The plague doctor’s costume was the clothing worn by a plague doctor to protect him from airborne diseases. The costume consisted of an ankle length overcoat and a bird-like beak mask often filled with sweet or strong smelling substances (commonly lavender), along with gloves, boots, a brim hat and an outer over-clothing garment.
Fourteenth century plague doctors who wore a bird-like mask were referred to as “beak doctors”. Straps held the beak in front of the doctor’s nose. The mask had glass openings for the eyes and a curved beak was shaped like a bird’s. The mask had two small nose holes and was a type of respirator. The mask they wore had a protruded beak which contained aromatic items.
The beak could hold dried flowers (including roses and carnations), herbs (including mint), spices, camphor or a vinegar sponge. The purpose of the mask was to keep away bad smells, which were thought to be the principal cause of the disease in the miasma theory of infection, before it was disproven by germ theory. Doctors believed the herbs would counter the “evil” smells of the plague and prevent them from becoming infected.
The beak doctor costume worn by the plague doctors had a wide brimmed leather hood to indicate their profession. They used wooden canes to point out areas needing attention and to examine the 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.
Charles de Lorme adopted in 1619 the idea of a full head-to-toe protective garment, modeled after a soldier’s armour. This consisted of not only the bird-like mask, but of a long leather (Moroccan or Levantine) or waxed-canvas gown which was from the neck to the ankle. The over-clothing garment, as well as leggings, gloves, boots, and a hat, were made of waxed leather. The garment was impregnated with similar fragrant items as the beak mask.
This popular seventeenth century poem describes the plague doctor’s costume.
As may be seen on picture here,
In Rome the doctors do appear,
When to their patients they are called,
In places by the plague appalled,
Their hats and cloaks, of fashion new,
Are made of oilcloth, dark of hue,
Their caps with glasses are designed,
Their bills with antidotes all lined,
That foulsome air may do no harm,
Nor cause the doctor man alarm,
The staff in hand must serve to show
Their noble trade where’er they go.
The Genevese physician Jean-Jacques Manget, in his 1721 work Treatise on the Plague written just after the Great Plague of Marseille, describes the costume worn by plague doctors atNijmegen in 1636-1637. The costume forms the frontispiece of Manget’s 1721 work. The plague doctors of Nijmegen also wore beaked masks. Their robes, leggings, hats, and gloves were made of morocco leather.
This costume was also worn by plague doctors during the Plague of 1656, which killed 145,000 people in Rome and 300,000 in Naples. The overcoat was sometimes made of levant morocco. The costume terrified people because it was a sign of imminent death. Plague doctors wore these protective costumes per their agreements when they attended their plague patients.
The costume is also associated with a commedia dell’arte character called Il Medico della Peste. The character’s very popular mask is associated with the early-17th century French doctor Charles de Lorme. He adopted the “beak mask” together with other sanitary precautions while treating plague victims. The Venetian mask was normally white, consisting of a hollow beak and round eye-holes covered with clear glass. The “doctor of plague” (Medico Della Peste) is referred to as the “Plague Doctor” or “Beak Doctor”.