Social Meadicine

Plague DoctorIt wasn’t all dragon eggs and cod pieces at the local Renaissance faire. A plague doctor, il medico della peste, stalked the town (when not queuing for the mermaids and sipping forest fruit mead through a straw).

These “community doctors” wore beak masks, maschera dello speziale, filled with flower petals, burning incense or aromatic herbs, to protect against the miasmas or “bad air” thought to cause infection. The eyes of the masks were made of glass to block face-to-face contact. Some wore coats covered in wax.

The municipal doctors, contracted out from town to town and quarantined when not on the job, bloodlet their patients, although one, Nostradamus, discouraged the practice. Others placed frogs and leeches on the bubonic buboes “to rebalance the humors.” Still others, denied tenure and kicked off their grants, recommended isolating the sick, imposing broad cordon sanitaire, and exterminating rats.

Sheldon Watts, channeling Foucault, described the new public health as a means of social control, but noted several Carnival-like reversals,

Yet in their rush to save themselves by flight, Florentine magistrates worried that the common people left behind would seize control of the city; the fear was perhaps justified. In the summer of 1378 when factional disputes temporarily immobilized the Florentine elite, rebellious woolworkers won control of the government and remained in power for several months.


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