Colour copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel [i.e Dr Beak], a plague doctor in seventeenth-century Rome, published by Paul Fürst, ca. 1656
As the country is in the grip of the COVID19 outbreak the British Library has made the decision to close our physical spaces in London and Boston Spa for the present. The pandemic continues to affect the world with Italy being the worst hit country in Europe so far. Italy though is no stranger to plagues and has survived much worse. During the Fifteenth Century the bubonic plague swept the land leading Venice to use the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio for the first lazaret or quarantine colony. Indeed, it’s been noted that the very word ‘quarantine’ comes from the Italian quarantine, meaning forty or forties, because potential plague victims returning from trade journeys would be quarantined for up to 40 days. Currently wearing a facemask outdoors is becoming de rigueur, and yet to quote an article by Christos Lynteris; “What this popular culture idiom may lead us to overlook, however, is that this pedigree of anti-epidemic PPEs was already part of their emergence at the turn of the century.”* During the second wave of bubonic plague epidemics in the Seventeenth Century we see the emergence of these anti-epidemic personal protection equipment, or as it was known at the time: the plague costume.
The “beak doctor" costume
These proto-modern hazmat suits typically consisted of an ankle-length leather or wax-canvas garment with large crystal glasses, gloves, boots and a brim hat. Most distinctive was the half a foot-long bird like beak with two holes on each side near the nostrils for respiration. The beak was filled with aromatic spices like camphor, mint, cloves, and myrrh plus dried flowers such as roses, carnations, or a vinegar sponge. Doctors believed the strong smells of the herbs would combat the contagious miasma or the "evil" smells of the plague and prevent them from becoming infected.
Photograph of 17th-century plague doctor mask from Austria or Germany on display in Berlin's Deutsches Historisches Museum wikimedia commons
Medical historians have attributed the invention of the "beak doctor" costume to the French physician at Louis XIII’s court named Charles de l’Orme. He is thought to have constructed the medico della peste mask during the 1619 plague outbreak in Paris. Made out of saffian (sheepskin or goatskin) with a beak containing garlic so that the “evil air” could not infect the practicing plague doctor. These doctors also carried a stick or ‘wand’ used to examine patients without touching them, while also acting as a deterrent to any one infected that attempted to approach.
The costume became entrenched in European culture during the plague of 1656, which killed nearly half a million people in Rome and Naples. Ichnographically etched into popular consciousness, the plague doctors look was associated with death and a symbol of mortality became a common sight in Venice. As such the costume inspired a commedia dell'arte character called Il Medico della Peste (the Plague Doctor), who wears a distinctive plague doctor's mask. Additionally, it inspired masks worn for the annual Venetian carnival. Typically, the distinctive mask is white, consisting of a hollow beak and round eye-holes and is still worn during the carnival to this day, which sadly this year was cut short due to coronavirus fears.
The function of masks has a long history, from a biomedical portable anti-epidemic ‘accessory’ to a symbolic signifier with talismanic properties. The plague costume reminds us that even medical protective clothing is touched by the ever-changing cycle of fashion. The evolution of this costume gave us the face mask in its current form; it is a utilitarian version of that original outfit. In its developed form, the facemask aims at protecting the wearer from airborne bacterial infection and thus visualizing the civic duty involved in containing the spread of diseases.
As a characteristic of material culture, face worn masks function across many levels not just a practical function but a symbolic one affecting public perceptions and social impact. Back at the beginning of this year face masks worn in public were a rare sight, yet today it could be said they have become a common accessory to high street fashion demonstrating the cultural and historical impact besides. Furthermore, as Lynteris suggests; “This was an apparatus that did not simply protect its wearers from infection. It also immersed them and their immediate social environment into a performance of medical reason and hygienic modernity.”
In centuries gone by the appearance of one of these human-sized birds on a doorstep indicated that death was near, it must have been a terrifying sight for the poor sick person. With the power of imagination, let us all hope that this beaked gown figure will come back to take this virus away. In the meantime, research by experts at the World Health Organisation continues to analyse the effectiveness of wearing facemask in the prevention of spreading the virus.
*See Christos Lynteris (2018) Plague Masks: The Visual Emergence of Anti-Epidemic Personal Protection Equipment, Medical Anthropology, 37:6, 442-457, DOI: 10.1080/01459740.2017.1423072
Plus JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 34 1900.