The Strange Costumes of the Plague Doctors Who Treated 17th Century Victims of the Bubonic Plague

In the 17th and 18th cen­turies, what we know of as The Age of Enlight­en­ment or ear­ly moder­ni­ty, Euro­peans tra­versed the globe and returned to pub­lish trav­el accounts that cast the natives they encoun­tered as child­like beings, des­ti­tute sav­ages, or lit­er­al mon­sters. Unable to make sense of alien lan­guages and cul­tures, they mis­took every­thing they saw.

Mean­while, the bubon­ic plague swept Europe, and plague doc­tors wan­dered towns and coun­try­side in a “fan­ci­ful-look­ing cos­tume [that] typ­i­cal­ly con­sist­ed of a head-to-toe leather or wax-can­vas gar­ment,” writes the Pub­lic Domain Review, “large crys­tal glass­es; and a long snout or bird beak, con­tain­ing aro­mat­ic spices (such as cam­phor, mint, cloves, and myrrh), dried flow­ers (such as ros­es or car­na­tions), or a vine­gar sponge.”

More­over, the plague doctor—as you can see from illus­tra­tions of this bizarre character—also car­ried with him a wand, “with which to issue instruc­tions,” one schol­ar writes, “such as order­ing dis­ease-strick­en hous­es filled with spi­ders or toads ‘to absorb the air’ and com­mand­ing the infect­ed to inhale ‘bot­tled wind’ or take urine baths, purga­tives, or stim­u­lants.” The wand was also used to force­ful­ly fend off patients.

Vis­it­ing trav­el­ers from else­where might be jus­ti­fied in think­ing the plague doc­tor rep­re­sent­ed some strange, prim­i­tive reli­gious cus­tom: per­haps a monstrous—and most­ly ineffective—exorcism rit­u­al. The “ear­ly-mod­ern haz­mat suit” is per­fect­ly rea­son­able, of course, if you under­stand the reign­ing the­o­ry of “mias­mas,” which posit­ed that dis­ease is spread through “bad air.” Not entire­ly wrong, as our cur­rent masked exis­tences show, but in the case of the plague, mias­ma the­o­ry was only very par­tial­ly explana­to­ry.

Which is to say the cos­tume wasn’t entire­ly use­less. “The ankle-length gown and herb-filled beak… would also have offered some pro­tec­tion against germs,” espe­cial­ly since its herbs were some­times lit on fire and allowed to smol­der, send­ing bil­low­ing smoke from the plague doctor’s face. (The satir­i­cal engrav­ing above from 1700 mocks this prac­tice.) “The appear­ance of one of these human-sized birds on a doorstep could only mean that death was near.”

This par­tic­u­lar design has been cred­it­ed to a French doc­tor, Charles de Lorme, said to have invent­ed it in 1619. “De Lorme thought the beak shape of the mask would give the air suf­fi­cient time to be suf­fused by the pro­tec­tive herbs before it hit the plague doc­tors’ nos­trils and lungs.” Often mis­tak­en for Medieval or Renais­sance garb, the plague doc­tor cos­tume is, in fact, a mod­ern piece of kit.

Much has been made of the bird mask, but as one skep­ti­cal his­to­ry writer has effec­tive­ly shown, there are good rea­sons to doubt the wide­spread adop­tion of the beak. It may have been a rar­i­ty; most plague doc­tors prob­a­bly wore what would look to us today like Klan robes and hoods. All the more rea­son for plague doc­tor cos­tumes to seem shock­ing once again, as a British teen dis­cov­ered when he decid­ed in May to dress the part of the clas­sic beaked fig­ure. (Res­i­dents found it “ter­ri­fy­ing” and police offered stern “words of advice.”)

No mat­ter how wide­spread the beak was his­tor­i­cal­ly, its icon­ic sta­tus as part of the plague doc­tor cos­tume remains inscribed in art and cul­ture. “The look was so icon­ic in Italy that the ‘plague doc­tor’ became a sta­ple of Ital­ian com­me­dia dell’arte and car­ni­val cel­e­bra­tions,” Erin Blake­more writes at Nation­al Geo­graph­ic. Giv­en the asso­ci­a­tions a more authen­tic cos­tume would evoke, no one seems to be clam­or­ing to replace beaked masks with point­ed hoods in rep­re­sen­ta­tions of plague doc­tors. The beak also sym­bol­i­cal­ly con­veys an impor­tant fact about plague doc­tors: they were not healers—they were most­ly wit­ness­es of death.

Few of their reme­dies had any effect. Rather, on the government’s pay­roll, plague doctors—often sec­ond or third-rate prac­ti­tion­ers attempt­ing to build a career—recorded demo­graph­ic data, wit­nessed wills, and per­formed autop­sies. They were like weird avian aliens come to observe the cus­toms of a continent’s dying pop­u­la­tion, appear­ing in what came to be wide­ly under­stood as the “cos­tume of death,” as the illus­tra­tion above puts it. See more rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the plague doc­tor cos­tume at the Pub­lic Domain Review.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

The His­to­ry of the Plague: Every Major Epi­dem­ic in an Ani­mat­ed Map

Down­load Clas­sic Works of Plague Fic­tion: From Daniel Defoe & Mary Shel­ley, to Edgar Allan Poe

Isaac New­ton Con­ceived of His Most Ground­break­ing Ideas Dur­ing the Great Plague of 1665

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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