When I was searching for the outfit for this month’s Historical Costume post, I knew that only one outfit would do during these times. That of the the Plague doctor with his beaked mask and long gown. The Plague Doctor is an image that has lasted through the centuries. You can still see him partying during Carnivale di Venezia (Carnival of Venice).
The Plague first struck in the fourteenth century and roared a deadly path through the nineteenth century in some place in the world. Yet, this image of the Plague Doctor dates to the 17th Century. Modern eyes might look upon this outfit as a ridiculous garment. But it all about functionality.
This garment was a historical doctor’s PPE or haz-met suit. Each item served to protect the doctor from contracting the plague as he cared for a town’s plague victims. The costume’s invention was credited to Charles de Lornewho treated King Louis XIII of France.
Now, the design was not fanciful as crazy as it may seem but practical in every way even modeled on a soldier’s armor.
Let’s dissect the costume.
The first item that catches your eye is the beaked mask. Before the discovery of germs, it was believed that sickness was based on a miasma. If it smelled bad then it would get you sick. This belief dates back to the Greeks. In some way, that belief is true. That is why people carried nosegays (a historical face mask). The doctor though need his hands free so the that’s where the mask comes in. He would stuff the beak with pungent or sweet smelling herbs to protect against the miasma. But why that shape? It was believed the shape would give the doctor time to be protected by herbs. I don’t know how exactly. But if you have donned a face masked during the coronavirus pandemic then you know how uncomfortable it is to breathe in that thing so just imagine with smoke swirling about your face.
To protect his eyes, the plague doctor would don round spectacles like goggles over the mask. They resembled thick bifocals. I wonder if the doc’s vision was distorted in some way. It was certainly limited I imagine.
The next item of clothing is the actual garment. The doctor would slip on a long waxed leather or waxed canvas gown, leggings that were waxed, gloves, hat, and for a little flair shoes with bows. All these items were waxed so blood and other bodily fluids didn’t soak into the fabric.
If you look at the drawing, the doctor has a stick with a hourglass resting on wings which told people that he was the doctor and here to help.
So, how many doctors truly wore this? Various museums do have numerous beaks in their collections so it might have been worn by many and not just a few. Yet, that doesn’t mean that doctors treated patients. People as they do now fled the area. Thankfully, not our doctors and nurses.
I do have to say that if a person was feverish and dying seeing this beaked figure hovering over your prone figure must have been terrifying especially in a dim room, smoky from the fire that hung thick in a cramped room. In those religious times, it must have been as if the devil himself had come.
But it was treatment and I doubt many people went to doctors when ill. Most remedies came from housewives and other women who were skill in care.
But care was put in place. In Italy and I believe elsewhere, cities and towns had to hire a doctor to care for plague patients. As part of their contract the doctors had to wear this outfit to treat the sick.
The task of caring for the sick and dying was not easy (as it is not even today). During the plague a doctor had to serve a long quarantine after seeing a plague patient. And those that served were volunteers, second-rate doctors or young doctors new at their careers.
Much has changed in the medical field. But the medical community stands up and does their jobs from the doctors and nurses to the janitors who clean the rooms.
Stay safe and healthy.