The Plague Doctor

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Amid all the awful echoes left by the Middle Ages in Western Civilization, none is stranger than the screams drawn by the Black Plague of the 14th century. The nation culling illness left its eternal mark in art, writings, and collective memory, passed down generation-by-generation, wrapped in distorted shadows. The Plague Doctor remains a particularly eerie reminder of nameless ancestors who suffered premature internments under the pathogenic scythe.

Today, we can only imagine his great beak and glassy eyes leering down at the pale faces of the dying. Unfortunately, this menacing figure was no supernatural force. That would have been an anti-miracle too elegant for this world.

The doctor himself, often a second rate or newly commissioned physician, likely trembled inside his frail costume. Everyone instinctively senses contamination, whether germ theory is officially on the books or not. Then, as now, the doctor's bio-hazard suit induced panic. And Plague Doctors certainly shared the fears of the unguarded, since their herb filled schnozes offered little real protection against the terrible malaise.

Perhaps the Plague Doctor remains scary and strange because it's as much a portent of the future as it is a ghost from a bygone age. In 1915, men released new horrors into the air, requiring a similar face mask for protection. Like virulent plague, airborne chemicals still haunt us as arch-daemons, joined by nuclear radiation and other modern terrors. Fear warps the face as well as the mind in each instance.

The Bubonic Plague is long passed, but its horrors endure (see The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death for a full stomach churning history). Western art, including the weird and surreal, continues to carry the legacy of this European reaper. But no aesthetic symbol will ever top the genuine creepiness instilled in the cloaked doctor. He was an ominous horror who once walked the Earth like an animal headed Egyptian deity, heralding doom for millions. And he has walked again since 1350, in greater force than ever before with the teeming variations arisen in the Great Wars. By natural or contrived disaster, he may yet become a familiar sight again, known to all in his final magnificent form.

-Grim Blogger


strantzas March 31, 2011 at 12:34 PM  

I'd heartily recommend here reading Guy Davis's THE MARQUIS series, currently in print from Dark Horse.

Not only is the visage of M based on these plague doctors, but the book itself is rife with the most deliriously lovely monsters, some of which must be seen to be believed.

Grim Blogger March 31, 2011 at 7:36 PM  

Thanks for the recommendation. The series looks delightfully macabre. Will mark it down to check out in the future. June 24, 2011 at 7:24 AM  

Really enjoyed your piece, such a change from the usual pieces written on the plague doctor. Oh love your images!

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