With the coronavirus pandemic we are all getting used to wearing facemasks in a range of public spaces from shops to transport. Yet whilst the wearing of masks feels very new to us it is not the first time that they have been employed as a form of protection during an epidemic.
Face masks have been worn as a form of protection from foul air, or miasma, since at least the early 17th century. The miasma theory of infection, which was accepted by doctors from the 1st century BC until well into the 19th century, ventured that many diseases – such as plague and cholera – were caused and spread through populations inhaling bad air. (Indeed, the disease malaria literally takes its name from bad (mal) air (aria) in medieval Italian.) In order to be protected doctors, and the public alike, often carried posies of flowers to freshen the air around them or wore face coverings that both acted as a physical barrier against bad air and attempted to fragrance (and thus purify) the air that was breathed.
Coloured copper engraving by Paul Fürst depicting a plague doctor entitled ‘Doctor Schnabel von Rome’, [trans. ‘Doctor Beak from Rome’], 1656. from Wikimedia Commons
One of the most striking and recognisable protective face masks from the past is the long beaked mask worn by plague doctors throughout the 17th century. The mask has been credited as being developed in 1619 by Charles de Lorme (1584-1678), the physician to the French kings Henri IV, Louis XIII and Louis XIV. The mask, which was a form of early respirator, covered the doctor’s full face with glass openings for the eyes and two air holes for the nostrils. The long beak contained a cavity into which was stuffed a variety of aromatic items intended to purify the foul air that passed through the mask. It would typically be filled with dried flowers, herbs, spices or a sponge soaked in vinegar. The mask’s grotesque features made the plague doctor an instantly recognisable and feared figure and it eventually became a popular costume for revellers at the Carnival of Venice – an event made famous for its elaborate masks.
Although not as dramatic as those worn by the plague doctors, the British Library holds a face covering from the mid-17th century that has some similar features to shield against the plague. The Library’s covering is made from fine kidskin leather and comprises a pouch into which the wearer could place scented materials to protect the nose and mouth from foul air. The Library’s intriguing face covering is found in the archive of the diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) and was possibly worn by him as a form of protection during the London plague epidemic of 1665-1666; the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England.
It is not clear how much protection these plague masks afforded, but both de Lorme and Evelyn lived through years of plague to survive well into old age. Masks can clearly help support public health and though it feels strange at first, we should remember wearing them in an epidemic is nothing new.
Curator, Modern Historical Manuscripts and Archives