The Pandemic is Beginning to Leave its Mark — As It Always Does
Apologies for the creepy image!
It’s a 17th-century engraving of a plague doctor. He’s wearing a costume that had its origins in the medieval period.
I came across a similar image on Instagram this week. It was a meme commenting on the “fashion trends” of Summer 2020. Funny, but like many Internet memes has a certain edge. Uncomfortable, but can’t easily be dismissed. The pandemic is really beginning to leave its mark!
When I was doing historical research for my unpublished novel, The Song of Oswald, I read a lot about the bubonic plague. Also known as the Black Death or the Black Plague.
It washed through Europe, starting in the mid-1300s. Estimates of the number of deaths range between 25 and 60 percent of the continent’s population.
A fact of life for hundreds of years
The Black Death was one of several devastating pandemics that swept across the world over the next few hundred years. Its impact was enormous — in economics, culture, religion, industry, science, the arts … every corner of society.
The plague was a fact of life in western culture. Shakespeare is full of references to epidemics. Writers and artists from the Enlightenment right through to the early 20th century speak of the devastating effects of plagues.
It was initially spread by fleas that resided in the hair of rats. The fleas carried the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which, when passed to humans through bites to the skin, affected the human lymph system. It resulted in large buboes, or swollen lymph nodes, and thus its name: the bubonic plague.
An early day PPE
The costume worn by the doctor in this image was the medieval equivalent of the modern-day PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), worn by health care workers treating COVID patients in hospitals.
The gown covers the doctor from head to toe. The bird-like mask with glass eye-holes covered the face and head. Aromatic herbs and plants were stuffed inside the beak — a measure thought to purify the air breathed in by the doctor.
It was an elaborate version of “face masks” that we struggle with to keep our mouths and noses covered.
The stick allowed the doctor to examine the patient without touching him or her. It also provided a means of keeping the doctors at a safe distance from the patient.
Superstition and false assumptions
Medicine and science in the medieval world were based on little more than superstition and false assumptions. The Arab world was more advanced and made many of the discoveries that led to the plague’s successful treatments.
The person wearing the costume in this picture would most likely not have been a proper doctor in the medieval period. People of means — including physicians — fled the cities and towns hit by the Black Death. They hid out in rural homes and cottages and kept their distance from the plague.
In the absence of medical doctors, towns appointed people with little or no experience to diagnose sufferers of the disease. They could not offer any remedies or cures. Patients were left to die.
But the costume here gets it almost right when compared to the PPEs worn by modern-day health care workers. They grasped the concepts of keeping a physical distance from others. They understood the idea that sickness passed through the air.
Normality is ‘out the window’
Last year, you could be forgiven if you thought something like the Black Death would never happen in today’s world. But here we are!
And I’m beginning to sense the enormity of the impact that COVID will have on the human experience. The “Summer Fashion 2020” meme is a precursor, I suspect, to how the pandemic will continue to wash through our culture.
I notice the attempts in different areas to return our lives to a semblance of normality. Sports events, for example, are being re-introduced in stadiums without crowds. COVID diagnoses may result in prolonged delays in major league sports.
Restaurants and bars, places we so quickly took for granted, may never be the same again.
A new look for humanity?
Or will they?
The circumstances of the COVID pandemic bear resemblances to earlier ones. But human ingenuity has made remarkable achievements since the early 20th century when the Spanish influenza devastated the earth’s population.
We are living a time of uncertainty. It seems a cliché to say this, but the weight of this pandemic warrants it. But I sense this is also a time to clarify our values, our sense of who we are, what is worth keeping and worth throwing away. As long as we stay safe, use the time for inner reflection, it could be a remarkable moment in human terms.
Cinnamon-Raisin bread, an enduring Happy Monk favourite. And here’s proof of Mildrith’s (the wood-fired oven) recent health check, as she just baked 41 loaves of this (and another 40 of Seed Feast) with lots of heat left to spare. Long live Mildrith and long live Cinnamon-Raisin bread!
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