This week is plague week at Retrospectacle, and every day I will be posting something about the Black Plague.
Now that you’ve read my introduction to the Black Plague replete with its cause (both real and imagined), I wanted to write a bit about what ‘Plague doctors’ in 16th century Europe wore in an attempt to stave off being infected themselves. While perhaps having some small effect to prevent infection, the odd costumes surely had a large effect on scaring their patients. However, the intention of the extreme costume was to prevent the doctor from coming into contact with ‘miasmas’ (bad air).
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These costumes (pictured above) consisted of a huge beaked hat made of bronze, a hollow walking stick, pants and a gown coated in wax, and leather gloves. Since the cause of the Plague was still believed to be ‘bad air,’ the hat’s “beak” was stuffed with aromatic herbs and spices which were thought to purify the air the doctor breathed. Aromatic air was thought to be antiseptic air, and the scent covered the malodor of rot and death. The hat also offered eye protection in the form of crystal eye-pieces. The doctor would sometimes place garlic in the beak and directly in his mouth.
The hollow, perforated pointing stick could also be stuffed with herbs and was waved in front of the doctor to “purify” his path. The stick also had the bonus use of pushing Plague-infected people away from the doctor if they got too close, or directing some course of action without having to do it themselves. The stick could be used to examine an infected patient without actually touching them.
The doctor’s clothes, and undergarments, were usually treated with either wax or soaked in camphor oil or other preservative liquids. This was thought to create a makeshift seal against the ‘bad air’ or further purify it.
There is reason to think that this ridiculous get-up actually *did* provide some small level of protection to the Plague doctors, but not for the reasons that they would have thought (ie, it wasn’t miasmas). First, protecting the eyes, nose and mouth was a good idea since Y. pestis can easily enter through any mucous membrane. In addition, the wax-coated clothes might have prevented fleas from burrowing towards and biting the doctor.
Dr. Kenneth Gage, a bubonic plague specialist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this costume “probably gave reasonable protection” against the bubonic plague. Because the nose, mouth, mucous membranes, as well as hands and body were covered, the doctor limited his chances of exposure to airborne droplets containing the plague bacillus. Because herbs obstructed the breathing holes, and the beak was difficult to breath through, the doctor lessened his chances of inhaling infectious droplets. Dr. Gage adds that because the plague bacillus could only survive for a short time outside of a host, there is a good chance the doctor would not become infected as he removed his costume. Though it gave reasonable protection against airborne particles, this protective shield did not keep out fleas. Because the outer cloak did not seal around the ankles, Dr Gage points out that the area most vulnerable to flea bites was exposed.
Here were some common prescriptions for the Black Plague, as administered by these doctors, along with an assessment of their effectiveness. (from The Stuarts)
Does reading this give you an idea for a costume, or are you envious of the fashionable Plague mask? Then check out this purveyor of weird haberdashery if you would like a Plague mask of your own.