Plague Doctor mask: myth or reality?

Few episodes have marked history and the collective imagination as much as the terrible Black Death that ravaged Europe between 1346 and 1353, eradicating between a quarter and half of its population. With this era of pestilence, we associate the image of bodies covered with buboes littering the streets, doors closed because of charnel fumes being burned, and processions of flagellants mixing their prayers with the sounds of lamentations. And, of course, the image of the famous beak mask on the face of plague doctors. Wrongly so.

Why wearing a beak-shaped mask?

plague doctor mask

The first mention of the bird's beak mask did not come until two and a half centuries after the Black Death, during the second, longer, and more sporadic pandemic wave. Charles Delorme, the extravagant first physician of Louis XIII, is credited with describing a protective suit in 1619. This suit consisted of a shirt, breeches, boots, and gloves made of goat leather, ingeniously put on so as not to leave any opening to the outside air. A long coat, also made of leather or waxed linen, covers the whole while the face is equipped with bezels and a false nose in the shape of a beak.

get your plague doctor mask

Why the addition of this singular appendage? The miasma theory, in vogue at the time, suggested that certain "bad" airs carried diseases, and that germs -- the existence of which was unknown at the time -- were not transmitted through contact between two individuals but through the inhalation of these noxious vapors, present in certain contaminated places. Therefore, for the mask wearer, it is vital to protect himself against these gases by purifying the air that reaches his nostrils. To do this, he chooses a "bouquet garni" of vinegar or aromatic herbs such as myrrh, thyme, camphor, or cloves, which he soaks in two small pieces of sponge placed between the openings at the front of the nozzle and his nose.

Did all Plague Doctors wear masks?

old drawing of a plague doctor

Not so sure.
This is what the theory suggests. However, historical sources attesting to the use of this type of mask are rare and ambiguous. The oldest mask ever found comes from a Venetian lazaretto and dates from the turn of the 18th century, nearly two hundred years after the first description by Delorme. The first known illustration dates back to 1656, but it accompanies a particularly acerbic Italian satirical poem, and must therefore be interpreted with caution. Other caricatures of Roman or Marseilles doctors circulated during the 18th century, depicting them wearing masks and carrying in their hands a stick dedicated to feeling the pulse of patients while standing at a healthy distance.

In 1661, the Danish physician Thomas Bartholin published a description of a Roman physician, which he accompanied with an illustration that seemed to corroborate the legend. Unfortunately, a quick glance at the picture shows that it is a copy of the caricature that accompanied the Italian pamphlet. As for the two masks discovered in Germany, Marion Maria Ruisinger from the Ingolstadt Museum, offers a fascinating insight into them, suggesting that there is little evidence to support the idea that they were used for medical purposes.

Plague doctor masks: the truth

mask of plague doctor

In the end, the historical sources -- or rather the absence of historical sources pointing to clear and widespread use of plague doctors' masks -- seem to indicate that they were more of a satirical and symbolic object than a real accessory in the doctor's panoply of the time. Numerous experiments certainly took place during the centuries while the pandemic lasted. Nevertheless, none of them seems to have given birth to a mask of this shape that would have been widely used. We probably have the commedia dell'arte, the carnival of Venice, and the few pamphlets massively diffused at the time to thank for the elevation to the rank of legend, the one called the plague doctor.

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