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Jezebel - March 6, 2020

When the first waves of plague swept medieval Europe, the disease killed both the rich and the poor indiscriminately. In July 1348, King Edward III of England’s 12-year-old daughter died on her way to Spain to marry King Pedro of Castile. And though he was still mourning, the king threw a giant tournament at Westminster in the fall, despite instructions from clergy and doctors that moderation and abstinence were the key to survival. Nearly 672 years later, rich people still want their travel and amusement even amid coronavirus fears, and in typical fashion, they’re doing everything they can to make sure sickness remains the province of the poor.

During the plague, the first round of which lasted from 1347-1351 and wiped out somewhere between 30 to 50 percent of Europe’s population, those who could afford it adopted a plague-time slogan of sorts: “cito, longe, tarde,” which translates to, “flee soon, go far, come back late.” As servants were left behind to clean the houses of the absent aristocracy, risking infection and dying at rates even higher than that of the general population, the wealthy made their wills, specifying guardians for children and dowries, and got the hell out of town. Even rich people’s plague deaths were attended by doctors and religious officiants, while reports abound of those left in cities screaming while being enclosed alive in body bags bound for the plague pits. Almshouses were quite often attended only by clergy, who blessed the dying, while physicians fled with the wealthy.

By the 16th century, Charles de Lorme had invented the bird-beak plague mask. The beak was stuffed with herbs and wormwood to filter out the bad smells thought at the time to spread bubonic plague. To his wealthy patrons, including Henri IV, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV, he prescribed “red broth” made partially of antimony, a metal used to induce vomiting, which was believed by the Romans to be conducive to good health. de Lorme obviously thought so too, as he said of the broth: “qui plus en boira, plus il vivra” or, “the more he drinks, the more he lives.”

And now, as coronavirus causes global panic—though, to be very clear, it is nowhere remotely as dangerous as the plague—the New York Timesreports that rich people are once again scrambling for expensive remedies of questionable efficacy while fleeing the infected. The 21st century version of retreating to one’s Italian villa seems to be barricading oneself in a Hamptons mansion. The new court physician is the concierge doctor, and the new plague mask is the high-end, sold-out Urban Air Mask 2.0, miasma-blocking herbs replaced by “cutting-edge filter technology with timeless Scandinavian design,” the company’s website reads. Gwenyth Paltrow recently posted a selfie wearing the $65 modern-day plague mask en route to Paris, though doctors say they’re likely ineffective, as the masks are intended to prevent sick people from spreading coronavirus, not protect well people from catching it.


But that message hasn’t yet seemed to reach the modern-day aristocracy. Los Angeles concierge physicians say they’ve been bombarded with calls from actors, agents, directors, and other rich people asking for help getting specialty N95 masks, assuming that because they cost more, they must be better:

“It’s interesting because people say, ‘I need the N95 mask. It costs more. It sounds like it’s heavy-duty. We’re Hollywood people, we can afford it,’” one doctor toldThe Hollywood Reporter before explaining that the masks are hard to use and ineffective. But the higher price tag and exclusivity continue to appeal.

During plague outbreaks, cities hired armed guards to stand outside houses, ensuring whole families, whether they were sick or not, remained trapped inside to die. Medieval doctors believed the bodies of contagious people to be full of poison, and the apostemes on the bodies of the victims, engorged with pus, were thought to be the body’s way of expelling these poisons. Physicians advised that the best way to avoid infection was to leave the sick for dead and flee, as they often did themselves. In his fourteenth-century guide to escaping pestilence dedicated to the Giangale-Visconti, a member of the ruling family of Milan, contagion theory pioneer Pietro Curialti da Tossignano wrote: “it is safer to move to a region where there has never been an epidemic...since the ‘reliquiae’ will remain and, acting like a ferment, will infect those who come into the locality.” ...
Read full report at Jezebel