Plague Doctors: Harbingers of Change
Before we return to our own Coronavirus plague, I do want to offer up just one more little botanical oddity from the late middle ages for your consideration – the case of the Plague Doctor.
Many of you will be familiar with this creepy looking costume with an overcoat, a cane, and a beaked mask. It’s remained popular at halloween gatherings and masquerades through the years, but you might be surprised to know a few pointed details about this ominous occupation and the impact it’s had on the world.
A Beak Filled with Herbs
First, and most importantly, the big ol beak on the mask wasn’t just there to wig people out. In many cases, it was filled with sweet smelling herbs and spices like juniper, rose, mint, camphor, and cloves to help the wearer literally mask the smell of decay and putrid flesh, which was very much a daily reality in times of plague. And, if we learned anything from our encounter with Four Thieves Vinegar, it’s that many botanicals also have antimicrobial properties that can help to ward off plague vectors like fleas. Certain plants evolved these properties as defense mechanisms against attack from insects, so it makes sense why the fleas might have responded with aversion.
Eye Protection & Social Distancing
Another thing to note is that later versions of the plague doctor mask integrated glass eye protection, which is a really smart thing to do, since the plague could be transmitted through bodily fluids, and many plague victims had this pesky little habit of coughing up blood and mucous. The cane carried by most plague doctors also helped keep them at arm’s length from the people they were hired to inspect, which is, in light of today’s predicament, an O.G. example of social distancing.
Empirics: Heralds of a New Age
Which brings us to the one thing that plague doctors share in common with everyday folks like you and me scrolling our news feeds reading about COVID-19 – we’re not doctors, and neither were they, by and large. In fact, Plague Doctors were hired by towns or cities where the plague had become a major problem. Some of these contractors did treat patients, but their more official role was to gather demographic data about who was affected and/or dying. Because of this, in many places, they were referred to as “Empirics.”
And this is very important because for more than a millennium leading up to the outbreak of plague in Europe, most medical practitioners were members of the religious class, and because of the interdependence between sovereign monarchs and the church, the best medical treatment would always be reserved for wealthy landowners. But, because of their contracts with the municipality they were hired to serve, Plague Doctors were able to help everyone, regardless of their class or social status.
And you know what, when you get thrown into the belly of the beast like plague doctors did, you get a lot more reps, a lot more data points than those ivory tower physicians who only treated a small percentage of the population. More data points makes it easier to identify trends in what works and what doesn’t – even when significant trial and error is involved – and so I’m personally not surprised that Plague Doctors were contemporary with Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and the anatomical dissection theatres of the Renaissance that led to major breakthroughs in the medical field.
These so-called “Empirics” were literal heralds of empirical science and the scientific method, and though they carried the herbs and spices of a fearful and superstitious world in their masks, their methods and fearlessness created space for science to flower.
What We Can Learn from Past Plagues
Taken together, the case studies of Aqua Mirabilis, Plague Water, and of course, Plague Doctors, show the medical field in the late middle ages bending away from the humoral view of illness and toward one that valued complex chemical formulations and a more sophisticated understanding of the body. The way I see it, the advent of distillation and the subsequent ravages and responses to plague in Europe were a sort of proto-awakening that paved the way for the renaissance, and the subsequent ages of enlightenment and revolution that would ultimately shape our modern world.
Was this time period sexy? No – it was ugly, and it was brutal. But as a result of confronting an invisible enemy and striving to overcome it, the seeds for many important paradigm shifts were sowed.
This is why I believe that spirits and cocktails in a time of plague have their role in the here and now. Yes, of course we know so much more about our invisible enemy than four legendary thieves covered in herb dust, but if there’s one thing a pandemic forces you to do, it’s to really re-assess your basics: food, water, and security. And in this way, you and I are very similar to the peasants huddled around fires hearing stories of stinking corpses and ruined villages. We know we’re not safe, and consequently, we’re forced to dedicate a ton of mental resources to merely surviving, rather than flourishing.
It’s a little sobering to think of ourselves as sharing some sort of emotional DNA with those wretched victims of the Black Plague. Part of you thinks, “we’re better than that now. We can weather this,” but then there’s another part of you that sees how little our institutions have changed from those days when the wealthy elite held absolute sway over the many.
Just like live news coverage of the Vietnam war disillusioned many Americans from supporting the initiative to send our servicemen overseas for a war without end and without virtue, I think we’re seeing an echo of that on our news feeds today, except the enemy is not a camouflaged guerilla army on the other side of the world – it’s a virus that could be hiding in plain sight on any person, object, surface, or atmosphere you encounter.
That’s why I’d like to round out our historical investigation into plagues and their effects on what we drink with one of the oldest accounts of mass illness passed down to us by Lucretius, the Roman poet responsible for translating and interpreting the work of Epicurus – one of the first thinkers to advocate for an atomistic view of the universe, way back in the 3rd century BCE.
The Importance of Being Hopeful
Lucretius’ epic poem, De Rerum Natura – The Nature of Things – includes an account of The Athenian Plague of 430 BCE, and although there’s widespread uncertainty among historians as to what precisely caused this plague, by all accounts, it was bad. In his translation of Epicurus’ text, Lucretius writes:
In these matters, what was saddest and most cause for gloom
Was that, when someone saw the plague upon him, he would start
Thinking like a man under sentence of death, and would lose heart
And lay there listlessly, his mind sunk deep in morbid thought,
And dwelling on his death, gave up his spirit on the spot.
Almost 2500 years after those words were penned, here we are in a similar predicament. But in those moments where it seems tempting to give up your spirit without even having contracted the virus, I think it’s important to remember that our distilled spirits and cocktails are still here for us. It’s important to remember that they are derived from life-giving traditions and can be used carefully to soothe and comfort in times of great uncertainty.
In fact, now is a great time for you to think about which spirits remind you most of the medicinal and empirical traditions that arose to combat plague and pestilence, and perhaps find a way to share a restorative drink with a friend via phone or video chat. Know that you share the same anxieties as those victims of plague from many centuries past, but know also that we have built upon their struggles and are now stronger because of their ingenuity and bravery.
That’s the point of everything I’ve said so far, and if you’re still listening, you deserve to hear it.