Secrets Behind the Creepy Plague Doctor Mask and Costume

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Secrets Behind the Creepy Plague Doctor Mask and Costume

The plague doctor mask is one of the most recognizable symbols of the Black Death. Though the image is iconic the relationship may be a little anachro

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The plague doctor mask is one of the most recognizable symbols of the Black Death. Though the image is iconic the relationship may be a little anachronistic. While plague doctors have been plying their trade since the Middle Ages, it was only after this period, during the 17th century, that they acquired their creepy trademark costume. But what does it mean?

The Various Roles of Plague Doctors

The plague doctor is arguably one of the most enigmatic figures to have emerged from the Middle Ages. These were European physicians who specialized in treating victims of the plague, the best known example being the Black Death . Plague doctors were public servants hired by villages, towns, or cities when a plague struck .

In theory, the primary duties of a plague doctor were to treat and cure victims of the plague, and to bury the dead . Plague doctors were also responsible for tallying the number of casualties in logbooks for public record, and documented the last wishes of their patients. Furthermore, plague doctors were often summoned to testify and witness wills of the dead and dying. It seems that most plague doctors were occupied with this aspect of their job. At times, plague doctors were even requested to conduct autopsies , in order to better understand how the plague might be treated.

A physician wearing a seventeenth century plague preventive costume. ( CC BY 4.0 )

Who Invented the Plague Doctor Suit?

As plague doctors were in contact with victims of such a deadly disease, they were at risk of falling ill themselves, and therefore had to take precautions that would minimize this risk. Prior to the 17th century, plague doctors wore a variety of protective suits. It was only in 1619 that a ‘uniform’ was invented, which became popular amongst plague doctors. The man attributed with the invention of this ‘plague suit’ is Charles de l’Orme, the chief physician of three French kings (Henri IV, Louis XIII and Louis XIV ), and was also in the service of the Medici family of Italy.

Special physician clothes for preventing pestilence

Special physician clothes for preventing pestilence (Germany, XVII century) at Jena ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

l’Orme’s protective suit consists of several elements that are easily recognizable. To start, a hat was worn on the plague doctor’s head. This was made of leather and was meant to indicate that its wearer was a doctor. Although the hat served a symbolic function, it has been speculated that it may have provided some protection by keeping some bacteria away .

Why Did Plague Masks Have Beaks?

The next item is the well-known plague doctor mask, which was bird-like in shape, and had a long beak. According to one source, people once believed that the plague was spread by birds. Therefore, the use of such a mask may have stemmed from the belief that the disease could be removed from a patient by transferring it to the garment. The mask also had a utilitarian function, as the beak was packed with strong, pleasant smelling substances, such as ambergris, mint, or rose petals. These were meant to ward the disease away because people believed miasma (“bad air”) spread the disease . Obviously, we know more about germs today and that this effort would not have been effective.

Other Elements of the Plague Doctor’s Costume

l’Orme’s suit minimized exposure of the skin with a long overcoat. The neckline of this overcoat was tucked behind the plague doctor’s mask and extended all the way down to the feet. The entire piece of clothing was coated with suet, which, according to one hypothesis, was based on the belief that it would either repel the plague from the doctor, or draw it away from the victim . An alternative hypothesis is that the suet served to keep bodily fluids from sticking to the coat. In order to protect the lower body from infection, l’Orme designed his suit with a pair of leather breeches beneath the overcoat.

Finally, a wooden cane was carried by the plague doctor. This tool served a variety of functions. For example, a plague doctor could use the cane to examine his patient without touching him or her. This tool could also be used to indicate to his helpers or the family members of a victim how and where to move the patient or the deceased. In addition, the cane could be used in defense against the assault of desperate patients.

Jan van Grevenbroeck (1731-1807), Venetian doctor during the time of the plague. Pen, ink and watercolour on paper. Museo Correr, Venice

Jan van Grevenbroeck (1731-1807), Venetian doctor during the time of the plague. Pen, ink and watercolour on paper. Museo Correr, Venice ( Public Domain )

Using the Plague Doctor’s Mask and Garments

Although the well-known plague doctor’s costume wasn’t worn during the infamous Black Death, History Answers states that it was often used by plague doctors “during the Plague of 1656, which killed 145,000 people in Rome and 300,000 in Naples.”

It is uncertain how effective l’Orme’s ‘plague suit’ really was. l’Orme himself lived into his 90s, which is pretty remarkable considering the age he was living in. However, many plague doctors were not quite so fortunate, and ended up being victims of the plague themselves . It is likely, therefore, that l’Orme’s invention did little to protect its wearers for the dreaded disease.

Nonetheless, the frightening plague doctor mask found other usage – in theater. The beaked physician figure became a character in commedia dell’arte and the mask is still worn during the  Carnival of Venice, Italy.

Top image: Plague Doctor Mask, Steno Museum. Source: Tom Banwell Designs

By Wu Mingren