Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

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.

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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)

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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.

Comments

  1. #1 Anon
    January 8, 2008

    So, were the scenes in “Restoration” roughly accurate? I remember Robert Downey Jr. wearing such a mask, and thinking it would be the best Halloween costume ever.

  2. #2 J-Dog
    January 8, 2008

    I think I recall seeing the same outfit recommended by the Discovery Institute to counteract evolution. Of course their outfit is updated for modern times, and includes a pointed hat, not a flat hat.

  3. #3 Boosterz
    January 8, 2008

    Am I the only person that looked at that first picture and thought it was a Death Eater? Wand is a little big though…

  4. #4 Pierce R. Butler
    January 8, 2008

    So what purpose was served by those long fingernails and tiny shoes?

  5. #5 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    January 8, 2008
  6. #6 katherine sharpe
    January 8, 2008

    Wow! I had no idea there was such a thing as plaguewear. Fascinating. Where’d you find out about all this?

    It makes me want to imagine a middle-ages version of ‘Scrubs.’ They could call it ‘Beaks’ and it would be creepy (not to mention the dialogue would be hard to hear).

  7. #7 Marc Pengryffyn
    January 8, 2008

    Actually, what this makes me think of is some of Hieronymus Bosch’s bird-faced figures. Now, if only I could find the inspiration for the weird tree-people and animated musical intruments….

  8. #8 McLir
    January 8, 2008

    I’ve been a fan of Retrospectacle for several months. But you are really out-doing yourself with this Black Death series. Great work!

    As for the masks, the link to the one on sale reminded me immediately of Spy vs. Spy. (I don’t recall if the cartoon used any plague-related sight-gags, though.)

  9. #9 Shelley Batts
    January 8, 2008

    So, were the scenes in “Restoration” roughly accurate?

    I haven’t seen that movie in a while and couldn’t find a picture of the exact costume, but from what I can remember of what Downey Jr. wore, its pretty accurate. Except maybe I think there were no crystals in the beaked hat.

    J-Dog, Katherine: LOL

    Boosterz: It actually reminded me of the hats worn in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ during that weird orgy scene…

    Where’d you find out about all this?

    I had a book when I was a kid, it was about the plague and had loads of amazing artwork rendering the Black Plague as a skeletal person, being warded off by these beaked doctors. That always stuck in my mind, and when I was writing about the plague this week I thought I’d dig around into Teh Net to see if that weird costume served any purpose. In addition to the two links I included above in my post, the wiki article on the Plague provided some interesting reading.

    McLir: Thank you for reading! ^_^

  10. #10 Chris
    January 8, 2008

    Fun fact, Mad Magazine’s world famous Spy Vs. Spy characters were based on the plague doctor’s get-ups:

  11. #11 Ktesibios
    January 8, 2008

    The wood engraving of a doctor in his plague costume was familiar- it was reproduced in Haggard’s Devils, Drugs and Doctors, which I read as a kid, but I’d never seen a photo of one before. Is that a surviving specimen or a modern recreation?

    Either way, the picture is a nice find.

  12. #12 Thomash
    January 8, 2008

    This is a great mask, a PhD student in our lab (yes we work on the plague) gave this to her dissertation advisor as a going away gift. He thought it was fantastic and uses it as a wall decoration.
    Our former chair has tried to encourage him to get the entire garb.

    We shall see……

  13. #13 Bryce M.
    January 8, 2008

    ^^ Katherine, there actually was a middle ages Scrubs flashback, although not about the plague.

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=yGNws4RA_KA

  14. #14 Luke Warm
    January 9, 2008

    Ahh! The origin of the pecker-head, eh.

  15. #15 Beatific Audio
    January 9, 2008

    Oh man, I’ve been a “fan” of Schnabel Von Rom for a couple of years! I even made up a christmas version of him called “Der Schnabel Klaus”.

  16. #16 jen_m
    January 11, 2008

    I had a teenaged trick-or-treater on Hallowe’en dressed in plague garb. He was very surprised I could identify his costume. (Epidemiology. No, it’s not about skin, but it apparently impresses teenagers.)

  17. #17 Katrina
    January 11, 2008

    We are living in Italy right now, where you can find these masks everywhere, especially closer to Carnevale time.

  18. #18 Beau
    January 16, 2008

    Here’s a photo I took in Tallinn, Estonia of a plague outfit. Scary looking in person!
    http://flickr.com/photos/beauwoods/442163275/in/set-72157600157639518/

  19. #19 Shelley Batts
    January 16, 2008

    Awesome picture, Beau. Scary in pictures too, but I guess that’s the point. :)

  20. #20 Helen
    January 17, 2008

    Slightly off-topic but at the mo there is a play called the Masque of the Red Death on in London where audience-members have to dress up in plague-wear and walk around Battersea Arts Centre experiencing the world of Edgar Allan Poe, haven’t been myself but my parents raved about it even though they were a little dubious about the dressing up bit to start with! http://www.curtainup.com/masqueofthereddeathlond.html

  21. #21 g510
    January 17, 2008

    .
    Of course smoking a pipe of tobacco is useless against plague, since smoke rises and fleas generally hop onto humans from the ground.

    However, pipe smokers frequently note that the smoke keeps mosquitos away, from which we can reasonably infer that smoke from burning aromatic herbs in general may do likewise. The commercial “citronella candles” are useless in this respect since they don’t produce much smoke or disperse enough scent. A decent smoky bonfire may be useful depending on wind direction. Smoke shouldn’t be counted on as a primary inset repellent, but could be considered an added method for keeping flying pests at a distance.

    And we shoud do well to note that tobacco and other herbs were of value in times past precisely because their smells masked the stink of unwashed humans. Consider also the “pomade,” a sliced orange held to the nose in polite company. You could certainly be more polite to the company when you smelled orange rather than the company, whose last baths may have been weeks ago if not _months_ ago!

    Before condemning such things as atavisms, take a peek down the supermarket aisle for deodorants and antiperspirants. The more things change…

  22. #22 prom77
    January 21, 2008

    It may interest you to know there is a plague doctor character in a wonderful comic book series, Castle Waiting, by Linda Medley.

  23. #23 hyyska33
    October 22, 2009

    Some people perhaps want to know what the poem in the picture of Dr Schnabel says. In Google Image search I found a larger and clearer version of the picture where text is quite readable.

    The poem is in mixed Latin and German. In the larger picture there is also a text in German describing the clothing of the Doctor.

    The poem goes like this (there must be some errors, because some of the letters even in the larger picture look fuzzy, and I don’t read German too good. Please correct if you find the original picture with the text.):

    Vos Creditis, als eine fabel,
    quod scribitur vom doctor Schnabel,
    der fugit die Contagion,
    et ausert seinen Lohn darvon,
    Cadavera sucht er zu fristen,
    gleisch wie der Corvus auf der Misten,
    Ah credite, zihet nicht dort hin,
    dann Romae regnat die Pestin,

    Quis non deberet sehr erschrecken
    fur seiner Virgul oder stecken,
    qud loquitur, als war er stumm,
    und deutet sein consilium,
    Wie mancher Credit ohne zweifel,
    das ihn tentir ein schwartzen Teufl,
    Marsupium heist seine Höll,
    und aurum die geholtz seel,

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