Wellcome Library, c.1910. “This watercolor painting depicts the costume worn by physicians attending plague patients in the 17th century. The costume was described by Jean Jacques Manget (1652-1742) in his Traité de la peste (Treatise on the plague), published in Geneva in 1721. The costume’s gown was made of morocco leather, underneath which was worn a skirt, breeches, and boots, all of leather and fitting into one another. The long beak-like nose piece was fitted with aromatic substances and the eyeholes were covered with glass. The plague is an infectious disease, caused by bacteria, which ravaged large parts of Europe in the 14th and the 17th centuries.”
Medico della peste, Italian for plague doctor, was a title was given to certain European medical doctors during the late 16th and early 17th centuries who specialized in the treatment of victims of bubonic plague and who, in an effort to prevent themselves from becoming infected, wore an elaborate mask and adhered to a preventative code of dress and behavior. The idea was brought about by the French physician Charles de Lorme, personal physician to the French King, Louis XIII, and spread to other parts of Europe, particularly Italy.
Charles de Lorme describes the mask as follows:
“The nose half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and to carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the drugs enclosed further along in the beak. Under the coat we wear boots made in Moroccan leather from the front of the breaches in smooth skin that are attached to said boots and a short-sleeved blouse in smooth skin, the bottom of which is tucked into the breaches. The hat and gloves are also made of the same skin… with spectacles over the eyes.”
Under the premises of miasma theory, it was long believed that bubonic plague and many other diseases were spread through exposure to “bad air”, and that therefore an individual could protect themselves by keeping sweet-smelling things such as flowers close to the nose. In keeping with this believe, the medico della peste mask provided the wearer with a constant stream of pleasant smells (if no actual protection).
The plague mask has since become one of the popular motifs associated with the Carnival of Venice.
went to Ren Fest today with Kelsey, Leland, Laura, and Porsche. this was my favorite part. people watching was super awesome. everyone there was really nice. maybe i’ll post about one day… but i need to go to bed!
Most plague doctors were not normally professionally trained experienced physicians or surgeons, and often were second-rate doctors not able to otherwise run a successful medical business or young physicians trying to establish themselves
Some plague doctors wore a special costume, although graphic sources show that plague doctors wore a variety of garments. The garments were invented by Charles de L'Orme in 1619; they were first used in Paris, but later spread to be used throughout Europe. The protective suit consisted of a heavy fabric overcoat that was waxed, a mask with glass eye openings and a cone nose shaped like a beak to hold scented substances and straw
The masks were designed to protect them from putrid air, which (according to the miasmatic theory of disease) was seen as the cause of infection. Being a plague doctor was unpleasant, dangerous and difficult. Their chances of survival in times of a plague epidemic were low.
Some of the scented materials were ambergris, balm-mint leaves, camphor, cloves, laudanum, myrrh, rose petals, storax. This was thought to protect the doctor from miasmatic bad air. The straw provided a filter for the “bad air”. A wooden cane pointer was used to help examine the patient without having to touch them, it was also used as a means of repenting sins, many believed that the plague was a punishment and would asked to be whipped to repent their sins