I admit it – I’m seriously hyped on plague doctor costumes, and it’s probably going to be my next cosplay outfit. And the more I talk about it with friends and other cosplayers, I see that there’s a huge shared interest and excitement, but also a common obscureness regarding “why did they wear those beak masks”?
Being the wiccan apprentice that I am, I was triggered to go and do the research to find the answer, but also felt compelled to analyze what’s underneath the attraction I and others can’t deny we hold for this mask and costume.
At first I thought it might be a way to add some mysterious authority and fearful stance, mixed with some decadent humour and religious symbolism.
But as it turns out it’s actually much simpler: those beaks were part of a protection suit.
See, during the 15th to 18th centuries, plagues and mass diseases broke out pretty frequently around Europe. Medicine was more of a magic practice than actual science, and was based on ritualistic treatments. There was no real knowledge what diseases are and how to cure them. Sanitary conditions were a joke, and as cities and towns got bigger, filthier and more dense, the effect of pandemic outbursts was devastating.
For reference, the Black Death erased something like 30-60% of Europe’s population during the 14th century.
The plague doctors were the professional physicians who were brought to take care of the victims of those plagues. When epidemics erupted, they got hired by towns and cities and were tasked to treat all civilians – poor and rich.
As you might assume, they almost never really cured any of their patients. The real value of their works was documenting the sickness volume and counting how many people were contaminated, for administrative purposes.
Being a plague doctor wasn’t a of token of excellence, let alone a hugely desired job. The majority of them were new physicians making their first steps or second-rate doctors who needed money. Some didn’t even have any medical training could have come from completely other areas, such as being market salesman.
They were assigned specifically to treat plague patients and were differentiated from the “general practitioners” who held a regular clinic in the same town or city.
I tried to find more about the size of the paycheck they’ve got, and came across this contract, issued by the city of Pavia at the late 15th century. The payment for one month is set for 30 florins, and if we take as a basic rule that 1 florin equals something like a few 100s of $ in todays value, then we can see that being in the business of death could yield some decent money.
And I’m deliberately saying “business of death” as I see the plague doctors as some sort of a masquerading angels of death – on the outside they come to cure you from your disease, but in reality, they are just doing the death clerk work, hopefully putting in some inspiring show and relief.
That isn’t said in a bad way at all. Part of understanding the enigma that draws you into something is to break it down into its building blocks.
And that brings us to the most significant element of attraction – the beak mask.
Obviously I get the plain thing: the beak in an all-in-one lust artifact – a phallic symbol, an s&m accessory, and a popular choice for playing the seductive stranger in masquerades. Even simpler than that – it connects associatively with some prehistoric flying monsters.
The visual of the beak triggers our sense of “something is not normal and dangerous” – and for heretic people like me, this is uber attractive.
But why did they wear it?
The mask was a simply a respirator, part of a full protection “hazmat” suit that was introduced around the seventeenth century.
It was filled with aromatic items, usually sweet or strong smelling substances, such as lavender, dried flowers, herbs (mint), spices, camphor, or a vinegar sponge.
The idea was to protect from getting infected, as the belief was that it is the putrid air that carries the disease between people (coming from the popular medical theory at the time called Miasma).
In the times prior to the germ theory knowledge, people believed that it is the stench of plagued patients that gets you infected. Simply counter it with some marvelous spa perfumes, and you’re safe.
It’s pretty fascinating to see how strong the sense of smell plays on our perception of things.
Along with the mask-of-survival-fragrance came gloves, boots, a stylish wide-brimmed hat, and an outer over-clothing garment.
To complete the “separation layer” came the wooden cane. It was used as a substitute for hands, in order not to touch the patients. The doctors would examine them, take pulse, and even remove their clothes if needed. Aside from that, it came handy to keep people away.
As with every crafted non-conventional clothing, there’s a designer mind behind it.
In this case, the attribution goes to Charles de Lorme, the chief physician to Louis XIII. He adopted modeled the suit after a soldier’s armour, but it can be that he had older references, as there are findings that authors have wrote about bird-like masks worn by 14th century plague doctors.
Lorme himself left his impression of the mask, and it’s quite nice to read it:
nose 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 to carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the drugs enclosed further along in the beak.
The plague doctors were like pathologists working in an open lab. Walking around as surreal figures, locked inside their suits, faces covered, their voice filtered, and their personality non-existent.
I bet some were hating it, but maybe some got to love this kind of freakishness solitude. Everyone fears and respects you at the same time.
I wouldn’t be surprised if people during those times even fantasized on plague doctors. Erica and Nigel were visiting me the other day, and we all thought we should try and get these masks next time we go to Berlin to party in the Insominia or Sysiphos.
The urge to break the barrier with the barricading suit stranger is the secret driver behind my passion. I want to have a mask on me, I want to feel how it is to be with someone who wears a mask, and I want to break into this “other side”.
Thanks to the Commedia Dell’arte, the beak hasn’t disappeared when medicine got advanced, and just moved from the grim reality side into the realms of carnivals, entertainment and foreplay. The Carnival of Venice has cemented it as one of its most distinctive masks, associating it with the character called Il Medico della Peste (you can figure the translation…).
Today we have quite a few designs of the mask in the market. From the black leather variations to the more steampunk-y styles, which tend to be the most popular a the mo.
I’ve just ordered this one:
You should try also, if you feel the crawling temptation to see things from the plague doctor’s view.
(Let me know how it felt!)