During the centuries that the bubonic plague threatened the human population, a perplexed and desperate medical community believed the horrifying disease sweeping through Asia and Europe could be caught through the air, and they were partly right (it was also caught through the bites of infected fleas, who transferred the infection from rodents.) How it spread through the air was a mystery to them, though. Germ theory wouldn’t be accepted until 1880. Some physicians theorized a sick person could make someone else sick just by looking at them, and speculated that the illness traveled in a “miasma,” a mysterious gas of poisoned vapors. We now know we can get sick from airborne pathogens, but the ancient miasma theory posited that “diseased air” would travel great distances and hang in the air over decomposing matter. Some believed miasmas were magical, casting a spell over the atmosphere.
By the 17th century, Plague Doctors developed a special outfit to address this concern. These scary bird masks didn’t spring from the mind of a visionary horror writer; they were a grim reality. While you were holing up in your house hoping your family wouldn’t succumb to the mysterious malady sweeping the Earth, you might glance outside and see one or two of the specters walking around your neighborhood for a house call. Their spooky appearance served a purpose: it was partly a warning to get out of town, which was one of the only ways to truly avoid the plague.
There is a small amount of medieval art that suggests the plague doctors’ bird masks date back to the initial sweep of the plague in Europe (the mid-1300s,) but the full costume is attributed to 17th French doctor Charles de Lorme. They wore long-brimmed hats, long dark robes, leather gloves, and special pants that gave extra protection to the groin area. Almost all of their attire was covered in a coat of protective wax. They usually carried a stick, which they mostly used to poke the dead. Because treatment methods didn’t work for the plague, or Black Death, a major part of the doctors’ job was to count the sick and the dead and help provide funeral arrangements. Of course, the most striking part of the costume were the birdlike masks, which featured glass eyeholes (mostly to protect against miasma) and a long curved and pointed beak filled with flowers, herbs, and other strong, pleasant smells.
These perfumes weren’t only nasal aesthetics; they were thought to counteract what the believed to be the infectious smell of the miasma. Ironically, because the idea of hygiene wasn’t understood and they wouldn’t wash themselves after touching and dealing with the sick and the dead and moving on to another house, these elaborate beaked costumes may have aided in spreading the disease.
To make matters worst, the best doctors usually fled highly populated areas because they knew how little they knew about how to treat and prevent the disease. Because the best doctors often fled, the ones donning these costumes here usually not the most skilled or qualified doctors around.
The plague (which we now know to be a bacterial infection of Yersinia pestis) was horrifying effective. It has a 50% survival rate and successfully knocked out 150 million of the world’s population. And it still exists. In the United States there are a few dozen cases a year (usually in the Southern states where is spreads via rodents,) but the disease is now treatable with antibiotics. When a case arises, there is protocol to track down and destroy the rodents responsible for spreading the illness.
The Plague Doctor’s haunting costume still abides as a creepy symbol of death and the unknown. We’ve long indulged in masked thrills, but often these types of costumes are linked to celebration, tradition, and religious symbolism. In a way, the plague doctor costume isn’t much different than many other spooky and strange cultural traditions. The doctors at the time understood little about what they were dealing with, and the function of the curved peak turns out to be a function of superstition and fear. Although modern medicine has quelled our fears of this menace, we are still susceptible to infectious diseases that move faster than we can outwit them. Just last year the whole world cowered at the threat of a major Ebola outbreak. It was mostly just a paranoias for those of us in the United States and other developed nations, but it devastated several African countries. Like the Black Plague, and other iterations of Yersinia pestis, erroneous superstitions made the fight even more difficult.
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