Plague Doctor Costume
If you have already read the Black Death story, you will know that the doctors responsible for treating the plague patients wore specially designed suits. There has been much talk about these costumes on the internet and we want to clarify some points:
Why a plague doctor’s costume?
The Black Death pandemic was spreading rapidly in all corners of all European countries. Nothing and no one could stop the Yersinia pestis, and they did not know how it could expand so quickly. One of the most popular theories at the time was the miasma theory, based on the idea that the Black Death was transmitted by air, known as “Bad Air” or “Night Air”, and through physical contact.
The sick people fell in the streets, and no one helped them because of the fear of being infected. It was then that the doctors decided to take action, developing a totally hermetic costume to avoid the contagion and be able to help the sick people. The invention of this costume is attributed to Charles de L’Orme, who, allegedly, was the first to wear this custome in 1619 in Paris, and later his idea spread throughout the rest of Europe.
This hermetic suit prevented the physical contact thanks to gloves and a cane; and filtered the Bad Air thanks to air purifying herbs located near the nose and the mouth.
It was many years later when it was discovered that the Black Death was not transmitted by air or physical contact, but through the bites of fleas and rats (Germ theory of disease). Although the plague doctor’s costume was designed to prevent Bad Air, they actually also managed to avoid flea bites, so this worked well.
How is a plague doctor costume?
The first thing to say is that there is no a “official” plague doctor outfit. Depending on the country and region, doctors could use different types of costumes with different accessories. For example the popular costume in Germany was totally different from the one used in the United Kingdom, or in Spain, Italy or China. However, there are some common elements in all of them:
Starting from head to toe:
The hat was used to cover the head and prevent the contagion. It was important that it was wide-brimmed, because this characteristic indicated the profession of the Plague Doctor. The hats of course were of tanned leather and were tied tightly with leather straps.
The mask is the most characteristic element of a Plague Doctor. It was imperative to avoid breathing the Bad Air and being infected by the Black Death. It was entirely made of leather, except for the eyepieces which were made of glass; although waxed cloth masks were used in some regions due to poor economy.
In the area of the nose, the mask had a triangular cavity similar to the shape of a bird’s beak. The beak was fitted with leather straps, just like the mask itself. This cavity had two small breathing holes, and to filter the air was put in the cavity different aromatic herbs, dried flowers, spices, drugs, vinegar sponge, or anything that filtered the Bad Air and prevented to smell the sick. These aromatic products were also impregnated throughout the costume, the robe and the trousers. Some of the aromatic substances were ambergris, mint leaves, liquidambar orientalis, myrrh, laudanum, rose petals, camphor and clove.
Tunic & Blouse:
The tunic was made of thick waxed-canvas, and should be long, from the neck to the ankle; and without opening in front. Dark colors (mainly black) were used to hide blood stains, vomiting and mud.
Under the tunic, the Plague Doctors wore a thin leather blouse with short sleeves, always tucked in the pants to make it more hermetic.
The gloves, also made of waxed leather, were essential to avoid contact with the sick. They had to be long to place them over the sleeves of the tunic. Before starting a workday, doctors had to make sure that the gloves didn’t have any holes or fissure through which miasmatic Bad Air could enter.
The wooden canes were used to prevent physical contact with patients of the Black Death. Thanks to the cane they could examine the patients without touching them, turning them over, pointing out the affected areas, helping them to undress if necessary, or even using them to check their pulse. The canes were also used to keep people away or prevent closeness to the doctor. Sometimes the sick people rushed to the Plague Doctor to ask for help, so it was necessary to have a good wooden cane to prevent them from touching the doctor. Depending on the country, doctors used smaller or longer canes, but usually always made of wood.
It is known that, unfortunately, in some more religious regions doctors used the cane also to beat patients and that they repented of their sins; Many people of this century believed that the Black Death was a punishment from God and the sick themselves asked to be beaten as part of their repentance.
The canes were adorned at one end with a winged hourglass, which refers to the swift passage of time: Tempus Fugit.
The trousers or leggings were made of thick waxed cloth, like the tunic. It was placed above the blouse and tied to the boots, preventing the entry of Bad Air. The trousers always had a belt where to hook the necessary tools for the plague doctors: Different bags with soothing, disinfectant, healing or aromatic products to apply to the sick.
Plague doctors used high boots, usually made of goat leather or Moroccan leather. The boots were tied to the pants so that the skin was not exposed at any time.
How useful were the plague doctor’s costumes?
The idea of plague doctor costumes is attributed to Charles de L’Orme, inspired by the armor of the soldiers, which protected the entire body, from the head to the feet. He developed a suit that would protect the doctor in the same way, from the head to the feet, against the miasmatic Bad Air.
Plague doctor costumes must protect the doctor’s entire body, avoiding the contact of the skin with the Bad Air to prevent being infected by the Black Death.
The mask also prevented the doctor from smelling the rot and putrefaction of the infected people, thanks to the aromatic products contained in the bird’s beak-shaped cavity of the mask. Often they used these aromatics to spray them all over the plague doctor’s costume.
Years later, in 1880, the Germ Theory was developed, where it showed that the Black Death was not infected by the Bad Air, but through microorganisms pierced by the bite of fleas and rats. From that moment, this costume was no longer recommended, although some plague doctors continued to wear it until the end of the pandemic, for fear that this last theory would not be accurate.