In the Middle Ages, the bubonic plague was the cause of numerous deaths in Europe. It was an epidemic that spread easily, often infecting entire towns and villages, and for which at the time there was no proven remedy.
When a town had many plague victims, they would call a plague doctor, or medico della peste to help look after plague victims, and to record the deaths of plague victims in public records. Some plague doctors also had to perform autopsies on those who succumbed to the bubonic plague.
These plague doctors were also known as ‘empirics’, and often had no formal medical training. Because being a plague doctor was both unpleasant (constantly being surrounded by death) and risky (the plague was relatively easy to contract, and chances of survival were slim), finding qualified physicians to perform this job was difficult, so unskilled “doctors” would come forward to fulfill this role. As an example of the risk involved in being a plague doctor, it is recorded that of eighteen plague doctors in Venice, only one was left by 1348, in the midst of the destruction of the plague.
Because of the risk of contracting the plague, these doctors had to shield themselves in every possible way from infection. At the time, it was unclear what exactly caused the plague, but it was thought to be miasmatic—that is, contracted through noxious or bad air.
In order to guard themselves from this polluted air, plague doctors would wear a uniform of sorts, which included a beaked mask. This mask had glass eye openings, two small slits under the nostrils, and a long, cone-shaped beak that sat in front of the plague doctor’s nose. This beak would be filled with aromatics including amber, myrrh, dried rose and carnation petals, spices, herbs, straw, and sometimes even a sponge soaked in vinegar. The idea was that when the plague doctor inhaled, he would only inhale pleasant, clean air that was not noxious, and therefore unlikely to infect him with the plague. This theory was later disproven.
Along with this beaked mask, plague doctors wore a costume that consisted of a wide-brimmed hat, a waxed robe, and a wooden cane pointer.
Today, the plague doctor mask’s interesting silhouette makes it a unique accessory to wear to a costume party. What we love about it is that it’s a conversation piece too.