During the beginning of the pandemic, I think we all had that feeling of impending doom, not knowing what the future held, what tragedies were in store for us and our loved ones. I’ve read a lot of historical novels over the years about various plagues both in the U.S. and in Europe. I couldn’t help but to make comparisons between the pandemics. Since we weren’t leaving our house during this time, we stumbled upon this virtual Prague historical tour about the plague and the role of the plague doctor. The history is rich in the macabre but also gives a historical perspective to science.
Originally, I contained my focus on just the plague doctor tour. In this revision I have added information about Prague itself including information to help plan your own Prague historical tour.
Where is Prague located?
Prague is the Czech Republic capital. It is also the largest city in the Czech Republic and is found in the northwest part of the country on the Vltova River. The city of Prague sprawled out from the original Prague castle center. Many Prague historical tours are offered in person if you visit.
Where is Czech Republic?
The Czech Republic is located in Europe. It is a land locked country. Poland borders it on the northeast, while Slovakia is on its eastern side. Germany is located to the west. Austria, on the southern border, led to Prague Czech Republic being part of the Hapsburg Empire at one time. Prior to that it was part of the Roman Empire.
Fun Facts about Prague
- Prague was the capital of Bohemia which is where the term Bohemian comes from. It was originally a derogatory term referring to Roma gypsies believed to originate in this area.
- The medieval iconic astronomical clock has a dial representing the Sun and moon. Statues of catholic saints stand on both sides on the clock. An hourly display of “the walk of the apostles” has Death represented by a skeleton striking the time. The calendar dial represents the months of the year.
- Visit in May for the Czech Beer festival which goes on for 17 days.
- Several Hollywood movies were filmed here including Mission Impossible, Alien vs. Predator, Doom, Chronicles of Narnia, Blade II, and Van Helsing.
How to be a Plague Doctor: Virtual Prague Historical Tour
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.
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.
Alexander Shamsky, the original plague doctor
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.
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 quarantine, 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.
What are some fun things to do while visiting Prague?
There are lots of sightseeing opportunities. You can learn about the castle district and Jewish quarter on group walking tours. Some of these Prague historical tours are self guided, or you can take a guided tour with an educated tour guide. You can also tour Prague by boat. Explore Prague town square and the old town.
What to do in Prague at night?
A walking tour of Prague is an interesting venture at night. There are tour guides in Prague that will take you on tours of dungeons, hauntings, and a walking tour of the city revealing the horrors and history of the plague.
I would love to hear about your trip if you visit Prague in person or if you take the virtual tour!
Donna Emperador is a travel and food blogger and copywriter. Donna believes in learning about different cultures while sharing good food and cocktails. She has lived in South Florida for over 20 years and enjoys spending time exploring the road to find unique places to share with readers. She can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.
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Very interesting post – a bit off the beaten guide-track 😉 I was born in the Czech Republic and have visited Prague many times. Nevertheless, I was not aware of the plague doctor. I know these doctor masks rather from Venice. Great job covering this unusual topic!
Great report about the Plague Doctor Tour in Prague. Grizzly topic – but very interesting! Although I would prefer an on-site tour to a virtual tour. Prague at night is just charming!
We did love our visit to Prague. And learned a lot on our visit. But we certainly did not learn about a plague doctor. How fascinating to look at how they handled the bubonic plague and how it compares to how we are living these days.
The plague doctor tour seems so thrilling! I love your idea of this type of sightseeing, I would like to try it. I like Prague and visit it several times, so next time I will do this tour.
This tour seems like such a fun time! Tours while on vacation are always fun because it gives you the opportunity to learn so much about where you are!!