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Copy of a fumigating torch carried for protection against bubonic plague, 1601-1700

In the 1600s, fumigating torches were believed to protect the carrier from bubonic plague. Sweet smelling herbs burnt in the top of torch were believed to provide protection against disease. At the time, it was thought that disease was spread through foul smelling things – the buboes caused by the disease and the breath of the dying both smelt disgusting. Plague seemed to be passed quickly from person to person but it was only in the 1890s that plague was discovered to be spread by the fleas carried on rats.

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Glossary: fumigator

An object used to disinfect or purify the air with fumes, often used to eradicate pest infestations from buildings.

Glossary: bubo

An inflammation of a lymphatic gland (armpit or groin) commonly found in syphilis or the plague.

Glossary: bubonic plague

Thought to have been the cause of the Black Death, the bubonic plague is caused by a bacterial infection of the lymphatic system, the network of capillary vessels in the human body. The plague is most commonly transmitted via the bites of fleas. Characteristic symptoms include enlarged lymph glands (buboes).