Behind the Mask: The Plague Doctor

It is an image that many recognise but most know nothing about. The plague mask—with its elongated beak and dark, soulless eyes—has been replicated in costume shops around the world [see left]. Indeed, so prevalent are these masks at parties and balls, one might be tempted to think it is a design entirely imagined by Italian mask-makers for the Venetian Carnival. But where did this mask originate and what purpose did it serve during plague outbreaks?

Although the plague ravaged Europe in the 14th century, killing nearly two-thirds of its population, the earliest textual description of the mask dates from the 17th century. Charles de Lorme, chief physician to Louis XIII and likely inventor behind the design, wrote:

The nose [is] half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the [herbs] enclosed further along in the beak. Under the coat we wear boots made in Moroccan leather (goat leather) from the front of the breeches in smooth skin that are attached to said boots, and a short sleeved blouse in smooth skin, the bottom of which is tucked into the breeches. The hat and gloves are also made of the same skin…with spectacles over the eyes. [1]

From this description, it is tempting to conclude that de Lorme was trying to protect himself against germs by wearing something akin to a modern-day biohazard suit. However, a coherent germ theory did not emerge until the mid-19th century with the experiments of Joseph Lister, Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur. That said, de Lorme was trying to protect himself against something he believed was just as insidious and just as dangerous as we understand germs to be today: miasma, or poisonous vapours associated with decomposition and foul air.

De Lorme imagined that the herbs stuffed in the end of the beak would purify the air and prevent the plague doctor from breathing in the miasma, while the leather overcoat, breeches, boots and gloves would ensure that the skin was not exposed at any time.  The hat [see right] was that which was typically worn by physicians during the early modern period and thus served a purely symbolic purpose. The wooden cane, on the other hand, was likely used to keep patients at a distance, or else direct caregivers on how to move the bodies of infected victims during examinations. It was not used, as some suppose, to beat away the rats who are today widely believed to have carried fleas infected with yersinia pestis, the bacterium better known as plague.

It is difficult to know how ubiquitous the plague mask was in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most physicians fled the city during outbreaks, leaving the dying to fend for themselves. Those who did remain behind rarely mention it in their writing, making the mask all the more elusive to historians.

Today, the plague mask lives on in the imaginations of artists, writers and film-makers [click here for a stunning example]. Through them, it has been transformed into something altogether different, for the plague mask which was once used to ward off death, has now become the very symbol of it.

1. Quoted and translated in Michel Tibayrenc (ed.), Encyclopedia of Infectious Diseases: Modern Methodologies (2007) p. 680. From M. Lucenet, ‘La peste, fleau majeur’ extraits de la Bibliotheque InterUniversitaire, Paris (1994).

20 comments on “Behind the Mask: The Plague Doctor

  1. kittybriton says:

    On the subject of the plague, there’s a great short story “The weighing of ayre” which raises the possibility of using biological weapons centuries before they were actually deployed on the battlefield.

  2. maskman says:

    Thanks, I already new some of the information but its good to know the full story, I love masks

  3. Very interesting to say the least, the bubonic plague has always facinated me. half of Europe’s population died from The Black Death, it was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history.

  4. […] The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice on the disturbing origins of raven-nosed masks, which were worn by so-called “plague doctors” during times of mass death in Early Modern …read more […]

  5. David Harley says:

    The attribution of this invention to Charles Delorme (1584-1678) rests on a passage in a book published by his pupil, the eccentric Michel, abbé de Saint-Martin, Les Moyens faciles et éprouvés par M. Delorme pour vivre plus de cent ans (1682).

    The costume was supposedly first used at Paris during the plague of 1619, but the original description differs significantly from the passage above, notably in the absence of the beak. I would very much like to know where the larger version of the remarks was first published.

    Il se fit faire, dit-il, un habit de maroquin, que le mauvais air pénètre très difficilement : il mit en sa bouche de l’ail et de la rue ; il se mit de l’encens dans le nez et dans les oreilles, couvrit ses yeux de bésicles, et en cet équipage assista les malades, et il en guérit presque autant qu’il donna de remèdes.

  6. […] I have always loved masks, their history and various cultural connotations, their mystery and intrigue. I’m not going to talk about that now, though perhaps I will later. A fantastic post about the background of Plague Doctor Masks can be found here. […]

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  8. Waldo Dorton says:

    infections diseases should be treated as early as possible to prevent outbreaks and also to reduce the damage to the body.;

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  9. [...] The chirurgeon’s apprentice (source) [...]

  10. [...] Lindsey Fitzharris, who has a strong stomach. The illustration here is from a post explaining how the “plague mask” came about. It’s not just a scary image: the shape has purpose, or at least did in the Middle Ages. [...]

  11. [...] Lindsey Fitzharris, who has a strong stomach. The illustration here is from a post explaining how the “plague mask” came about. It’s not just a scary image: the shape has purpose, or at least did in the Middle Ages. [...]

  12. [...] Lindsey Fitzharris, who has a strong stomach. The illustration here is from a post explaining how the “plague mask” came about. It’s not just a scary image: the shape has purpose, or at least did in the Middle Ages. [...]

  13. altheapreston says:

    I’ve been trying for two days to see that mask in the link at the end. The page just won’t load for me.

    I agree that the plague shaped our attitude about many things, even today. The difference is, we have science now to explain things. Doesn’t make them any less scary, but at least we know what their causes are now.

    I love your blog!

  14. [...] post on plague doctors spurred me to go look through the Wellcome library for plague graphics. Here is a neat one I [...]

  15. bschillace says:

    My obsession with the plague years began when I was 15 or so; I read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror. I have since found the Great Mortality a useful text among others. I don’t get a chance to discuss it much in my own classes (which rarely touch upon so early a period), but of course the fear of plague inspires–and infects–so much of the 17th and 18th century’s literature, fiction and even treatments of latter-day disorders. Your post reminds me that, in many ways, we have never quite gotten beyond the plague years (at least in our imaginations)!

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