit Europe, Asia and North Africa in the mid-14th century, wiping out fifty percent of the population in many areas. The main culprit is generally considered the bubonic plague, stemming from the bacterium Yersinia pestis and causing painfully swollen lymph nodes, although forms of the disease that attack primarily the lungs and blood may have also played a role. Over the centuries, the need to stave off plague drove people to develop a staggering array of dubious remedies to be worn or ingested, using ingredients from badger’s heart to menstrual blood. Even Egyptian mummies, both real and counterfeit, were employed in the preparation of plague cures.

People took to carrying pomanders, perforated receptacles for solid perfume often hung from a chain and meant to envelop their wearer in a protective barrier of scent.

While the cause of plague was not understood, there was awareness of the benefit of keeping those infected separate from the rest of the population from early on. In 1377, the decision was made to implement quarantine in Ragusa (now Dubrovnik of Game of Thrones fame), which decreed that all arrivals had to spend thirty days on the nearby island of Lokrum. Venice soon adopted the practice but extended the isolation period to forty days giving us the word “quarantine” (quaranta is forty in Italian). Germ theory was not developed until the 19th century; prior to then, the dominant rationale was that plague was caused by miasma, toxic air thought to arise from putrefying matter. While miasmic theory was deeply flawed, this notion of “bad air” was not without merit considering pneumonic plague can be contracted through droplets coughed into the air.

Workshop of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen
Portrait of Jan Gerritsz van Egmond van de Nijenburg Holding A Pomander, Workshop of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, c. 1518. [Public domain].

In Early Modern Europe, then, purifying the air was seen as key to guarding against plague, which was thought to easily penetrate the skin, then perceived as totally permeable. Since miasmic air was viewed as “hot and moist,” it was believed that homes could be cleansed by either burning certain vegetation to dry out the air or scattering the floors with plants chosen for their “cooling” properties. So, for example, the Medical Faculty of the University of Paris, prompted by the Plague of 1348, recommended burning odiferous substances such as frankincense in the winter, while in the summer, homes were to be doused with rosewater or cold water mixed with vinegar, and sprinkled with water lilies, willow branches and other “cold” greenery. Fumigation could even be carried out on the go; during Florence’s plague of 1638, patients were transported to the hospital in closed wooden biers outfitted with a hole for breathing and in which incense was burned to prevent their foul air from contaminating the city. Of course, being out and about meant risking exposure to miasmic air and so people took to carrying pomanders, perforated receptacles for solid perfume often hung from a chain and meant to envelop their wearer in a protective barrier of scent. Physicians, such as Augier Faurer who lived in Toulouse in the 16th century, advised that no one should leave their house in time of plague without one, and should none be available, to use a sweet-smelling fruit or bouquet of flowers instead. Numerous recipes for pomanders have come down to us, including from the famed physician and astrologer Nostradamus. These often call for expensive ingredients, such as ambergris, a musky substance from the digestive tract of sperm whales. Then as now, greater funds meant access to greater protection—or at least what was perceived as such.

Pestdoktor Schnabel by Paul Fuerst
Colored engraving of a plague doctor, Doctor Schnabel von Rom, by Paulus Fürst, after 1656. [Public domain].

So deep was the belief in the power of the right smells to counter the effects of noxious air that it played a role in the formulation of the plague doctor costume devised in the seventeenth century by Charles Delorme, who counted among his patients Kings Henri IV and Louis XIII of France. The attire included a waxed leather coat and gloves, as well as lenses worn over the eyes, and most famously, a mask featuring a beak filled with aromatic herbs. The idea behind the mask’s long shape was to give air enough time to be filtered through the cleansing herbs before being inhaled by its wearer. Plague doctors also carried sticks to point at patients’ body parts, give instructions to their caregivers and fend off the desperate. While the sight of the plague doctor might have inspired relief, it no doubt also provoked terror, since his arrival proved that death was in the air.

In New York City on March 30, 2020 there is fear in the air when it should be filled with spring-inspired rapture and the smell of magnolias. Out on an essential errand, I see no bird beaks, but a variety of masks, many of which are worn incorrectly or are of a type that may be of limited help against COVID-19. I even see a man with his mouth and nose covered with plastic cling wrap and think of our long history as a species of using protective measures that end up killing us. And yet, on a visceral level, I understand the need for a barrier, any kind of barrier, especially since there is still much we don’t know about this illness and there are many performing jobs that place people in constant contact with others for the benefit of us all. In “Discipline and Punish,” Michel Foucault writes of quarantine as a “segmented, immobile, frozen space.” While partitions must remain up as much as possible for now, we can still build (virtual) bridges, especially to those most vulnerable and isolated, and hope for a day when we might all be able to breathe a collective sigh of relief.