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Masks (Part One): Plagues

Yersinia pestis doesn’t look like much. Actually, to the naked human eye, it doesn’t look like anything, but even under the cold electronic scrutiny of a scanning electron micrograph, it is a modest little fellow, its bodies clustered like algae-shrouded aquarium gravel. Tiny but enthusiastic, these lively pebbles hitch a ride in the foregut of a flea until they have a chance to really stretch their cytoplasm in a human host, where they are better known as bubonic plague, or the Black Death. There, they play merry hell: the bacterium is fatal in 30-90% of untreated humans who contract it; it’s even fatal in 10% of cases where people are treated by modern medicine. Between 1346 and 1353, between 75 million and 200 million lives were snuffed out by the tiniest of enemies, an infiltration carried out by the most miniscule of smugglers.

Whole libraries have been written about the plague’s effects on European history in particular, volumes about its impact on religion, politics, public health, and even urban planning. The 14th century was a disastrous, fatal time for Europe. After a famine ravaged the region from 1315 – 1317, the plague swept in to finish the job, and it did so with gusto. The Black Death killed between 30 and 60 percent of Europe’s population, which is death on a scale that most of us find difficult to imagine. Our friend pestis wasn’t cured at the end of the outbreak and endured, breaking out periodically along with other diseases in a series of disastrous occurrences that, together, are known as the “second plague pandemic.” The ebb and flow of mass death would not abate until at least the mid-18th century.

During that time, the prevailing theory of disease throughout Europe (and China) was the miasma theory – the idea that bad, noxious fumes (poetically called “night air”) were making people sick. The latter part of this pandemic saw the emergence of plague doctors, persons selected and/or hired, usually by a town or city, to deal with those afflicted by the malady. The history of such “doctors” is long and complicated, but we’re not here today to talk about their medical prowess, which was understandably lacking. Rather, I’d like to focus on a signature sartorial choice made by many of them:

This was an outfit originally cooked up by Charles de L’Orme in 1630. It begins with an overcoat made of waxed fabric, topped by a distinctive mask that fully covered the face, with glass-reinformed eye holes and a “beak” stuffed with aromatic substances and straw. What were these doctors huffing? Nothing exciting, regrettably: roses, mint, and spices, mostly. These were considered a countermeasure to the miasma that was supposed to be the crisis’ cause. They were also often equipped with a stick for prodding their unfortunate patients. It became enough of a signature look, a recognizable archetype, that the evocative, vaguely-sinister mask was adopted by costumers for the theater, masquerades, and carnivals.

The technology may have been wrong and the theory about the cause of disease incorrect, but doctors of the time got one thing right when they heeded the impulse to employ protective gear, and another when they thought to cover their faces. Now we find ourselves in another time of plague, although happily we are now much better equipped to understand and better positioned to overcome its ravages. Masks are an integral part of this. Not (unfortunately, in my view) the ornate, beaky masks favored by the doctors of centuries past: all that is required of us is a little scrap of fabric, strategically positioned to catch our flying spittle and contaminated sneezes.

We have not experienced social upheaval on the order of that produced by the second great pandemic, nor are we likely to. But COVID-19 has led to an interesting reexamination of the ways we live and make a living; remote work, social distancing, and – when one is out in public – mask-wearing. What was originally a garment for special occasions or that was to be worn by specialized people is now commonplace – expected, in fact, and rightly so. What does that mean for our relationship with masks in general? And what has that relationship been, thus far?

For the next few weeks, I will be examining the mask in horror and popular culture, starting with its role in horror film. For much of film’s history, a mask has been synonymous with menace; next week, I’ll look at how that relationship developed.

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