The costume of the Plague Doctor is one of the most notorious symbols of the Black Death, the epidemic which decimated the European population between the Middle Ages and the Modern Age. The origin of the mask dates back to the first epidemic which hit Europe during the 14th century, between 1347 and 1353, and which killed approximately a third of the total population in this continent.
Below: the costume of the Plague Doctor in a representation in 1656
The complete outfit would consist of a long black overcoat in waxed fabric and a beak shaped nose; its usage started to commonly appear around the 1600 in France, after its first appearance in Italy through Rome, Venice and Naples.
Why were doctors dressing this way?
The reason has to be researched through the theories of transmission of the virus according to the miasmatic theory of disease.For this theory, coined by ancient Greek doctors such as Hippocrates and Galen, the diseases would spread for an imbalance between the humors of the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Due to certain miasmas in the air (stools on the streets, stagnant water, production waste etc.) combined with events such as eruptions, astral conjunctions, inhaling of air coming from putrefactive bodies, swampy waters and suchlike, our ancestors used to think that diseases were able to take root in the human body.
Below: end of the 17th century, mask utilised by a plague doctor for visiting the pestiferous plants. Model coming from the lazaret of Venice
The mask of the plague doctor had a long peak where they would insert dry flowers, lavender, thyme, myrrh, amber, camphor, cloves, garlic as well as vinegar-soaked sponges. All these elements combined with each other should have reduced to its minimum the risk of infection for respiration of miasmas for the doctors.
An essay from the 17th century explains how our predecessors were assured of the invulnerability of the doctors:
” their masks have glass lenses,
their beaks are padded with antidotes.
The ill air can neither cause harm to them,
nor alarm them”
Below: representation of the bubonic plague which stroke Tournai in the chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis (1272-1352), abbot in the Benedictine monastery of St Martin. Royal Library of Belgium
Who was the Plague Doctor?
The plague doctors were public employees hired by villages and cities when a pestilence would strike a population. Their tasks were mainly two: placating the pain of the victims and filling out a public register where the last will of the moribund people would be gathered. During the acute stage of the epidemics they were the only individuals allowed to freely roam the city, where it usually had a curfew with death penalty for those non respecting it. Above all that, these mysterious men would deal with funeral registers too, in order to keep track of all the deaths occurred in each area.
“they would raise the clothes of the ill people with their cane and operate their buboes with long scalpels such as poles” (Alvise Zen)
Below: plague doctor from the Treaty Jean-Jacques Manget, “Traité de la peste”, 1721
Apart from these practical tasks, the doctors were also the ones who were transmitting the historical memory of the events, reminding to the city what had happened during the epidemics. An example of this is Alvise Zen, plague doctor of the epidemic of 1630 in Venice. In a letter to Monsieur d’Audreville he wrote:
“Most Excellent monsieur d’Audreville, I will report those terrible days only because without memory there is no history and, as bitter as it may be, the truth is common heritage”.
Below: “the Triumph of Death”, Palazzo Sclafani, regional gallery of Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo (1446), detached fresco
Alvise Zen was referring to the pestilence of 1630-31 and the edification of the big Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, in Punta della Dogana. There they celebrated the end of the plague that in 17 months had shattered 40% of the Venetian population, with a total of deaths counting 80,000 people.
The plague doctors operated in the different European areas between half the 14th century to the end of the 18th one. Thanks to their work they allowed us today to understand the modality of transmission of the infection, the number of victims that the different waves of the Black Death caused, and the modified social rules of those terrible periods. Alvise Zen, in this regard said:
“there is not anymore who used to bury the corpses. Through the canals there were boats from which you could hear screams going “who has corpses throws them down the boats”. On the streets the grass would grow. No one was walking there anymore”.
Below: the sentence given to the guilty parties of poisoning, occurred in Milan in 1630
Another phenomenon happening was the apparition of skeptics amongst the people. The doctor defined those in these terms:
“Illustrious doctors from Padua University, summoned for a consultation, would get to the point of even rejecting the existence of the illness. Healers and swindlers were creating useless antidotes; priests and friars were blaming the divine wrath as the true cause of that horror fallen onto Venice”.
Plague doctors but beside that chroniclers of a long period during which the spread of a disease could easily destroy a small village and reduce the populations of big cities to a great extent.