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Plague Masks: A Brief History Of The Strangest Medical Mask We Ever Used

Medical History | April 5, 2020

The plague mask featured a long beak. (Pinterest)

As if the Black Plague—the terrible pandemic of bubonic plague that decimated medieval Europe—wasn't terrifying enough all by itself, the "doctor" who showed up to treat you came straight out of your ornithophobic nightmares. How on Earth did plague doctors come up with such a creepy mask, and what was the science behind it? Let's take a closer look at plague masks and the pseudo-doctors who wore them. 

Bubonic plague caused oozing boils on the skin. (history.com)

A Brief History Of The Black Death

Beginning in the middle of the 1300s, a deadly plague swept through Europe and Asia. According to records from the time, a dozen ships from the Black Sea landed in Sicily, but when residents gathered at the docks to welcome the sailors, they found most of them dead. The few who were still alive were covered in black boils oozing with blood and pus. Officials in Sicily immediately ordered the ships out of the harbor, but they weren't quick enough. The bubonic plague, which originated in Asia, had landed on European soil. When the plague was over, about one-third of Europe’s population—roughly 20 million people—was dead. 

Medicine in medieval times was an inexact science. (nlm.nih.gov)

The Plague Tested Conventional Medical Knowledge

Medieval doctors were ill-equipped to handle a deadly pandemic, and common medical practices of the day either did nothing to stop the bubonic plague or spread it even more. They didn't know about germs or how they spread, hygiene was iffy at best, and it was believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of the "humors." That's why bloodletting was such a popular treatment: By draining a patient's "excess" blood, doctors could rebalance its ratio to bile and phlegm. In the pre-antiseptic Middle Ages, however, the risk of infection from open cuts was extremely high.

Terrible smells caused disease, or so thought medieval people. (zarathustra574.blogspot.com)

The Miasma Theory Of Infectious Diseases

Since germs, viruses, and bacteria were unknown to medieval people, they came up with other theories to explain the causes of illnesses. The most prevalent of these was the miasma theory. According to this belief, the Black Plague—as well as other diseases like cholera, smallpox, and even chlamydia—was caused by foul-smelling air. Today, we understand that a person infected by a certain bacterium can spread the Plague through the air from one person to another or through flea bites, but in the Middle Ages, people were more worried about the smelly air than unseen germs. This is where plague masks came in. 

The disturbing beak masked unpleasant odors along with the doctor's humanity. (bezbrachki.com)

Sweetening The Air

Since pungent air was thought to cause diseases like the bubonic plague, doctors treating these patients developed ways to protect themselves from the offending air. Charles de L'Orme created the first plague mask in 1630 for use in Naples, but the protective mask and accompanying garment became popular among plague doctors across Europe. The mask featured large, round eye holes covered in glass, and the wearer breathed through a long, pointed beak filled with pleasant-smelling herbs and flowers, giving the whole mask an ominous, bird-like look. The plague doctor also wore a long overcoat made of fabric that was coated with wax and typically used a long cane to prod their patients, avoiding physical contact. Of course, no part of the getup was washed or sanitized between patients. 

Many plague doctors had no medical training. (horrorgalore.com)

Who Were The Plague Doctors?

Most plague doctors weren't trained medical professionals; those types of doctors did exist in medieval times, but during the Black Death, they devoted their time and efforts to non-plague patients, working as general practitioners. To treat the masses who were dying of the bubonic plague, town and villages hired special plague doctors. These pseudo-medical workers—such as barbers, undertakers, butchers, and farmers—were simply given a plague uniform and sent out amid the dying.

They may have offered some support, like a sip of water or a blanket, but their primary task was to keep a record of the dead and arrange for disposal of the corpse. Plague doctors were paid a flat fee from the town for their services instead of charging by the patient, but some unscrupulous plague doctors freelanced on the side. They charged wealthy patients an extra fee to give them a "special" remedy, which was merely a placebo. 

Bloodletting was just one of the bizarre plague cures. (history.com)

Other Strange "Cures" For The Plague

With the Black Death claiming so many lives, people were desperate for a cure and willing to try just about anything. Bloodletting was a common treatment, as it was for just about anything, and some doctors also tried rubbing a patient's body with herbs and onions. Others even went so far as to substitute a chopped-up snake or pigeon for the herbs, which had to be much less pleasant and equally ineffective. Some doctors suggested the patient drink vinegar, mercury, or arsenic to stop the progression of the plague, which worked insofar as it often killed you first. Still others believed that the disease could be forced out of the body with heat, recommending that the patient wrap themselves in thick blankets and sit over a fire. Since many people thought that the sickness was caused by impure thoughts, there was alway's that standby cure-all: prayer. At least it was better than a carcass massage.

Tags: creepy | medicine | medieval europe | plague

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.