What is a Plague Doctor?

Paul_Fürst,_Der_Doctor_Schnabel_von_Rom_(Holländer_version)

Doktor Schnabel von Rom (“Doctor Beak of Rome” in German) with a satirical Latin/German macaronic poem (‘Vos Creditis, als eine Fabel, / quod scribitur vom Doctor Schnabel’) in octosyllabic rhyming couplets. Engraving by Paul Fürst, 1656

A plague doctor in medieval Europe was a person who specialized in treating the plague[1]. They were hired by towns to treat plague victims, often when the town’s actual doctors had fled to safer territories. This means that the plague doctor didn’t always have the training required to be an actual doctor, but because he was willing to put himself in danger for the sake of treating a patient he was very well compensated[2].

What’s most intriguing perhaps about the plague doctor–other than his lack of qualifications–was his outfit. It varies from country to country but what is most vividly depicted is the beak-like mask that was often worn to protect the plague doctor with various aromatics from the miasma (bad air) that causes plague. Of course we now know that the plague was transmitted through flea bites carrying Yersinia pestis[3].

Along with the beaked mask, the doctors would wear rose-coloured glasses, a wide-brimmed hat that signified their status as doctor, and a long overcoat, often made of leather. They carried long canes used to examine patients[4].

Even more interesting is that the literary genre of steampunk seems to have picked up on the figure of the Plague Doctor to create rather creepy looking characters.

Source: malignanttoast on DeviantArt

Source: malignanttoast on DeviantArt

Source: Topher Adam Photography via Kelsey Grace Chavarria

Source: Topher Adam Photography via Kelsey Grace Chavarria

Source: Cthulhu-Great via DeviantArt

Source: Cthulhu-Great on DeviantArt

Source: Estruda on DeviantArt

Source: Estruda on DeviantArt

Source: Tom Banwell on DeviantArt

Source: Tom Banwell on DeviantArt

What’s with the rise of plague doctors? One blogger believes it was because, although they were not part of the time period steampunk is typically associated with, plague doctors were the “champions of science” during their own time. Plus, “few historically-accurate costumes are as awesome” as that of the plague doctor’s. So, you know, it looks cool.

Have you read any steampunk novels that feature a plague doctor? I haven’t yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I come across one.

[1] Plague Doctor. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plague_doctor

[2] Plague Doctor: History. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plague_doctor#History

[3] The Black Death: Causes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death#Causes

[4] Plague Doctor: Costume. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plague_doctor#Costume

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2 thoughts on “What is a Plague Doctor?

  1. Sarah @ littlebusontheprairie.com March 5, 2014 at 4:06 pm Reply

    That is seriously awesome.

    • admin March 5, 2014 at 8:58 pm Reply

      Thanks Sarah! :)

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