Throughout history, when disease spreads, people tend to panic. And along with that spread of illness, there is the spread of superstitions. People like to apply their own reasoning to things they can’t explain, and that trait is something that hasn’t changed. When we don’t know why something is the way it is, we attempt to rationalize it — even if that rationalization may make zero sense. Fear tramples logic and can heighten our emotions enough to block out fact.
During the outbreak of COVID-19, this same panic is evident in people over buying an excessive amount of toilet paper, even paper towels. People try to control what they can in a situation that they really have no power over. In a recent article, the Washington Post said, “The first line of psychological defense in a crisis is often denial … That leaves another comforting option: clinging to the belief that one can ward off undesired outcomes by engaging in behaviors that bear little to no relationship to accepted laws of science and nature.”
One of the most infamous pandemics in history, the Black Plague, was a time full of superstition. People didn’t know much about the world back then. They didn’t have the same means of modern medicine and science that we do now. There are even speculated accounts of diseased cadavers being catapulted into other territories as to not only get rid of the dead, but also as a means of biological warfare, according to a historical article by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Several strange beliefs and practices have come from the Black Plague, much like how some have come from COVID-19.
If you think quarantine now is bad, imagine literally being locked inside your house by local authorities. During the Black Plague in England, the local constable would go to the homes of those who had passed from the plague and would padlock the remaining inhabitants inside — regardless if whoever was left inside had been infected or not. A historical study from Yale said, “The door was marked with a red cross and the words ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ to signify its status as an unhealthy space containing plague-exposed individuals.”
The iconic beaked masks worn by the doctors of this period are often credited to Charles de Lorme, a physician who worked mostly with nobility. An article from National Geographic described the outfits that plague doctors wore as a coat covered in scented wax along with a hat and gloves made of goat leather. They also “carried a rod that allowed them to poke (or fend off) victims,” which sounds like it would be ethically questionable back then and if it were a practice carried on to today’s pandemic. The headgear that accompanied this odd uniform was bespectacled, birdlike and had a beak of about half a foot long. The mask was filled with perfume because physicians of the Black Plague believed that the disease was transmitted through “poisoned air,” and that a concoction of herbs and other plants would stop them from getting sick when treating patients.
While we may not being taking quarantine to such extremes as boarding up entire homes and locking them with a padlock, and our doctors don’t walk around with giant bird masks, there
is another practice that came out of the Black Plague that is still used today: the common saying of “Bless you!” People during medieval times believed that sneezing caused the plague, which makes sense in terms of modern thinking (don’t want to be sick while breathing on other people, assaulting them with snot). Then again, they also believed that part of your soul was being expelled while you sneezed so … take that with a grain of salt.
Either way, while some of these rituals, beliefs and practices sound strange, I’m sure generations from now, people will look back and believe toilet paper hoarding was strange, too. Superstitions sometimes don’t even appear to be so, when people truly trust that they will fend off whatever worry or fear that they have.
Written By: Morgan Charrette