As the Bubonic Plague rolled across China, the Middle East, Russia and Europe from the 14th to 17th centuries, it claimed an estimated 150 million lives, along with the title of deadliest epidemic in human history. Originating in China in the 1300s, it hitched a ride on the Silk Road with rodents and spread West, consuming entire populations and leaving death and economic catastrophe in its wake.
Medico della Peste, or the infamous black-beaked plague doctors of Europe, have become a symbol for the Black Plague. Though well intentioned (and impeccably styled by doctor and closet fashion designer Charles de L’Orme in 1619), the unfortunate truth is they were completely useless as medical practitioners. Akin to a D-list plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills with a mountain of malpractice lawsuits, plague doctors generally had little to no experience in medicine, and often caused more harm than good. One instance tells of a fruit vendor who took on the role of a plague doctor after his business went under when his employees and servants all died. Another notable Plague Doctor was French godfather of conspiracy theorem Nostradamus. Despite their ailing reputation as healthcare providers, throughout history they’ve taken on the role of something between a horror film antagonist, something crafted in the depths of sleep paralysis, and a foreboding macabre sex icon.
Plague doctors most notably had their pathogen-combating wardrobe. Plague Doctors were careful to assure each part of their body was covered, and their respiratory system had no chance of exposure to the disease, which at the time they believed was airborne. A thick black canvas dress coated with layers of wax covered the body, while a leather hat and pair of gloves guarded the head and hands. They also carried wooden canes to inspect the infected while remaining at a safe distance. The canes were used to lift bed sheets, remove clothes, or even lash a sick citizen who got too close.
The most lauded accessory was of course the bird mask. Really a glorified air freshener, L’Orme designed it as a response to a medical concept at the time called “Miasma Theory,” in which diseases are caused/carried by bad smells. The leather mask covered the entire head, including the eyes. The beak was filled with herbs and spices to remedy the scent of death. Lavender, cloves, myrrh, camphor and mint were most often used. In France, records on mask function show the concoctions were sometimes burnt inside the beak to provide enhanced olfactory protection.
Under payroll from whatever city they operated out of, Plague Doctors were required to take an egalitarian approach to their practice by tending to both the rich and the poor. Public servants at their core, the Plague Doctors sincerely yearned for the discovery of a cure. The combined lack of education in medicine and manic desperation led to some disastrous attempts to cure the population that accelerated death in most cases. Bloodletting via leeches was a popular go-to remedy, as was coating patients in mercury, dried frogs and arsenic and placing them in an oven to induce violent diarrhea and sweating. As entire towns were killed off, the black beaked figures often roamed the streets and country sides like ghosts in search of someone to fix.
The Plague Doctors’ career in medicine has long subsided with the discovery of germ theory, but has transformed and instilled itself into odd cultural corners. Unsurprisingly, they have been highly fetishized and sexualized by the BDSM market. Horror fandom has absorbed them as a mythological figure akin to Slenderman. In the spring of 2016, a man in England dressed as a Plague Doctor went knocking on the doors of a quiet suburb and terrorized its people. He gained tabloid celebrity status and birthed a number of imitators. They’ve appeared in video game series like Assassin’s Creed and Bloodborne – more often than not depicted as tall and ripped dudes. The hypersexualization of Plague Doctors is worthy of a dissertation on its own. Their evolution from shittiest doctors in the world to macabre erotic superhero may forever remain a mystery.