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Masks then and now: A Comparison of the Bubonic Plague and Covid-19

Written by Madeleine McIsaac

Humanity is no stranger to the bizarre and powerful forces mother nature uses to try and wipe us out. The most recent example of such forces is clear to see with our ongoing battle against Covid-19– a worldwide pandemic that was first documented in Wuhan, China, on December 31st, 2019 (WHO). Although we’ve had many epidemics and pandemics throughout history, most notably and deadly was that of the “Black Death”, or the Bubonic Plague, which is still seen today as the most fatal pandemic in human history. From the 12th century to the 18th century, this virus struck Europe and Asia with continued waves, returning to London four times respectively, and killing almost a fifth of the city’s population in that time. Similarly to now, the people living through this time were completely unprepared for the measures they would have to take to keep themselves safe, sane and healthy.

We all know the classic look of the plague doctors with their long birdlike masks, their canes for poking and fending off sickly people, and an overall ominous appearance. These elaborate costumes were created in the 17th century, a look generally credited to Charles de Lorme, who popularized the uniform. The mask consisted of glasses to protect the eyes and a long-beaked mask less than a foot long, filled with up to fifty different types of herbs with the belief that it would prevent them from breathing the ‘poisoned’ air.

Image by Artefact, Alamy

Later, the mask was even interpreted into costume art for Italian “commedia dell’arte” and carnival celebrations, and it is still recognized today (artistically rather than medically) among steampunk and counterculture. Although these masks became known for their iconic style and look, they ultimately made little to no difference in keeping the wearer safe from the virus.

Images: Morelli Venetian Carnival Masks: The Plague Doctor; Seung Gue Lee, Plague mask

Where today many people wear a cloth or surgical mask, many doctors of the time did not have the medical knowledge that we have today and had to rely on whatever made the most sense for them during that period. Now, with a better understanding of health and science, we are able to minimize the spread and prevent countless deaths with as little as one thin piece of cloth.

And just as the saying goes of making lemonade out of life’s lemons, many people have seized this as an opportunity to express themselves and their individuality through an otherwise dire situation.

Images: Sallie Nau’s “Alice in Wonderland” mask; Goodall Mask 365

Especially in the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic when masks were less readily available, some came up with creative solutions from plastic water bottles to astronaut helmets, to today having a slightly safer, more established method that has taken on its own art form—expressing political and/or individual views.

Images: The Economic Times: A woman wears a plastic water bottle to cover her face amid the spread of the coronavirus in Montevideo; VYZR tech

Amid the covid crisis, many have taken an otherwise dreary situation and used it as motivation to create intricate and original art pieces that showcase the feelings of unknown that are associated with the pandemic. They are also a way to stay

busy at home with creative quarantine crafts allowing the artist to make the best out of their circumstances, keeping their hands busy, and their bodies safe.

Blakemore, Erin. Why Plague Doctors Wore Those Strange Beaked Masks, National Geographic, 3 May 2021,

“History of Quarantine.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 July 2020,

Lee, Seung Gue. “Plague Mask.” Instagram, ArtStationHQ, 27 Nov. 2019,

Morelli, Laura. “Venetian Carnival Masks: The Plague Doctor.” Https://, Laura Morelli: Art Historian,

Nau, Sallie. “Sallie Nau’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Mask.” Https://

Goodall, Charlie. “Mask 365.” Instagram, Movingface, 30 Dec. 2020,

“A Woman Wears a Plastic Water Bottle to Cover Her Face amid the Spread of the Coronavirus, COVID-19 Disease, in Montevideo.” Https://, The Economic Times.

“BioVYZR.” Https://, 5 May 2020.

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