The costume of death: Clothing Worn by Plague Doctors

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The Black Death

Here’s a fun fact: The Black Death, also known as the Great Plague is one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. It peaked in Europe from 1347 to 1351 and have killed 30–60% of its total population (a total estimate of 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia).

 

The Black Death is thought to have originated in Central Asia and it was most likely carried by Oriental rat fleas, living on the black rats along the Silk Road into Europe via merchant ships.

The Oriental rat fleas are believed to be the primary transmitter of Yersinia pestis, the organism responsible for the most plague epidemics. However, the recent research supports a theory that the epidemic might have also been air-spread, transmitted human to human, rather than by rat fleas.

The Quack Doctors

Plague doctors were medical physicians who were hired by towns to treat both the rich and the poor victims of the Plague. Even though cities were paying the doctors’ salaries, they’d still sometimes charge patients additional fees for special treatments and/or false cures.

The best part? Those doctors weren’t even experienced or professionally trained. Often they were second-rate, unsuccessful practitioners or just young blood seeking to lay the foundation for themselves. There was even a case where a plague doctor had been a fruit salesman before his becoming a physician. (I guess human physiology ain’t shit compared to selling cucumbers.)

It shouldn’t be a surprise to you that the quack doctors rarely cured their patients. They better served as record keepers, tracking the number of people contaminated by the pandemic for the demographic purposes.

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The Bird-like Costume

The invention of the plague doctor costumes has been attributed to Charles de Lorme, French medical doctor who practised in several regions across Europe in the 17th century. He first used the costume in Naples in 1620 which later spread throughout Europe.

The full head-to-toe protective garment, modelled after a soldier’s armour,  consisted of a neck-to-ankle length leather or waxed-canvas gown, a bird-like mask with spectacles, often filled with sweet or strong smelling substances, along with gloves, boots, a wide-brimmed hat, and an outer over-clothing garment.

The mask had two small nose holes and was a type of respirator which contained aromatic items, such as dried flowers, herbs, spices, camphor, or a vinegar sponge. Due to the primitive understanding of disease at the time, it was believed this mask would sufficiently protect the doctor from the plague, which was thought to be caused by the “bad air“.

Plague Doctors wore a wide-brimmed leather hat to indicate the profession. And the wooden canes were used in order to point out areas needing attention and to examine patients without touching them. The canes were also used to keep people away, to remove clothing from plague victims without having to touch them and to take a patient’s pulse.

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The Messengers of Death

The costume essentially terrified people because if one saw it, they knew it was a sign of an imminent death.

 

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