The Great Plague hit London in the spring of 1665 and scythed away full a quarter of its population. In the built-up area between the City, Westminster and Southwark, 100,000 died. It was the last gasp of a fatally persistent pandemic that had first struck the timbered medieval metropolis in 1348. What follows are some extracts from my book London: A Travel Guide through Time, in which I bring — hopefully in an uncomfortably vivid way — to life what it was like to live in, or at least visit, the capital at the height of the Plague, when buboes were sprouting on people’s necks, armpits and groins like there was no tomorrow.
I first glimpsed a plague doctor years ago, in a framed etching on the wall of a Venetian gift shop. The image was macabre: a sinister, masked figure draped in a dark robe. The head was covered with a broad-brimmed hat with a flat crown. The most striking feature was the mask, with its goggled eyes and bizarre pointed beak. The hands were depicted with long, curving fingernails. One hand grasped a cane. Since that introduction, I’ve seen similar depictions dozens of times — the plague doctor is one of the more common costumes in the Venetian Carnival and a stock character in the commedia dell’arte. The same gift shop offered a paper-mache version of the mask for sale to tourists like me. The plague doctor stands in stark contrast to most other iconic images of medicine. Where are the dedication and devotion of the man sitting vigil at a child’s bedside in Sir Luke Fildes’s classic painting “The Doctor”? What about the competence and command portrayed in the erect surgeon surveying the operating theater in Thomas Eakins’s “The Gross Clinic”? There is nothing inspiring or comforting about the image of the plague doctor. The figure seems to come straight from central casting for a nightmare.