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Plague Doctor Mask, A Brief History

Posted on April 03 2020

Plague Doctor Mask, A Brief History

A plague doctor was a medical physician hired by city halls to treat inhabitants affected by the disease during 17th-19th centuries. 

Some plague doctors wore a special costume, invented by Charles de Lorme in 17th  century, the physician of three French kings: Henri IV, Louis XIII and Louis XIV (Le Roi Soleil).

The suit consisted from a bird-like mask with spectacles, and a long leather or waxed-canvas gown, which covered the doctor from neck to ankle. The suit, as well as the gloves, leggings, boots and the hat were impregnated with fragrance extracted from spices and herbs, similar to the one used for the beak mask.

The mask had round eye-holes, covered with clear glass and a bird shaped like beak, and was attached to the face with straps. It was a sort of respirator, with nose holes designed for breathing. The beak could contain dried flowers (roses), herbs (mint), spices (cloves, camphor).

Plague doctors would also carry a cane to examine patients without the need to make direct contact with them.

At the time doctors thought that the herbs would chase away the miasma, aka the "evil" smells of the plague, and thus protect them from the disease.

The largest plague epidemic was the Black Death in Europe, in the 14th century. Because it had it struck so destructively (between 30% to 60% of Europe's population died during the pandemic) and affected everyone, from kings to poor, from old to child, it remained ingrained in our culture as a memento moriAmong famous plague doctor who gave medical advice to be used against the plague were Nostradamus and Paracelsus.

Since the Black Death, the Plague Doctor Costume is associated  with death, as a sign that plague is near. 

 

One of the most known works of art showcasing this concept of inevitability of death is La Danse Macabre or the Dance of Death. It consists of an allegory of Death leading a a group of dancing figures to the grave (usually an emperor, king, pope, monk, peasant, child, all as skeletons). The dance reminded people of how fragile their lives were and how vain the glories of earthly life.

 


The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum

The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum
In music, maybe the most known piece is Danse macabre, composed in 1874 by the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns.
In literature, the The Masque of the Red Death written in 1842 by the American writer Edgar Allan Poe is yet another example of depicting through the symbolistic of plague, the impossibility of avoiding death. 
 
This enduring message echoed through the centuries up to our days when music bands as Ghost or Iron Maiden composed to great success songs named Danse Macabre or Dance of Death.

It is not surprising that during this difficult times we travel with corona virus pandemic, we are sensitive to the image of a plague doctor mask, as our subconscious brings up memories ingrained in our deepest fears. 

Should you want to relive those memories, you can buy this plague doctor mask.
 

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