What the Fawkes?

What the Fawkes?

November 5th is Guy Fawkes Day— a jolly good holiday for British folk where fireworks are set off & Union Jacks are waved. But why? And who the hell is Guy Fawkes??


If these are questions which have troubled you every time November 5th rolls around, & caused you sleepless nights of wonder, read on. If you’re just mildly curious about this Guy Fawkes chap, please do read on. If you don’t give a rat’s behind about British holidays, stop reading right now. You and I are two very different sorts of people, and this post is not for you.


OK, let me start by saying that Guy Fawkes is not a 1970’s game show host, even though his name is really snappy sounding. Guy Fawkes was, in fact, a 17th century conspirator who nearly blew up Parliament and all of the dukes, lords & anybody who was anybody in 17th century England. Hell, he nearly blew the king of England to kingdom come.


You see, Guy Fawkes & a handful of his friends were fed up with King James I & his tom foolery. James I imposed heavy fines on Catholics, banished priests, stamped out Puritans & was convinced that, ‘Kings are justly called gods’ (which was news to the British people post-Magna Carta era). The only sensible thing to do about King James & his crooked government was, well….to blow it up.


You might ask yourself, how does one go about exploding an entire government building? Well, in 1605 the answer was gunpowder. Lots & lots of gunpowder. Guy Fawkes & fellow conspirators secured a lease to the basement beneath the House of Lords (the place in Parliament where all the British big wigs in government convened). Then the conspirators did what any reasonable group of similar-minded people would do with a basement – fill it with gunpowder.


Guy Fawkes was in charge of guarding the gunpowder, which was too bad for him because when authorities were tipped off about “The gunpowder plot”, Guy was the one found in the basement of Parliament with a conspicuous stock of explosives behind him, a fuse in hand & a dumb look on his face…”Duh…what explosives?”


Well, on November 5, 1605, old Fawkes was arrested & tortured (standard procedure). For the people’s entertainment, he was set up on a big scaffold to be ‘hanged, drawn & quartered’. Everything was going swimmingly until Guy ruined it all by jumping off the scaffold, thus breaking his neck. The hapless Guy Fawkes was put out of his misery & the crowd of spectators was sent home without a good show. Too bad.


To make up for it, Parliament passed an act which designated every Nov. 5th as a Day of Thanksgiving: the King & Parliament were saved! Hooray! Fast forward 400 years to the present & you’ll find that people have pretty much forgotten about King James, & go about hailing Guy Fawkes as the real hero. In celebration of Guy Fawkes rebellious spirit and fondness for gunpowder, the British hail their boy by burning an effigy of him in a big bonfire. It’s only appropriate.


I could say a whole lot more about Fawkes & his lifetime, but I’ll leave that for a future dissertation. Instead, I’m going to sum up Fawkes with a quote made by some really clever person. It goes like this, “Guy Fawkes was the only honest man ever to enter Parliament.” And that, my friends, is all you really need to know!

(A quick caveat: this post was written out of humor and a deep fondness for British history! Love-LG)


Medicine in the Age of Miasma

What does this silhouette say to a modern viewer? Does it remind you of Carnival of Venice masks, or the mysterious character from V for Vendetta? Maybe you are reminded of the goggle-donning steam punk, or perhaps it just resembles any vague nightmare—a bird-like monster clad in a broad-brimmed hat. Whatever the association, this particular costume does not conjure up feelings of comfort and relief. Given its uneasy connotations, would you be surprised if I said that this was the uniform of a medical practitioner? Yes, indeed. This is the outfit of the seventeenth-century plague doctor.

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Although this uniform may have been worn prior to the seventeenth-century (1347 marked the first major outbreak of the plague in Europe, followed by another major outbreak in 1665), researchers have only been able to find written and illustrated proof of its existence dating from the 1600s. The uniform consisted of a long leather or waxed canvas over-garment, which gave the wearer coverage from neck to ankle, and waxed canvas leggings and gloves.  A rather incongruous broad-brimmed hat tops the beaked mask with glass-goggle eyes. Although it is quite understandable that a doctor treating plague victims would want to cover their skin from infected bodies, what is the purpose of a long, hooked beak?

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Aside from appearing wholly terrifying, the bird mask had a function in terms seventeenth-century science.  Inside the hollowed out beak the plague doctor would keep sweet or pungent smelling herbs, such as camphor, mint, lavender or even a vinegar soaked sponge. This practice was in support of the “miasma theory” of infection, which theorized that disease was spread by bad smells. It would take a couple of centuries for germ theory to come along and debunk this notion, but during the 1600s the miasma theory, and its accompanying plague doctor uniform, was at the forefront of medicine and innovation.


The figure most associated with the plague doctor uniform is Charles de Lorme, who was the principal physician to Louis XIII. He had written detailed descriptions of the uniform:

“The nose is half a foot long, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the herbs enclosed further along the beak….”

Charles de Lorme would have understood that the best way to protect himself against the ravages of the plague was to combat the foul miasma with flowers and herbs. Now, that’s “flower power.” Aside from a handy perfumed mask, plague doctors often carried wooden canes, which are thought to have been used to keep diseased patients at a distance.


Despite the “functional” aspects of the plague doctor’s uniform, I cannot help but focus on the disturbing appearance of the ensemble. It is doubtful that if I lay on my death-bed— bubous bursting under the skin—I would be soothed by the sight of a creature, half-man, half-beast. I am reminded of otherworldly beings: the anthromorphic gods of the Native Americans, Africans, Indians and Egyptians. These figures are associated with magic and the mysterious unknown. They are separate from the human world, although they act as intermediaries.

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Primarily, I am reminded of Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god who was responsible for weighing one’s heart in the afterlife. During the late pharaonic era (664-332 BC), Anubis is associated with guiding individuals across the threshold of an earthly existence to the afterlife.  When one’s time has expired on earth, Anubis would see to it that one made it to the next chapter. To me, the plague doctor appears to be a messenger from the other side. Someone who is experienced in ritual passage. Whether he ushers mortal souls to a heaven, or hell, to the jaws of the crocodile headed Ammit, or simply to return to the soil, the plague doctor is a symbol of transition.