During the 17th century, Europe lay in the grip of a living nightmare. For three centuries, intermittent bouts of the Black Death (Yersinia pestis) swept across the Old World. Each surge further contributed to a death toll in the hundreds of millions. A seemingly unstoppable pandemic, victims faced excruciating symptoms. These symptoms included blackened skin, grotesquely swollen lymph nodes, and bleeding from the mouth and nose.
Attending doctors proved poorly equipped to deal with this pandemic. The disease re-visited the population generation after generation, indiscriminately killing. Without an understanding of germ theory and bacteria, physicians couldn’t effectively fight the disease. Instead, they relied on an admixture of superstition and anecdotal evidence to treat patients and avoid infection. In the process, they crafted the disturbing plague doctor costume.
Find out more about the origins of the 17th-century plague doctor’s uniform, shaped by medieval understandings of disease.
A Thankless Job
Among the many horrible occupations of the 17th century, plague doctors ranked near the top. These traveling physicians wandered from place to place. They treated plague epidemics as they arose in various cities and towns across Europe. Without the knowledge of microorganisms or antibiotics, their patient survival rates were dismal. They also faced the constant risk of infection and death.
Besides looking in on the dying, plague doctors sometimes took part in autopsies. They also testified and witnessed wills and other essential documents for plague victims. In other words, their duties were more actuarial than medical. They spent far more time counting bodies and fortunes than curing the sick. They recorded plague casualty figures in their logbooks.
Sure, plague doctors were more respected than other “dirty job” holders like leech collectors, gong farmers, and sin-eaters. Nonetheless, they lived in permanent quarantine, social outcasts only called upon when families were in desperate need. And these physicians died in droves despite the theatrical trappings of their occupational costume.
Generations of Plague
By the 17th century, the plague doctor’s costume represented a potent symbol of the Black Death, a cataclysmic pandemic that raged across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe from 1346 to 1353. This pandemic resulted in the deaths of 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population. It didn’t end there, though. Each generation saw its return until the end of the 19th century. Despite the costume’s association with the Great Plague, however, it came on the scene much later. Attributed to French physician Charles de l’Orme (1584-1678), he lived nearly 300 years after the initial 14th-century catastrophe.
De l’Orme catered to the needs of many European royals. His patients included Gaston d’Orléans (son of Marie de Medici) and King Louis XIII. As a result, he was in the unenviable position of attending to aristocratic plague victims. Unable to refuse these affluent patients, he carefully crafted a uniform to act as a shield against the deadly disease.
A Terrifying Outfit
The costume included an outer canvas garment covered in suet or scented wax. Beneath this, doctors wore a shirt tucked into leather pants. The leather pants were attached to leather boots. They also wore gloves and a hat.
Over their heads, plague doctors wore a mask and dark leather hood held in place with leather bands and gathered at the neck to keep “bad air” out. Eye holes were cut into the leather and fitted with glass domes. A grotesque curved bird-like beak protruded from the hood, covering the doctor’s face. Last but not least, plague doctors carried wooden sticks. They used these sticks to examine infected patients, avoiding close proximity and skin-to-skin contact. These sticks were also sometimes used by doctors to defend against desperate patients.
The resulting outfit looked like something out of a horror movie or Heavy Metal music video. But de l’Orme designed it with real medical intent. Maybe he and his fellow physicians knew nothing about bacteria, but one thing remained obvious. The disease spread at a frightening pace.
Protecting Against Miasma
To account for the rapid and pervasive spread, doctors believed miasma, noxious “bad air,” was the culprit. To protect against this poisonous air, plague doctors filled the beaks of their costumes with theriac. This concoction of more than 55 herbs included cinnamon, myrrh, viper flesh powder, and honey. Some French plague doctors even set the herbs on fire, producing a protective smoke within the beak. They hoped this smoke would repel ill-humors transmitted in the air.
An early textual description from the Encyclopedia of Infection Diseases: Modern Methodologies explains:
The nose [is] half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the [herbs] enclosed further along in the beak.
Although de l’Orme lived to the ripe old age of 96, his costume did little to quell the plague. As for the level of protection it provided so-called “beak doctors”? That remains up for debate. But he did create a highly recognizable costume that has become an iconic part of European culture still seen regularly in Italian commedia dell’arte theater productions and at Carnival in Venice.
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com