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What is a Plague Doctor?

8 min read

Far from the children's costumes like ninja turtles, cowboys and other tinkerbells. Closer to the costumes of witches, vampires or Vader... here is an intriguing character adapted for an adult disguise.

We are going to talk about the decin wearing a mask with the long beak of a raven. This curious character can be seen among other carnival or mardi gras masks, in old history books or in many steampunk works, so that the theme of the Plague doctor has become an emblematic archtype of our futuristic movement.

1) Why are the Black Death Doctors so creepy?

a) The Plague Mask.

The uniform consisted of an all-leather outfit with a mask in the shape of a beak filled with fragrant herbs and a top hat. This outfit had two functions.

  • It was designed to protect them from contamination and thus limit the spread of plague. Of course, this was not the case, the medicine of this epidemic was not very scientific and was based on hazardous assumptions.
  • The scary aspect allowed a form of authority and respect. It is important to understand that in a terrible epidemic, fear kills as much as the disease. It was a way to secure the doctor's safety and to make him or her listen.

The Black Death or Great Plague is the most deadly bubonic plague in history. It killed some 25 million Europeans in just a few years. Out of desperation, cities hired a new breed of doctors, called plague doctors, who were either second-rate professionals or young doctors with limited experience or no certified medical training at all.

What was important was that the plague doctor was prepared to venture into the areas affected by the pandemic and count the number of dead bodies. After more than 250 years of struggle against the plague, hope finally arrived with the invention of a mask that would block the dangerous effluvia as well as pants, a coat and a hat made of waxed cloth. Unfortunately, this did not work very well.

b) How did the Doctor's deposit protect against the Plague?

Unfortunately, the recommendations of the Pasteur Institute and the INSERM were not yet available. The main responsibilities of a plague doctor were not to cure or assist the sick. Their tasks were more administrative and laborious, as they followed up on the victims of the Black Death, attended occasional autopsies, or took care of the wills of the dead and dying.

The accoutrement was thus primarily a distinction and a uniform rather than a real means of protection. As might be expected, some plague doctors took advantage of their patients' money and ran off with their final will. However, there were many cases where these plague accountants were not only sold, but also sometimes held hostage. All situations could arise in these zones of death and despair.

c) The Life of a Plague Doctor

Besides the fact that they were isolated for obvious reasons, little is known about the plague doctors of the 17th century. We know that they were municipal doctors, working in the big cities for the burgomaster or the nobility. They were probably most common in southern European cities such as Rome, Milan, and some may even have been active in southern France. Instead, they scoured the city during a plague, deciding which houses to lock up or condemn, which neighborhoods to quarantine, etc. Plague doctors took care of everyone, regardless of their economic status, although they sometimes invented their own cures and tinctures which they provided for a fee for the wealthier patients.

d) Charles de l'Orme.

Doctors and victims did not immediately understand how the plague spread. However, by the seventeenth century, physicians had embraced the miasma theory, which was the idea that the contagion was spread by nauseating air. In the past, plague doctors wore a variety of protective clothing, but it was not until 1619 that a "uniform" was invented by Charles de l'Orme, Louis XIII's most experienced physician.

De l'Orme writes about the costume: "Under the coat, one wears Moroccan leather boots (goat leather)...and a short-sleeved blouse of smooth skin... The hat and gloves are also made of the same skin...with glasses over the eyes... "

Because he believed that the abundant nauseating fumes could seep into the fibers of their clothing and transmit disease, de l'Orme designed a uniform consisting of a waxed leather coat, leggings, boots, and gloves designed to deflect the miasma from head to toe. The suit was then coated with tallow, a hard white animal fat, to repel body fluids. The plague doctor also wore a black hat to indicate that they were, in fact, a doctor.

He also wore a long wooden stick which he used to communicate with his patients, examine them and, on occasion, cure the more difficult and aggressive ones. According to other accounts, patients believed that the plague was a punishment sent by God and asked the plague doctor to whip them into repentance. The nauseous air was also fought with sweet herbs and spices like camphor, mint, clove and myrrh, packed in a grotesque mask with a bird's beak. Sometimes the herbs were set on fire before being put into the mask so that the smoke could further protect the doctor from the plague.

They also wore round glass spectacles. The goggles and mask were held in place by a hood and leather bands. In addition to the sweaty and horrifying exterior, the costume was deeply flawed as there were air holes dug in the beak. As a result, many plague victims contracted the plague and died.

Although de l'Orme was fortunate enough to live to 96 years of age, most plague victims had a very short life expectancy, as the deadly flea bites were unforgiving, even with their thin combination. And those who were not sick often lived in constant quarantine. In short, they led a lonely and thankless existence for doctors sent to the front lines who were often willing to help at the cost of their lives.

2) The doctors' horrific treatment of the plague

Because plague doctors were only confronted with horrific symptoms and not a thorough understanding of the disease, they were often allowed to perform autopsies. These, however, tended to be inconclusive. Plague doctors therefore resorted to dubious, dangerous and disabling treatments. They were largely unqualified, so they had less medical knowledge than the "real" doctors, who themselves subscribed to erroneous scientific theories. The treatments ranged from the bizarre to the horrific;

They practiced covering buboes (pus-filled cysts about the size of an egg found on the neck, armpits, and groin) with human excrement that would probably spread the infection. They also turned to bleeding and removal of buboes to drain the pu. Both practices were very painful, but the worst was pouring mercury on the victim and placing him or her in an oven.

Not surprisingly, these attempts often accelerated death and the spread of infection by covering the burn wounds and cysts that became infected. Today, we know that bubonic flus and accompanying diseases such as pneumonia were caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis which was carried by rats, very common in urban environments. The last outbreak of urban plague in the United States occurred in Los Angeles in 1924 and we have since found a cure with common antibiotics.

This combination of protection from the effluvium and these horrible treatments remain happily in the past, but the willingness of plague doctors to separate the sick from the healthy, to burn the contaminated, and to experiment with treatments has also saved many lives. The plague that brought terror and death to southern Europe, that brought down powerful empires, is thousands of years older than anyone thought. But that is another story.

Although the famous plague suit was not worn during the Black Death, historians claim that it was often used by plague doctors "during the plague of 1656, which killed 145,000 people in Rome and 300,000 in Naples. The effectiveness of the costume is quite relative. Nevertheless, the frightening mask of the plague doctor has found another use - in the theater. The figure of the plague doctor became a character in the commedia dell'arte and the mask is still worn during the Carnival in Venice, Italy.

3) Why do Steampunks use the plague doctor costume so much?

A costume loaded with the history of millions of deaths.

Although we now consider their appearance to be relatively fearsome, they were originally only doctors, and have been around since the dawn of time, apparently for as long as there have been flowers. Our first record of plague doctors dates back to about 400 AD, long before the germs of the disease were theorized. These doctors were hired by the Roman state to treat all those who had the plague. They became a symbol of death and calamity. This is not surprising, since the protective measures they took were almost totally ineffective. In general, 90% of plague doctors died from the diseases they were trying to treat. Meanwhile, the most distinctive part of the costume, the mask, was designed to contain incense or herbs that ostensibly prevented "bad air", and thus prevented the plague doctor from getting sick. Ideally, at least, because it didn't really work in practice. The final effect, of course, was somewhat terrifying, but it is important to note that underneath these strange costumes were men who tried to cure the sick. Their wages were high (nearly four times higher than that of a regular doctor, according to some accounts), but their death rate was also high.

We will consider masks as a kind of ornament, but for the plague doctor, they were strictly functional and very sensible. In fact, wearing the plague decoy was an absolutely horrible experience, but they did it anyway. Had it not been for their fearsome appearance, the plague doctors might have been regarded as heroes. Certainly, many of them were crooks trying to take advantage of the wages raised, but some of them were really trying to help.

So why is Steampunk awash with Plague Cosplay?

On the surface, Plague Cosplay seems ideologically opposed to Steampunk. First of all, with the popularization of the germ theory in the mid-1800s, plague doctors became more or less a thing of the past. Or at least, the plague doctor's costume became very old-fashioned. So plague doctors don't really fit into the Victorian period often associated with Steampunk.

Secondly, plague doctors represent superstition rather than science in many ways. Breathing incense to cure the disease? That seems rather stupid to a modern audience, and sounds more like nonsense than science. To eliminate fleas from animals and to understand that it was the black rats carrying them that were the worst vectors of the disease was totally impossible for the time.

However, it is important to remember that when the plague suit was invented, it was science at its best. These people did not shake hands and pray to cure, they actively tried to treat patients using the latest medical knowledge available to them. Admittedly, this was usually something like "drink this mixture of herbs I found in my garden," but it was still something.

Another thing that reinforces their credibility as scientists and objects of terror is that plague doctors were allowed to perform autopsies on plague victims in the hopes of curing the disease. This may not be a big deal now, but in the old days, autopsies were considered blasphemous, evil, terrible, etc... So, in all likelihood, they were doing a solid job towards our understanding of anatomy, this moreover considerably developed the medicine of the age.

From this point of view, one can almost consider the plague doctors as champions of science, or perhaps the martyrs of science would be more appropriate, given their mortality rate.

Another thing Steampunks love are costumes, and few historically accurate costumes are as impressive as those of the plague doctor. Of course it's a far cry from the carnival with its half masks, jesters and jokers, the costume is dark and ultimately more gothic.

The plague men look like terrifying birds with a Halloween mask of the early ages. The same goes for their equipment: glasses and gadgets, they had as much power to save people as to terrorize them. That's why it's not surprising that the plague doctor captured the imagination of the Steampunks. They were outcasts who had a sort of futuristic style. Men of science who were regarded with mistrust by the public, and who are now an obscure and forgotten part of history.

So that's the explanation, thanks for reading, share the article if you liked it.

Don't forget that the Steampunk Store offers a large choice of costumes and accessories for Steampunk costumes but also to find the costumes of yesteryear.

See you soon vaporist !

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