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Plague doctors; Costume d’un Medecin de Lazaret de Marseille en 1720 (Wellcome Collection)

Ever since the news of COVID-19 first started trickling out of China, I have found myself with a great desire to write about plague masks. Whenever news of a global epidemic starts to spread, people immediately rush out to start buying face masks of the surgical or N95 variety, despite repeated reminders from medical experts and the media that such masks don’t protect you from contracting the virus, but rather prevent those who already have it from spreading it to others. Additionally, a bunch of perfectly healthy people buying up masks causes a shortage for those who need it, i.e., the ill and medical professionals.

As someone who both works in a hospital (though not as a medical professional) and who is loathe to put much else besides sunglasses on my face, I feel myself compelled to remind people not to buy up surgical and N95 masks. For one thing, you’re causing shortages for people who really need them. For another, those masks aren’t remotely fashionable. Those who are desperate to wear a mask should instead consider something much more aesthetically pleasing: the infamous beaked mask of the Medico della Peste; or, the Doctor of the Plague.

A note before I continue: I do not mean to make light of COVID-19. Many, many people have died, and given the way things are going here in the U.S., many, many more have yet to do so. Others will likely suffer due to an overwhelmed medical system and the financial fallout. I am young, healthy, and rarely get colds (I haven’t had a fever since 2012), but I have still decided to self-isolate to help keep others safe. I am able to work from home (in fact, I have been ordered to do so) and, to be completely honest, I am a lazy introvert and have very little issue with staying inside my apartment for days at a time. I am, without question, one of the luckiest people in the country right now. I can work from home and have paid sick leave. Had this situation occurred even four months ago, I would be in a very different place, and I am very cognizant of how ruinous this situation is for so many millions of people. I would never make light of that.

That said, I think most people tend to agree that, during times like these, a little humor keeps the soul healthy. And, even in these trying times, I think we are all still perfectly capable of looking at that iconic birdy mask worn by doctors administering to the victims of the bubonic plague and saying, “What was up with those, anyway?”

While the first huge outbreak of the bubonic plague (the one that everyone thinks of when they hear “bubonic plague”) occurred in 1348, smaller outbreaks of the infection continued into the early 19th century. The birdy mask, exorcist hat, and creepy robe worn by the doctors, meanwhile, didn’t come into being until around 1619. It was designed by Charles de l’Orme, a physician at the court of Louis XIII. In his 2018 Internal Medicine Journal article “The Plague Doctor of Venice,” Dr. Christian J. Mussap quoted L’Orme describing his creation thusly:

“The nose [is] 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 carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the [herbs] enclosed further along in the beak. Under the [waxed] coat we wear boots made in Morocan leather [goat leather] from the front of the breeches in smooth skin that are attached to said boots, and a short-sleeved blouse in smooth skin, the bottom of which is tucked into the breeches. The hat and gloves are also made of the same skin…with spectacles over the eyes.”

A fun fact: Charles de l’Orme, a citizen of the 16th and 17th centuries who spent a large amount of time administering to bubonic plague victims, lived to be 96 years old. Some people have all the luck.

L’Orme’s costume design was based around miasma theory, the pervading belief of the time that illness spread through, as Mussap put it, “noxious vapors arising from decomposing organic matter.” From the point of view of a laywoman in the 21st century, this is not the worst theory in the world for someone living all the way back in the 1600s to have. It did, at the very least, support the idea of covering oneself and not coming into direct contact with people who were ill. It is, in a very, very distant sort of way, similar to the idea of airborne viruses. That said, it was still completely inaccurate, and plague doctors tended to drop like flies.

What does a bird beak have to do with noxious vapors? To avoid catching the vapors, plague doctors had to “sanitize” the miasma emanating from the afflicted with aromatic herbs. The most convenient place to keep said herbs was, of course, in a mask with a giant bird beak. The herbs themselves could be of many different scents — camphor, mint, cloves, etc. — and were often infused with Venetian Treacle, a medicinal concoction consisting of over 60 ingredients.

While all of this is very interesting, the most important part of plague masks is, of course, how absolutely creepy they are. Or, rather, how creepy they were. These days, plague masks are most often seen at events like the Venetian Carnevale. Italy has long been a leader in the fashion world, which means that, these days, plague masks can be quite attractive indeed. Not only are they sleeker and not stuffed with herbs (I assume), but they can also be personalized! Why wear a boring old surgical mask that health professionals are in desperate need of when you can wear a big fancy bird mask that you can decorate however you want? Bedazzle it! Paint it with your favorite sports team’s colors! Draw a picture of your pet on it! The possibilities are endless, and decorating one would certainly help wile away the hours in self-isolation. Consider the masks of the Medico della Peste today!

Truthfully, I hope you are all well. Stay safe. Wash your hands, stay home, and flatten the curve.

Cat mom, librarian, and writer in Chicago.

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