We joined our host David, Saturday evening at 6pm, but in Prague it was midnight. From there we stepped back in time to the 18th century during the time of the plague. The tour starts at the Charles Bridge and progresses through the city streets to stop at various monuments and discuss bits of plague history. For our purposes, I will be focusing mainly on the information about the plague. I hope you join his virtual Plague Doctor tour to see and hear about the historical sights as well.
For recommendations on visiting Prague in person go to this sponsored link at Get Your Guide.
The Grizzly Details of the Bubonic Plague
The Bubonic Plague was a bacterial infection of the lymph nodes or bubos. The bubos would swell to the size of tennis balls. This in itself was painful but not deadly, yet the poison within was. Sometimes the liquid would spread to other organs causing organ failure . Often peoples’ toes or fingers would become blackened, hence the term, Black Death. Additionally the bubos would burst inside the body and spread to the blood stream leading to sepsis. Symptoms would usually start 3-10 days after infection and would begin with a headache or fever. This form of plague had a 70% mortality rate.
A second strain of this disease is known as the Pneumonic Plague. In this case, the bacteria took hold in the lungs. Symptoms would begin within 1-3 days after infection and would start with a cough. This form had a 90% mortality rate and was airborne.
David and his wife came across Alexander Shamsky while researching information for another tour. They were intrigued by his work which inspired them to create this plague doctor experience.
Alexander Shamsky finished his medical studies in the mid 1700s. He earned his degree towards the end of the Bubonic Plague epidemic. At the time, there was no cure for the disease. Most doctors and priests tried to avoid helping those infected because they knew there was nothing they could do to help. They also knew they were likely to contract the disease themselves. However, Alexander Shamsky was different. He tried to help whoever was in need without discrimination. He was very close with his patients. Shamsky stated that you couldn’t effectively fight the plague by only treating the people who could afford to pay.
Eventually he developed symptoms of the plague and tried to heal himself. He ended up writing a book from the perspective of the patient. Shamsky titled his book, “A Friend in Need”, a self help book chronicling his attempts at a cure.
At this time it was considered unhealthy to drink water. Butchers threw dead animals into the water and people threw their garbage there as well. Instead people drank beer. The beer of the time was thicker and had less alcohol. Beer often replaced a meal because food was scarce. They called it “liquid bread”. Alexander Shamsky recommended drinking 3 liters of garlic beer everyday during 4 weeks of quarantine.
What does a Plague Doctor Do?
There wasn’t much the plague doctors could do because there was no cure. However, they did try to cut away the bubos once it filled with liquid hoping to release the infection. Plague doctors carried opium in their bags to ease the pain when cutting the bubos. Doctors gave honey, beetroot, and garlic to patients because of antibacterial properties. Most plague victims died from fever. Herbs often helped lower the fever which was the only chance of survival. People were often afraid of the plague doctors because they believed death followed them. This was true to some extent, as they often spread the sickness from one patient to another.
Check out this sponsored link to buy plague doctor gear:Plague Doctor Masks and Costumes
Behind the Mask of the Plague Doctor
The purpose of the plague mask was to prevent the plague doctor from contracting the disease. Unlike the masks we wear today, the plague doctor masks covered the whole face. Doctors filled the protruding nose of the mask with pungent fresh herbs in the summer such as lavender, garlic, or strong smelling flowers. During winter, doctor used spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and dried lemon peel instead. People believed that breathing bad air caused disease, so they thought one could prevent disease by breathing strong smelling air. In England doctors used vinegar in their masks.
Approximately 18000 people died from the plague in Prague, roughly 1/3 of the population. Although at the time, the cause was unknown, people knew isolation helped prevent the spread of the disease. Quarantines were imposed in the cities, however, in the countries it was more difficult. Often people slept in close proximity with the animals that carried the disease. During quarentine, night watchman had permission to murder people who left their homes.
The wealthy were able to get food from delivery services. They would then throw coins down into a pot of vinegar to clean them. This social isolation helped prevent as many of the wealthy from getting the plague. Unfortunately the rest of the people had to get their food from the market. Even worse off were the people in the country who had less access to healthy foods and sanitation. Eventually food became scarce as the people doing the farming in the country died of the disease.
People built plague columns outside churches to pray to God and thank him for their survival. They worshipped at these columns instead of inside a church because they knew closed places spread the disease. They already knew social distancing was important.
In the 17th century, English plague doctors realized if they buried diseased corpses at least 6 feet under ground people wouldn’t catch the disease as easily. This is where the term 6′ under comes from. This is also where they get the idea today for social distancing 6′ apart.
Origins of the Plague
Although the actual origins could not be confirmed until 1914, the people had several theories regarding where the plague came from and how it was transmitted.
#1 Religious Divide
The city of Prague was divided between Christians and those of the Jewish faith. During the plague the city locked the walls around the Jewish section. The Christians held superstitions that the Jewish people caused them to have the disease. They were suspicious of them because the Jewish people had a much lower incidence of the plague. Due to the strict traditions in the old testament, those of the Jewish faith had much higher standards of cleanliness. They washed before eating and bathed more regularly. On the other hand, the Christians rarely washed themselves or used water as they considered it dirty.
#2 The 30 years war
The original hospitals were set up for war not to deal with illness. Surgeons were strong craftsmen who were able to lift bodies and had knowledge of tools and stitching and some basic medical knowledge. Their job was to perform amputations. Soldiers usually survived the amputations but died several days later from infection. Surgeons only washed their tools at the end of the day to get the blood off not in between patients. Due to poor hygiene and no sterilization, this helped the spread of the plague. Hence, why hospitals had a chapel within and a graveyard out back.
#3 Merchants and fleas
The plague spread quickly through Europe starting with 12 original merchant ships from Crimea. Rats infested the ships spreading the disease to the sailors. In addition to the regular stops the merchants planned to make, they ended up stopping at each port to let off infected sailors and taking on new crew mates. This caused the disease to spread so quickly throughout Europe.
Later scientists found that fleas caused the spread of the disease. The fleas would bite animals and people infecting them. All of the animals that got the plague died so they were not likely the infectious agents. However, years later they discovered that the fleas did not die from the disease. Although they did not die from the plague the fleas died from starvation. The blood infected with the plague was to viscous for them to digest so they starved. Meanwhile, they would continually bite people and animals trying to quench their hunger. Each time they would bite a victim the flea would release some infected blood back into the blood stream, therefore spreading the disease.
In 1914, scientists traveling to countries which still had the plague confirmed that the fleas spread the disease. They tested the liquid in the fleas’ stomach and compared it to the liquid in the bubos and found it to be the same.
There are still places where the plague exists today. National parks, parts of Peru, Madagascar, Congo, and states such as New Mexico and California still have incidences of the plague. Today we can use antibiotics to cure the plague. We also have better hygiene standards for sewage, water, and garbage so we generally don’t even hear about these isolated incidents.
About the Plague Doctor Tour
Our guide, David, is originally from Germany, but has lived in Prague for 10 years. He and his wife normally offer tours in person, but have started doing online tours through Airbnb due to Covid-19 restrictions. They have done extensive research traveling through Europe to gather information for their tours. Due to current quarantines, they petitioned the government to allow them to make a video of their tour due to their income being based on tourism. In addition to information on the plague, their tour includes history and architecture of Prague. Click here to sign up for their virtual tour.
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