With the coronavirus pandemic raging across the world, people are getting more comfortable with the idea of wearing masks, whether they like it or not. Asian countries have been well acquainted with mask wearing, however, places like the United States are far less used to the idea of covering your face in public.
Now that masks are either enforced and/or strongly encouraged, the idea of corona mask chic has entered the conversation. People aren’t just wearing medical masks, they are wearing stylish masks that show off their personality. You can pretty much get a face mask in any style at this point.
People didn’t always have those kinds of options, especially in the 17th century. In act, in the 17th century, a lot less was known about pandemics. You may have seen old pictures and noticed the creepy plague doctors wearing long snouted bird masks and wondered why? Read on to find the answer.
The Black Death ravaged 17 century Europe for over three centuries. It was a true nightmare of death and squalor. Scientists are struggling to contain the coronavirus now with all our technology at hand, imagine the struggle back then. Some of the symptoms of the Black Death were even worse than coronavirus. Lymph nodes would swell to a grotesque degree, victims would bleed from the mouth and nose, and their skin turned black.
The lack of knowledge around infectious diseases led to the constant reintroduction of the Black Death. Unfortunately, the only strategy doctors had to rely on was superstitions and tactics that weren’t based on anything. This is where the plague doctor costume derived from. It was developed with incorrect, medieval science in mind, which is why you won’t see anything like it today.
Plague Doctor was one of the worst jobs you could have in the 17th century. They would travel from town to town where the plague had shown up and would then treat the victims. Their treatments had a very low rate of survival, and they themselves risked infection constantly. As far as what they actually did, their job went beyond medical treatment. They would perform autopsies and would testify and witness wills for victims of the plague. For the most part, they just counted bodies and recorded victims in their logs.
Plague Doctor was a respected profession, however, they lived in quarantine as social outcasts. As for their costumes, they did little to help. Plague Doctors died constantly. It was covered in scented wax or suet. Everything was tucked into each other to avoid infection (as best as could be).
The mask is the strangest part. It is made of dark leather and strapped to the face to protect the user from “bad air.” The eye holes had little glass domes to look out through. Some doctors would even burn herbs within their mask that they thought would further protect themselves. Encyclopedia of Infection Diseases: Modern Methodologies explained this saying, “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.”
The one other tool they used was a long stick that they would use to poke victims. It wasn’t pleasant, but at least we’ve moved on from plague doctors.