The German Museum of Medical History has an authentic plague-doctor mask from the 16th century.
German Museum of Medical History displays a plague-doctor mask from the 16th century.
The first design of the Plague Doctor’s mask dates back to the 16th century and is displayed in Ingolstadt’s German Museum of Medical History. There were two major theories about disease transmission and contracting in medieval Europe: the Four Humors and the Miasma theories.
As a counter-response to the Miasma theory, this mask was designed. The theory of disease held that people became ill by breathing in bad air, and, hence, the long nose of this mask was designed to prevent our bodies from inhaling this bad air by putting on fire pleasant smelling herbs.
Orginal Plague-doctor Mask Design
Masks were designed with beaks that looked like bird beaks and straps that held the beak in front of the doctor’s nose. Masks with two small nose holes were a type of respiratory equipment that contained aromatic ingredients. Flowers (like roses and carnations), herbs (like mint), spices, camphor, or vinegar sponges can be used in the beak. In the past, people believed foul smells, or miasmas, were the primary cause of the disease before germ theory proved otherwise. In addition, the herb was believed to prevent infection by counteracting the “evil” smell of the plague.
To indicate their profession, plague doctors wore wide-brimmed leather hats with their beak doctor costumes. By using wooden canes, they could point out areas that needed attention and conduct examinations without touching patients. In addition to keeping people away, the canes were used to remove clothing from plague victims without touching them and to take a patient’s pulse.
Charles de Lorme
Charles de Lorme is said to have invented the “beak doctor” costume in 1619, when he adopted the idea of a protective garment modeled after a soldier’s armour. From the neck to the ankle, it was worn with a bird-like mask and spectacles, and a long leather (Moroccan or Levantine) or waxed canvas gown. A waxed leather over-clothing garment, leggings, gloves, boots, and a hat were all worn. A similar mixture of aromatic materials was applied to the garment.
In his description of it, Lorme wrote that the mask had a “half-foot beak-shaped nose filled with perfume, and having only two holes for breathing; yet they are adequate to convey the impression of the drugs enclosed further along in the beak with the air one breathes.”
Jean-Jacques Manget described the costume worn by plague doctors at Nijmegen in 1636–1637 in his 1721 work, Treatise on the Plague, written just after the Great Plague of Marseille. Manget’s 1721 work features the costume as the frontispiece. Beaked masks were also worn by plague doctors in Nijmegen. Moroccan leather was used for their robes, leggings, hats, and gloves.
Additionally, plague doctors wore this costume during the Plague of 1656. It killed 145,000 people in Rome and 300,000 in Naples. The costume frightened people because seeing it meant death was imminent. Plague doctors wore protective suits when they treated plague patients according to their contracts.
Physicians in Europe
Plague doctors are some of the most enigmatic figures of the Middle Ages. Physicians in Europe who specialized in treating plague victims, the best-known example of which was the Black Death. The plague doctors were public servants hired by towns, villages, or cities during a plague outbreak.
Plague doctors were primarily tasked with treating and curing plague victims, as well as burying the dead. As part of their duties, plague doctors recorded the number of casualties in logbooks. This was for public record and the last wishes of their patients. Further, plague doctors are often called to serve as witnesses to wills and testimony of the deceased. Apparently, many plague doctors spent much of their time focusing on this aspect of their job.
In some cases, plague doctors were required to perform autopsies in order to better understand how to treat the disease.
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