tl;dr warning – I’ve gone old school BS Historian on this; a long-form, detailed essay on the subject. For those with limited time or interest, the answer is in the first paragraph. For everyone else; I hope you enjoy the rest and, if you like, skip the first paragraph!
Given the current rash of people dressing as plague doctors in weird defiance of the novel Coronavirus that we find ourselves beset by, as well as their recent use by the ‘12 Monkeys’ TV show and one of my favourite bands, Ghost, I felt I had to tackle the iconic plague doctor mask; the one with the long, curved snout with impressed (or stitched) line down the side mimicking a bird’s beak (sometimes a full-on replica beak with nostril openings). I’ve been sceptical about this for a while now, mostly due to Kathleen Crowther’s blog article ‘Did Plague Doctors Wear Those Masks?’ (2013), available here. Crowther states that the bird’s beak was parody, not reality – that these physicians in their early versions of HAZMAT suits were derided and compared to scavenging ravens (post-medieval Europe hated corvids, unfortunately), and this is where our modern misconception of the plague doctor’s costume comes from. This conclusion does make a lot of sense, but as it turns out, I don’t agree. The plague doctor’s outfit and mask are genuine. Yes, the costume was probably the exception, and the really birdlike masks that fascinate us today even more rare than that, but there’s plenty of evidence that both did in fact exist from about 1619 for perhaps two centuries in one form or another.
OK, time for the deep dive…
The Evidence for An Historical ‘Dr Beak’
There is actually a reasonable amount of evidence for the iconic form of the plague doctor’s costume. What isn’t clear is how old this form actually is. Medical practitioners have probably been protecting themselves from infectious diseases (in this case forms of plague) for centuries, but the first version of the iconic outfit dates to the French plague of 1615-21 (which reached Paris in 1618). This clothing is attributed by Michel abbé de Saint-Martin to royal physician Charles Delorme. The full description of Delorme’s costume that appears on Wikipedia (taken from here and in turn from this 1896 article) is in fact a weird mashup of sources, fancifully (irresponsibly?) rewritten as one long interview between Michel and Delorme by N.M. Bernardin, an historian of French literature (not social or medical history). Despite this, it’s close to being accurate. It is mainly based upon ‘Remarques critiques sur le dictionnaire de Bayle’ (1748). Although written a long time after the fact, this does credit its information to Michel and may have been taken from a different source (possibly the 1683 second edition of ‘Moyens’, which I can’t find a copy of online):
‘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.’
‘He had himself made, he says, a leather suit, which bad air penetrates with great difficulty: he put garlic and rue [a type of plant] in his mouth; he put incense in his nose and ears, covered his eyes with spectacles, and in this equipment assisted the sick, and he healed almost as much as he gave remedies.’
This has been combined with the only actual information on Delorme’s outfit that does appear in Michel’s ‘Moyens faciles et éprouvés dont M. de l’Orme, médecin, s’est servi pour vivre près de cent ans’ of 1682, which is a mention of his coat and mask (pages 424-425):
‘Il n’oublioit jamais fon habit de marroquin dont il étoit l’autheur, il l’habilloit depuis les pieds jusques à la tefte en forme de pantalon , avec un masque du méme marroquiņ où il avoit fait attacher un nez long de demy pied afin de detourner la malignité de l’air…’
‘He was never without his own design of (goatskin) leather coat, and dressed from head to toe with pantaloons and a mask of the same leather to which he attached a long nose half a foot in length in order to keep out the bad air.’
This certainly sounds like the plague doctor we know and love, but at this point there is no mention of a birdlike beak, eyeglasses, gloves (although they are implied by ‘head to toe’), rod or hat (although no gentlemen would set foot outside without some sort of walking stick or hat). Michel goes on to say that Delorme gave another coat and mask to the daughter of Monsier Renaud, chief chirurgeon to King Louis XIII, so there were at least two of these outfits in existence at this time.
However birdlike or otherwise Delorme’s outfit may or may not have been, and whether or not others took the idea from him or came up with it independently, the first certain visual depiction of a plague doctor and also the first to feature a naturalistic bird-face mask is not French but Italian, dating to 1656. [edit – as an aside, after I published this article I spotted this intriguing claim by Francesca Falk that there are in fact two beak-masked plague doctors incorporated into the 1651 frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. This seems impossible to prove, and there is no prior (or subsequent) English depiction or mention that would help to verify it, but I think Falk makes a good case.] One original copy of this 1656 Italian engraving resides in the British Museum’s collection (reproduced at the top of this article – see a later sketched copy here). It was produced in Rome and Perugia, is attributed to the engraver Sebastiano Zecchini;
‘L’habito con il quale vanno i Medici per Roma a Medicare per difesa del mal Contagioso è di tela incerata, il Volto ordinario, congli Occhiali di Christallo, & il Naso pieno di Profumi contro l’infettione. Portano una Verga in mano perdare a vedere, è dimostrare le loro operationi.’
In Roma, & in Perugia, Per Sebastiano Zecchini, 1656.
This (hopefully!) translates as;
‘The outfit in which the doctors in Rome go to medicate in defence of the infectious disease is of waxed canvas, the face with eyeglasses, & the nose full of perfumes against the infection. They hold a staff because of their reduced vision and to demonstrate their operations.’
In Rome, & in Perugia. By Sebastiano Zecchini, 1656.
Note the difference in coat/robe material; waxed canvas instead of the thin goat leather used by the French. But otherwise it’s the same idea; we have to wonder how much ‘later’ Delorme had the idea of the perfume-filled beaked mask. Did he or the doctors in Rome come up with it first? Or did the two hit upon the idea independently? We have no way of knowing unfortunately, but it’s clear that the basic outfit was in use in both French and Italian regions.
The German Piss-Take Versions
One of two German derivatives of the Italian original, this one by Gerhart Altzenbach and titled ‘Kleidung widder den Todt’ or ‘Death’s Clothing’ (Wikimedia commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gerhart_Altzenbach,_Kleidung_widder_den_Todt_Anno_1656.png)
The German states were clearly fascinated by the sensational appearance of the Italian plague doctor(s?) and copied the artwork to produce two later engravings (presumably made within a few years of the original), both with the extensive additional satirical commentary that Crowther points to in her article, poking fun at the odd-looking birdlike man and his ineffectiveness in actually helping the afflicted. One of these satirical ‘broadsides’ is by Gerhart Altzenbach (there is a very brief 1965 academic note on this here, JSTOR account required), the other by Paulus Fürst. Due to the identical date it’s hard to say which of the German ones came first (pun not originally intended) but Fürst’s added memento mori winged hourglass on the tip of the doctor’s staff and the closer resemblance to the Altzenbach version suggests that it followed the latter. Fürst also makes the gloved fingers even more pointed and sinister-looking. This version of the design also suggests that the original artist for the doctor figure was an ‘I. Columbina’, hinting at another Italian version pre-dating all of the known examples.
As Crowther notes, Altzenbach’s broadside is where we get the satirical comparison to the raven:
“Cadavera sucht er zu fristen
Gleich wie der Corvus auf der Misten”
“He seeks cadavers to eke out a living
Just like the raven on the dung heap”
I kind of want to see a Rammstein version of the full thing, but I digress. With all due respect to Kathleen Crowther (and in fairness she does not discount the idea but simply states that she has not seen the evidence), this does not in fact debunk the plague doctor’s beaked mask, or even the more overtly birdlike version of it. The birdface mask cannot be purely satirical; not only because of the other period evidence for similar costumes in France, but because the mocking German ‘Doctor Schnabel’ artwork is very clearly copied directly from an Italian original that is played entirely ‘straight’ with no smirking commentary, criticism or embellishment.
As it turns out, there’s even more evidence to support this. If the three depictions we’ve seen so far are all based on the same original, there is an absolute corker of an original artwork from almost half a century later. That is, the coat of arms of Swiss doctor Theodor Zwinger III (1658 – 1724). There are at least two versions of this; the below is an oil painting on a wooden panel, dated to c.1700 by the Wellcome Collection. It shows a very gothic-looking black robed figure with very birdlike, curved beak, complete with dividing line between upper and lower:
That’s definitely Zwinger III on the right, and although his dress seems decidedly old-fashioned for the late 17th century, portraits of him show a large ruff and voluminous shoulders on his doublet. Of course, this artwork is essentially fantasy, and does not necessarily mean that Zwinger ever wore this clothing or even that it was still in use at the end of the century. It could in fact mean the opposite – representing the unenlightened past on the left (based on what those silly Italians used to wear) and the modern physician on the right, acknowledging the debt owed to past beliefs whilst distancing the subject from them. It might even be a direct reference to ‘Doctor Schnabel’ as a figure of fun. Even so, it’s another piece of evidence that this outfit was at least a meme of sorts, and very likely a real costume at one time.
The next version appears in 1721 in a much cruder form (below) as the frontispiece to (Genovese) Jean-Jacques Manget’s ‘Traité de la peste‘. Produced by an unidentified artist, is in fact considerably later than the Zecchini original and presumably the German derivatives. This is apparent from this source (note also the much less birdlike depiction over the page in the same book) and indeed from the clear debt owed, down to the specific pose of the doctor, to the design used in the three earlier engravings. This doctor also has an updated style of hat and gloves.
The accompanying description (the annotation on the drawing covers the eyeglasses) offers more detail than the earlier ones in terms of clothing and is the first to comment on the resemblance of the ‘beak’ to, er, a beak;
‘Le nez en forme de bec est rempli de parfums et oint intérieurement de matières balsamiques … sous le manteau, on porte ordinairement des bottines, des culottes de peau attachées audites bottines et une chemise de peau unie dont on referme le bas dans les culottes, le chapeau et les gants sont aussi de même peau de maroquin du levant.’
‘The beak-shaped nose is filled with perfumes and anointed internally with balsamic materials… under the coat, one usually wears ankle boots, skin breeches attached to said ankle boots and a plain skin shirt whose bottom is closed in the breeches, the hat and the gloves are also of the same goatskin leather.’
Interestingly, Manget and other sources of this period (including this version of the Manget engraving, that specifically namechecks Chicoyneau) explain that the costume was brought back by physician François Chicoyneau, 100 years after the previous plague (no mention of Delorme as either inventor or plague doctor, interestingly), to help tackle a new outbreak of plague in Marseille. Interestingly (and eerily, because as I write this my country has just gone into COVID-19 lockdown), this was probably because Chicoyneau was utterly convinced by miasma theory and did not hold with the idea of a cordon sanitaire to prevent the spread of disease. Of course, the medical treatments of the day were unlikely to help anyone near as much as a cordon, although the plague doctor costume might protect the physicians to some extent. By implication at least, there were now multiple classical ‘plague doctors’ mooching about in this get-up. So far, so birdy. This early 18th century revival provides some important continuity with respect to my next section…
What Plague Doctor Masks Exist?
As far as I can determine, there are between five and seven (two may be recreations) documented ‘beaked’ plague masks (see below). Two to four of them (including both of the possible recreations) seem to have been lost or destroyed. One of these was originally collected for the Museum of Hygiene in Rome from the lazaretto or plague hospital in Venice. It now exists only in a photograph held by the Wellcome Collection in the UK. Even then it was in a sorry condition, missing its lenses. A very similar style of mask was photographed on the island of Poveglia (also in the province of Venice). Both appear below. The interesting thing about this is that Poveglia wasn’t made a lazaretto until the end of the 18th century, so any plague mask collected there is likely not contemporary with the 17th century depictions. It stands to reason that the basic design of mask/hood would remain in use, as the miasma theory of disease was not abandoned for another hundred years.
The Wellcome’s photograph of the Italian mask (from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plague_apparatus_from_a_lazaretto_in_Venice;_an_oil_cloth_ma_Wellcome_V0029672.jpg)
The two questionable ones were apparently once part of the Wellcome Collection itself. The Collection has photos of one of them including one in situ in the Wellcome Library (mid-C20th). They were clearly both on open display and by the time of this photograph were in a state of disrepair (one being held together with tape!). I am as sure as I can be that both are actually Victorian recreations, produced mid-late 19th century as teaching aids, handled to death, then binned. The one on the left is made of either plaster or papier mache. The right hand one is made of the same worn fabric (wax cotton, oilskin?) as the robes, and there’s no way that set of robes has survived the 150+ years to the mid-20th century. The biggest point against is probably that the Wellcome called one of them a ‘model’ and didn’t keep either of them. If they were genuine, they likely would have saved at least one.
The three still-extant were also collected by German museums; the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museum in Mannheim, and the Deutsches Medizinhistorisches Museum in Ingolstadt. All appear (as we might expect from items collected by bona fide museums) to be genuine, although they are only loosely dated to some time during the 17th century and in reality could be recreations closer in date to Manget’s 1721 depiction. The Reiss-Engelhorn example has a distinct flat goggle section but is otherwise substantially the same as the others. The DHM hood (AK 2006/51) is the only one that I could find provenance information on – it’s a recent acquisition, purchased at auction in April 2006 from a private art dealer based in Vienna. It’s not clear whether this or the other German examples reflect any actual period German/Austrian/non-Italian use of the masks or (more likely) collection as medical/scientific curiosities by German visitors to one or more of the Italian states.
Typologically, these masks seem to represent a further evolution from the Manget type, being bulkier, bulbous full hood designs with integrated eye lenses instead of separate spectacles and without the beak line or nostrils. Almost like early C19th diving helmets with beaks. I believe that all are late 18th or early 19th century in date. Frankly it would be remarkable if any of the early type masks had survived for 350-odd years. There is one very classical-looking but also highly dubious example currently included in the Wikipedia articles on plague doctors and their costume. Judging by its condition alone, this must be a modern recreation, and I cannot find any museum in Jena (to which the image is attributed) that would be likely to have anything like this. There is a museum of optics there, which would explain a diorama recreation of a plague doctor, which is what I believe this image to represent.
These examples are more similar to the artistic depictions than they may appear. As well as a general form resembling the Manget version, and the obvious beak-like snout, if we look closely at the artistic depictions, these too were likely all full, over-the-head affairs, more like hoods than facemasks (the German museums call the later forms ‘pesthaube’ in fact). This which would make them more effective protection against actual diseases as well as imaginary miasma/bad air. All have more conical than realistic-looking ‘beaks’ (two leather, one bronze or more likely copper), not as birdlike as those shown in the period artwork, although in fairness, they are all very old and in a bit of a state; they may have looked more classically plague doctory in their day. Interestingly, the only real change in the 1721 Manget depiction from earlier versions was to depict the doctor’s mask as a full-head hooded affair, albeit still with a more birdlike snout. In fact though, the main difference is that the Manget version doesn’t have the robe wrapped up and over the mask itself. What look like separate facemasks akin to the modern Venetian carnival/commedia dell’arte ‘il Medico della Peste‘ mask are also actually depicting a hood – just one sitting underneath an enveloping robe. In this respect a lot of the modern depictions are actually off-base, showing a balaclava-style hood with a facemask slipped over the top, or sometimes just the mask. Incidentally, ‘il Medico’ himself seems to be a recent phenomenon; a variation/play on the vague similarity of the plague mask to the long-nosed masks worn by the Zanni characters and the modern-day popularity of the plague doctor. There is actually no historical commedia character based on the plague doctor (although there is historically a very different doctor character).
Whether styled closely after a bird’s face or just resembling one by coincidence (most likely both at different times, in different places and depending upon the individual doctor’s preference), the look of these masks was secondary to their intended function. The main goal here, then as now, was to protect themselves as best they knew how against unseen agents of infection. The masks (especially the simpler forms) are not too different to the early gas masks or ‘gas hoods’ of the First World War. The ‘beak’ is a direct analogue to the later mask filter, albeit full of items thought to combat ‘miasma’ rather than anything medically effective.
To wrap this up; yes, the full-face bird-like ‘beaked’ mask/hood with glasses, the robes, the gloves, the funky hat, the point-ed stick, thin leather or waxed cloth; all of it was a real thing. Many masks/hoods probably had a conical ‘beak’ that only vaguely resembled a bird’s bill; others probably leaned into the look more like the earliest depictions and our modern conception. Of course, as we’ve seen, the ‘look’ sort of backfired; almost immediately critics were comparing them to that infamous bird of death, the raven – complete in the Fürst version (bottom left of frame) with several terrified prospective patients running away from the doctor, who is waving his winged hourglass of death at them and presumably wondering why no-one wants to be ‘treated’. Even Zwinger’s coat of arms seems to paint (literally) his plague doctor self as an ominous harbinger of disease and death. This, of course, is how we see the plague doctor to this day; a relic of scientific ignorance and a symbol of an elitist, distant, uncaring medical profession. We should probably recognise though that these people were trying to help the infected, not terrify them – just as our (thankfully much more capable) healthcare professionals are trying to do as I type this. Their methods may have been questionable (even by the 1720s) but in terms of protective equipment, they were thinking along the right lines in terms of overlapping fully enveloping clothing that might prevent the ingress of…whatever was causing the infection. They thought it was ‘bad’ air, we know that it’s microscopic organisms (in the case of bubonic plague, passed on by flea bites).
Thankfully, in the current pandemic, we don’t need to experiment with protective clothing for medical practitioners; we know what works and we just have to do our bit and help prevent the spread. If people find the iconic plague doctor interesting, amusing or even comforting rather than scary, that’s a great use for this fascinating piece of (not BS!) history.