Don’t Mask, Don’t Tell

History is Doomed to Repeat Itself

Now that Stefanie has scarred half of our readers by exposing them to WAP, it’s up to me to get this blog back on track. With only a couple of weeks left in our vacation series, it’s time to tackle the story of the summer: COVID-19.

Prince William visited a lab working on a coronavirus vaccine in June and became the first royal to wear a face mask in public. From Town and Country Magazine.

I know you hear enough about the pandemic everywhere else, but I think it’s worth looking at coronavirus through both the scientific and historical lenses that we use on ULTC. We are used to hearing that what we are experiencing is “unprecedented.” But in reality, pandemics are nothing new, and neither is using masks to prevent the spread of disease.

Work Hard, Plague Hard

The coronavirus pandemic has been an enormous challenge for all world leaders, but has been a unique test for monarchs, who have also been fighting to maintain relevancy. As Politico reported in April, the pandemic has forced royal families across Europe were forced to switch from largely ceremonial roles to crisis management. Queen Elizabeth, King Carl XVI Gustaf, and others issued statements with big stakes: “Get it right, and the crisis could become a defining moment, an opportunity to turn an oft-maligned and increasingly antiquated institution into a source of national strength.”

Today’s royals are just the latest in a long line of leaders who have had to rule during a health crisis. This graphic shows a number of the most deadly pandemics throughout time, with the size of the dot proportional to the death toll. From Visual Capitalist.

But today’s kings and queens are hardly the first to be forced to lead through a pandemic, and while Prince Charles is the only royal to test positive for COVID-19, their predecessors were often not as fortunate. The bubonic plague took the lives of members of the British royal family over a period of more than 150 years. As we told you during our King Henry VIII series, his daughter Queen Elizabeth survived smallpox. But in the 1600s and 1700s, British, Russian, Spanish, and French kings and queens all died of the disease. In addition, the Russian flu that began in 1889 killed the grandson of Queen Victoria, altering the line of succession to the British throne. These monarchs could certainly sympathize with the challenge of leading a country through a pandemic, but I’m sure they would have welcomed the benefits of modern medicine, face masks included.

Beak Chic

Medical understanding was still rudimentary when the “Black Death” ravaged the world’s population in three waves between the sixth and 19th centuries. Doctors either believed illness had a spiritual cause or was due to an imbalance of the “humors“. The bacterial basis for the plague wasn’t discovered by Alexandre Yersin until 1894, just as the Galenic theory was falling out of favor with the rise of the germ theory of disease.

If the plague didn’t kill you, the fear of this outfit just might. From Pinterest.

But the lack of biological understanding produced one of the most lasting symbols of the plague during the 16th century: the beak mask. You’ve probably seen pictures of them, or recognize them from movies like the live action version of “Beauty and the Beast”. Usually paired with a wide brim hat, leather gloves, and a rod, they made for quite a look, simultaneously evoking gas masks, the Grim Reaper, and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. At the time, though, doctors believed they would help.

The theory was that the bubonic plague was caused by bad air called miasma, so the masks were developed to allow doctors to fill the beak with spices and plants that smelled good, cleansing the toxic air before it reached their nostrils. Although the bacteria that causes the disease can spread by droplets from sneezing or coughing, it doesn’t appear that the eerie bird mask made much of a difference in preventing the spread of the plague. The outfit did, however, set the stage for the use of personal protective equipment in medicine.

Seriously, Disney had no reason for this disturbing plague scene in “Beauty and the Beast”. From Cinemorgue Wiki.

Masking for It

Fortunately for us, medicine and masks have progressed a lot since the Black Death. When the COVID-19 pandemic first began, there was a lot of conflicting information about whether face coverings can slow the spread of the virus. This led to understandable confusion and frustration, but the public was getting to watch the scientific method in real time. Hypotheses are made and tested, supported and refuted as new evidence emerges. The most recent evidence shows that wearing a cloth mask made of at least two layers reduces the risk of spreading coronavirus to people around you. Sure, they can be uncomfortable and make your acne flare up, but it’s an easy way to protect the people around you. And way less creepy than the 16th century alternative.

These bacterial colonies show how a mask can prevent the spread of droplets from sneezing, singing, talking, and coughing, Wear one! From Dr. Richard Davis.


About Cloth Face Coverings. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Blakemore, E. (2020, March 31). Why plague doctors wore those strange beaked masks. Retrieved from

Butler, T. (2014). Plague history: Yersin’s discovery of the causative bacterium in 1894 enabled, in the subsequent century, scientific progress in understanding the disease and the development of treatments and vaccines. Clinical Microbiology and Infection,20(3), 202-209. doi:10.1111/1469-0691.12540

Cures for the Black Death – The Black Death – KS3 History Revision – BBC Bitesize. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Duxbury, C. (2020, April 01). The crown vs. corona. Retrieved from

Fawcett, K. (2017, October 06). Doctors Didn’t Actually Wear Beaked Masks During the Black Plague. Retrieved from

McKeever, A. (2020, March 26). How centuries of pandemics have shaped the British monarchy. Retrieved from

White, F. (2014, June 2). Why did doctors during the Black Death wear ‘beak masks’? Retrieved from

2 thoughts on “Don’t Mask, Don’t Tell

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