The black cloak, the terrifying beaked mask, and the silent prowl through the disease-struck streets of Europe. It’s no wonder that plague doctors have become one of the most prominent symbols of death.
In reality, they were medicine men trying to do their job and keep people alive, as well as they could for the historical periods they existed in. But put on a creepy costume and history can be quite cruel in its memory. Plague doctors may have been for the common good, but that doesn’t make them and their tactics any less unsettling.
7. What are plague doctors?
Plague doctors were medieval medicine men who treated the ills of a population racked with widespread outbreaks of infectious diseases. They were most commonly associated with the Bubonic plague (also known as the Black Death) and first appeared in text in the 1300s.
Usually, they are depicted wearing a long dark cloak with a wide-brimmed hat, and a terrifying, beaked mask fit with two glass eyes that made them appear more like harbingers of torture and death than medicine. In many images, they also carried a long staff known as a plague doctor cane; and usually always worked alone.
Although the intention behind their costumes was protection from the diseases they regularly faced, plague doctors are most commonly perceived as unsettling and sinister, due to their attire.
6. What did plague doctors actually look like?
Usually, imagery of the bubonic plague is accompanied by the familiar, traditional black cloak, beaked plague doctor’s mask, and a cane. You may remember learning of these terrifying giant bird-like men, appearing to treat the pustules on plague victims.
However, the stereotypical plague doctor’s costume isn’t as closely linked to the Black Death and bubonic plague as you may think. The great plague struck Europe in 1353. It killed up to two-thirds of the continent’s population in a devastating wave that no one could control. The best they could do was to stem the tide. And they did so, using the limited medieval knowledge and beliefs that came with the era.
The most prominent of which was indeed contracting plague doctors. But they weren’t dressed as we picture them today. In fact, the closest reference we have to similar attire is twenty years later in 1373 when part of their costume is referred to as a face “mask”.
The plague doctor’s mask and costume we all know and love didn’t appear until centuries later. The first description of a plague doctor’s mask with a long beak was in an account by King Louis XIII’s first doctor, Charles de Lorme in the 17th century.
So, while it was used by plague doctors treating the Black Death, it was far later than the most devastating and prominent wave of the Bubonic Plague that most associate it with.
5. Why the plague doctors wore strange masks
Plague doctor’s masks weren’t just an old-fashioned way of keeping unwanted advances at bay. Back then, it was believed the plague was caught from “bad air” or ‘miasma’ as they called it. So, they stuffed the beak of the plague doctor’s mask with sweet smelling herbs and flowers, to drive away the disease and lessen their chances of catching it. They were the medieval answer to today’s modern surgical masks.
Although the smells obviously didn’t have the effect they hoped for, a lucky additional effect of all this covering meant that they weren’t as exposed to the patient and their excretions, nor the fleas that actually carried the plague. So, in a roundabout way, the plague mask actually was effective in helping prevent contagion.
4. The plague doctor cane
A sinister-looking accessory, the plague doctor cane was actually helpful in keeping them away from contagion. Or at least, as much as is physically possible for someone who has to constantly be in a room with plague victims.
The plague doctor cane was used as an extension of their arm. Used to lift patients’ clothing, examine them, and prodd at the sores on their bodies in a way that was probably more painful than helpful.
In the later 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, they also carved out compartments in them to stuff with herbs and flavored fragrances, much like the plague doctor’s mask. Later, they were even used for storing brandy, providing a stiff drink in grim situations.
3. Plague doctors weren’t super experienced
As people who were regularly exposed to the worst of the plague, ‘plague doctor’ wasn’t a particularly desirable position. Most of the “real” doctors chose not to take up these positions and often fled to the countryside with the other rich people desperately trying to avoid the plague.
In an effort to prevent further spread, towns contracted plague doctors. They were kept in separate lodgings, and forbidden from interacting with the general populace. According to historian Harry Miskimin, it was usually second-rate doctors or young doctors without much experience who applied for the position of the town’s plague doctor, as a result of this.
The most popular and well-known treatment used by plague doctors is bloodletting via the use of leeches. These delightful little creatures latch onto your skin and suck your blood, like tiny, gross vampires.
Back then, people believed the balance of the four “humors” within the body was responsible for its wellbeing. With bloodletting, you were letting out the excess humors and thus restoring balance. Of course, this didn’t actually work.
Plague doctors used other attempted treatments and cures during the Black Death, each as ineffective as the last. In another unnecessary attack on animal welfare, some plague doctors also promoted the “Vicary method.” This involved shaving a chickens’ behind and tying them to a patient so the bird’s bare buttcheeks pressed against the plague buboes.
Others still recommended smearing feces on the pustules, ingesting powdered unicorn horn, or drinking urine or a delicious combination of vinegar, spices, and garlic, referred to as “Four thieves’ vinegar”. Unfortunately, these cures, along with a myriad of other strange recommendations, had about as much effect as clothing in a brothel.
1. A plague doctor’s life was a lonely one
Being contractually obligated to constantly surround yourself with the dead and dying isn’t really conducive to making friends. Given the nature of their work, plague doctors didn’t exactly have thriving social circles. Fear of contagion meant they were usually contracted to not interact with the general population. For years, their only company could be other plague doctors, and the sick and the dying. Not exactly a party.
This also led to many plague doctors abandoning their posts, fearing catching the Black Death themselves. However, some cities put a stop to this. In 1382, Venice issued a notice threatening those fleeing with loss of citizenship. How effective this was is unclear; but it certainly cements the idea that a plague doctor’s life was a solitary one, filled with fear and disease.