You wouldn’t have guessed it, but the novel Aureus, set in 12th century England, addresses a topic that has become quite newsworthy in the past few years: masks. Yes, King Henry II of England was a man way ahead of his time; he understood that masks had a medical use, and he took measures to implement this use in a most original way.

We already know that masks were used for a variety of purposes in ancient cultures. The famed Egyptian King Tut (short for Tutankhamun Nebkheperure) was interred wearing a mask made of gold, precious stones and glass. The militaristic Romans wore them in battle and cavalry parades. Native peoples of the Americas donned masks of gold and mosaics in tribute to their many gods. Archeologists differ on the date of the oldest found mask, but it is possible that people were using masks for some purpose as far back as 9,000 BC.

Back to Aureus. Henry, in his run-up to the Battle of Boulton, devised a novel way to use the trebuchet, a form of catapult, if a siege of the Boulton castle was required; he planned to fling soldiers, already dead, over the castle ramparts to force the inhabitants to surrender rather than be surrounded by grisly rotting corpses. Of course, this would have been an unpleasant task for those assigned to loading the trebuchet, but Henry was an innovative and compassionate king. He assembled the trebuchet battalion and introduced a grey cloth face covering to help them to prevent nausea while loading their “missiles,” and he was understandably proud of this contribution to military strategy and his concern for the comfort of his troops. Imagine Henry’s surprise when the men resisted the order to wear the covering, explaining that masks were a punishment for gossiping women in the area where they lived. The king was unaccustomed to opposition to a royal command. How was this matter resolved? See Chapter 11.

Well, at least Henry was at the forefront of medieval medical thinking. Two centuries later, the Black Death spread across Europe, bringing destruction to many societies on the continent. Face masks emerged as a form of protection. In the 16th century, French doctor Charles de Lorme invented the “beak mask,” a head mask shaped like a bird’s beak. This beak could hold dried flowers (including roses and carnations), herbs (including mint), spices, camphor, or a vinegar sponge. The irony: the purpose of the mask was to keep away bad smells which were thought to be the principal cause of the disease, only later to be disproved by germ theory.

Before their recent reentry into our lives, masks have, for a long time, been relegated to the sidelines of our everyday concerns; they are part of one’s annual Halloween costume ensemble, if indeed you celebrate that holiday. Successful bank robbers consider them essential to the “job.” They are a necessary, and expensive, ingredient of the Mardi Gras celebration. In fact, a mask is required for participation in the official New Orleans parade (and no one objects – how refreshing). Masks are the official symbol of the Italian city of Venice, and they have been an integral part of the Carnevale, or Mardi Gras, there since the 12th century. Wait! Henry II ruled in that century. Maybe he had some Venetian connection. History scholars should commence an immediate investigation. Stay tuned!