Plague doctor costume

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A 1656 engraving of Dr. Schnabel ("Beak") of Rome. He is wearing protective clothing which plague doctors in Rome usually wore at the time.[1]
Johann Melchior Füssli's engraving of a plague doctor of Marseille. His nose-case is filled with smoking material to keep off the plague. This engraving was made c. 1721.[2]

The plague doctor's costume was the clothes worn by a plague doctor to protect him from diseases spread through the air. The costume was made up of a coat which went down to the ankles and a mask. The mask looked like a bird's beak. The beak was often filled with things which smelled sweet or strong (often lavender). Along with this, gloves, boots, a hat and something else to go over the jacket was worn.[3]

Description[change | change source]

The beak was held in front of the doctor's nose by straps.[4] There were holes in the mask, filled with glass, so that the doctor could see. The mask had two small holes for the doctor to breathe. It was a type of respirator which was often filled with nice-smelling things.[5] Dried flowers (such as roses and carnations), herbs (such as mint), spices, camphor or a vinegar sponge could all be placed in the beak.[6][7] The mask was supposed to keep away bad smells. At that time, it was thought that bad smells caused infection.[3][4] Doctors believed the herbs would take away the "evil" smells of the plague and stop them from getting it.[4]

The costume had a wide brimmed leather hood to show that they were doctors.[3][8] They used wooden canes to point out areas needing medical attention. This was also used to look at patients without touching them.[9] The canes were also used to keep people away,[10] to take clothes off plague victims without having to touch them and to take a patient's pulse.[3][11]

Wearing these clothes actually helped make sure that the doctors were not infected by fleas or rats. Fleas could not bite through the leather jacket and infected people could not touch the doctor, which was also because of his leather jacket.

History[change | change source]

Some modern writers have said that fourteenth-century plague doctors wore masks which looked like birds.[12][13][14] However, medical historians say that the plague doctor costume was invented by Charles de Lorme. In 1619 he used the idea of full head-to-toe protective clothing.[15] It was modelled after a soldier's armour.[16] This was made up of a bird-like mask and a long leather (Moroccan or Levantine)[16] or waxed-canvas gown. The gown went from the neck to the ankles.[15][17][18] The clothing which went on top of the gown, as well as leggings, gloves, boots and a hat, were made of waxed leather.[19] The garment was impregnated with similar fragrant items as the beak mask.[20]

This poem was written in the seventeenth century. It describes the plague doctor's costume.[1][21]

As may be seen on picture here,
In Rome the doctors do appear,
When to their patients they are called,
In places by the plague appalled,
Their hats and cloaks, of fashion new,
Are made of oilcloth, dark of hue,
Their caps with glasses are designed,
Their bills with antidotes all lined,
That foulsome air may do no harm,
Nor cause the doctor man alarm,
The staff in hand must serve to show
Their noble trade where'er they go.[22]

Jean-Jacques Manget, in his 1721 book Treatise on the Plague, written just after the Great Plague of Marseille, talks about the costumes that plague doctors wore at Nijmegen in 1636-1637. A picture of the costume is at the front of the book.[23] The plague doctors of Nijmegen also wore beaked masks. Their robes, leggings, hats, and gloves were made of morocco leather.[24]

This costume was also worn by plague doctors during the Plague of 1656. This plague killed 145,000 people in Rome and 300,000 in Naples.[25] The costume made people very scared because it was a sign that they would die soon.

Culture[change | change source]

The costume was worn by a commedia dell'arte character called Il Medico della Peste (the Plague Doctor). He wears a special plague doctor's mask.[26] The Venetian mask was normally white. It was made up of a beak and round eye-holes. The eye-holes were covered with clear glass. It is one of the most unique masks worn during the Carnival of Venice.[27]

Notes[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 THE PLAGUE DOCTOR
  2. Füssli’s image is reproduced and discussed in Robert Fletcher, A tragedy of the Great Plague of Milan in 1630 (Baltimore: The Lord Baltimore Press, 1898), p. 16–17.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Pommerville (Body Systems), p. 15
    • Bauer, p. 145
    • Abrams, p. 257
    • Byfield, p. 26
    • Glaser, pp. 33-34
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Ellis, p. 202
  5. Time-Life Books, pp. 140, 158
    • Dolan, p. 139
    • Ellis, p. 202
    • Paton
    • Martin, p. 121
    • Sherman, p. 162
    • Turner, p. 180
    • Mentzel, p. 86
    • Glaser, p. 34
    • Hall, p. 67
    • Infectious Diseases Society of America, Volume 11, p. 819
    • Grolier, p. 700
  6. O'Donnell, p. 135
  7. Stuart, p. 15
  8. Center for Advanced Study in Theatre Arts, p. 83
  9. Doktor Schnabel von Rom, engraving by Paul Fürst (after J Columbina), Rome 1656.
  10. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. American Medical Association. 1900. p. 639.
  11. Pommerville, p. 9
  12. Geographical: the monthly magazine of the Royal Geographical Society, Volume 63, April 1991, p. 19, Plague doctors of the 14th century wore distinctive bird-like masks and were known as beak doctors.
  13. Pommerville (Body Systems), p. 15
    • Ellis, p.202
    • Byrne (Encyclopedia), p. 505
    • Sandler, p. 42
    • Paton
    • Ulrich's Periodicals Directory, or email magazine at, Content Type : Academic / Scholarly
  14. Time-Life Books, p. 158 Beak Doctor: during the Black Plague, a medical man who wore a bird mask to protect himself against infection. Black plague definition: In 14th-century Europe, the victims of the "black plague" had bleeding below the skin (subcutaneous hemorrhage) which made darkened ("blackened") their bodies. Black plague can lead to "black death" characterized by gangrene of the fingers, toes, and nose. Black plague is caused by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) which is transmitted to humans from infected rats by the oriental rat flea..
  15. 15.0 15.1 Boeckl, p. 15
  16. 16.0 16.1 Carmichael, p. 57
  17. Carmichael, A.G. (2009), "Plague, Historical", in Schaechter, Moselio (ed.), Encyclopedia of Microbiology (3rd ed.), Elsevier, pp. 58–72, doi:10.1016/B978-012373944-5.00311-4
  18. Iqbal Akhtar Khan (May 2004). "Plague: the dreadful visitation occupying the human mind for centuries". Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 98 (5): 270–277. doi:10.1016/S0035-9203(03)00059-2. Charles Delorme (1584—1678), personal physician to King Louis XIII, was credited with introducing special protective clothing for plague doctors during the epidemic in Marseilles. It consisted of a beak-like mask supplied with aromatic substance, presumed to act as filter against the odour emanating from the patients, and a loose gown covering the normal clothing. On occasions, a drifting fragrance such as camphor was used.
  19. Pommerville (Body Systems), p. 15
    • Hirts, p. 66
    • Reynolds, p. 23
  20. Kenda, p. 154
  21. G. L. Townsend, "The Plague Doctor", J Hist Med Allied Sci, 20 (1965), 276. (The image is on p. 277).
  22. Nohl, pp. 94, 95
    • Sandler, p. 42
    • Goodnow, p. 132
    • Walker, p. 96
  23. Manget, p. 3
  24. Timbs, p. 360
  25. The Plague Doctor
  26. Killinger, p. 95
  27. Carnevale

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Other websites[change | change source]

Media related to Plague doctors at Wikimedia Commons