The Grisly Origins of a Mardi Gras Mask

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Thousands of revelers inundate the streets of New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, and Venice at this time of year, many decked out in festive regalia and costumes. Among the strangest of the decorative masks found at such Mardi Gras and Carnival celebrations is the so-called Medico della Peste. Easily recognized for its beak-like protrusion, this disguise is connected to the worst pandemic in human history.

The Medico della Peste

Donning masks is a centuries-old tradition. Throughout the West, disguises have been generally adopted for special holiday observances and masquerades. The anonymity that costumes provide, too, are helpful to wearers when seeking to breach the restraints of social protocol or engage in nefarious activities. But the creation of the above mentioned strap-on bird mask came about due to another matter. Neither deceit nor secrecy appear to have been crucial to its initial function.

Designed by 17th-century physician Charles de Lorme, the Medico della Peste (literally “Plague Doctor”)—as the name implies—was clearly not intended for festive occasions (1, 2). Instead, it was one of several components worn for protection by doctors while attempting to treat patients afflicted with the bubonic plague. Other items of the physician’s elaborately layered outfit included a hat, hood, gown, pants, gloves, and boots, together operating as multiple barriers of protective gear. Several pieces of apparel were even made from leather and coated with wax to repel bodily fluids and thwart contamination (3, 4).

Birds, Bad Air, and Bacteria

The mask’s unique features were of particular significance. Centuries ago, people did not understand how the bubonic plague was transmitted. Numerous ideas made their rounds, one being that birds were somehow responsible. Notice was perhaps made of carrion-seeking fowl eating the flesh of animals who had clearly died from the disease. The notion was even considered that the bird-like appearance of the mask could help pull or “draw” the disease away from the patient (5). This idea may have stemmed from ideas long circulated about the charadrius, a mythical bird depicted in the Physiologus. That ancient text credited this creature, affiliated over the centuries with several avian species, as having the ability to heal the sick by gazing into the afflicted person’s eyes (6).

The more popular view, though, regarded malodorous air as the disease’s culprit, a belief known as “miasma theory” that goes back as far at least to ancient Greek medicine (7). Hence, strong-scented spices and herbs, such as dried rosemary, juniper, lavender, cinnamon, cloves, and the like were prescribed for cleansing the air (8, 9). And items such as these were also placed within the beak area of the mask, near the air holes, for the same purpose (10, 11, 12). In addition, the mask included red- or clear-colored spectacles believed to protect the wearer’s eyes from the unpleasant smell and possible contamination of diseased air (13, 14, 15).

Today, of course, we know that the plague is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which can be transmitted to humans by fleas. After feeding on small infected mammals, such as rodents, the insects passed along the bacterium centuries ago to their subsequent human hosts. Birds cannot contract the disease. However, raptors, such as hawks and owls, could have transported infected fleas with them when catching mice, rats, and the like (16). Overall, our feathered friends were neither directly responsible for the pandemic nor potentially able to act as healing agents. Any powers attributed to them, either positive or negative, turned out to be as ineffective as the plague doctors.

Sources:

  1. Fitzharris, L. “Behind the Mask: The Plague Doctor”, 3/13/12. The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice: http://thechirurgeonsapprentice.com/2012/03/13/behind-the-mask-the-plague-doctor/
  2. “The mask of the plague doctor: a practical object turned into a symbol”, 12/11/13. Ca’Macana: http://www.camacana.com/the-plague-doctor/#.VFVEcsms7Qw.
  3. Fitzharris, L.
  4. “The mask of the plague doctor: a practical object turned into a symbol”, 12/11/13. Ca’Macana.
  5. Abbott, R.C., Rocke, T.E. Plague. Reston, VA, U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1372, 2012: http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1372/pdf/C1372_Plague.pdf.
  6. Curley, M.J. (Translator). Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. pp. 7-8.
  7. Osheim, D.J. “Plague and Public Health in Europe, with Special Reference to Sixteenth-Century England: An Introduction to Orders thought meete by her Maiestie …, 1578”, The Plague Book. Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia: http://historical.hsl.virginia.edu/plague/osheim.cfm.
  8. Osheim, D.J.
  9. McKeithen, A. “Advices for Preventing and Curing Plague in Sixteenth- & Seventeen-Century England”, The Plague Book. Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia: http://historical.hsl.virginia.edu/plague/mckeithen2.cfm.
  10. Fitzharris, L.
  11. “The mask of the plague doctor: a practical object turned into a symbol”, 12/11/13. Ca’Macana.
  12. Abbott, R.C., Rocke, T.E.
  13. Fitzharris, L.
  14. “The mask of the plague doctor: a practical object turned into a symbol”, 12/11/13. Ca’Macana.
  15. Abbott, R.C., Rocke, T.E.
  16. Abbott, R.C., Rocke, T.E.
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