Who Were the Plague Doctors? Why Did They Have Bird Masks?

Who Were the Plague Doctors?

If you’ve ever seen some medieval movies, you’ve probably seen the menacing plague doctors with their birdlike masks. That, or you’ve played a lot of fantasy games/watched a lot of fantasy movies. They always pull out the plague doctor masks, because on some level, they’re kinda cool. At the very least, they’re novel. But what exactly was up with our plague doctor friends? Why did their masks look like birds? 

The Plague Doctor

For those of you out there putting two and two together, plague doctors saw their rise during the Plague. We’re not talking any plague, we’re talking about the Plague. You know, the Black Death. Given that the beak-wearing plague doctors were a European thing, they date back to as early as the 6th Century. That was the first time Europe had a run-in with the bubonic plague. 

While the predecessors and idea of plague doctors dates back far, the value of plague doctors remained fairly understated until the 14th Century. Coinciding with the big plague–the one that wiped out most of Europe.

However, it wouldn’t be until about the 17th Century that the iconic plague doctor costume came around in France and Italy. 

What Did Plague Doctors Do?

So whether or not they had the science right (hint, they didn’t), plague doctors were tasked with largely management roles. Some may think that they were meant to treat the plague. Which, while they were revered for that purpose, wasn’t their actual job. Ironically, their main task was not to actually doctor anyone. They were primarily record-keepers. Their job was tangentially related to studying the plague, but most of it was actually tracking how many people were dying. 

Nonetheless, plague doctors were seen as extremely important personnel way back when. They were even allowed to oversee autopsies on the dead for research purposes! Bear in mind that the Church basically ruled Europe at the time, and desecrating the dead was seen as a huge no-no. 

Plague doctors did sometimes have their own remedies for the bubonic plague, and they were often hired out by local governments or wealthy individuals. Primarily, they were hired out by municipalities, so they weren’t very concerned with financial stature. 

Plague Doctor Treatments

Plague doctors did a lot of work with quarantining efforts as well. They were charged with keeping the sick and healthy apart, and burning the dead. While the primary purpose of the plague doctors was not to treat the dying, they did try. 

None of those treatments were fun, and most of them actually made things worse (not that 17th Century Europe would know). These treatments included bloodletting with leeches and all that. They even used mercury every now and then. Yeah, that’s a bad time.

The Plague Doctor Beak

Doctor Schnabel, plague doctor, circa Rome 1656.

So as we mentioned earlier, the plague doctor costume didn’t come about until after they had already been established. But that’s really neither here nor there.

Now you might think the bird mask was purely symbolic. Hey, they look like crows and crows are symbols of death, right? Where death goes, the plague doctors followed. Well, not exactly. 

Further Reading: Crows vs Ravens

The plague doctor mask actually served a functional purpose. At least in 17th Century Europe, people thought they did. Nobody understood what made disease transmissible, and certainly not what made the bubonic plague transmissible.

Back then, Europeans believed in miasma theory. Basically, disease was spread by tainted air. Air was tainted thanks to the rotting flesh of the dead. Honestly, it’s some sound logic–the smell of death sucks. 

Plague doctor masks were chock full of herbs and other aromatic things, like lavender. Sometimes things like wormwood were also used (an important ingredient to absinthe). The aroma would keep plague doctors from smelling the death miasma. As for the rest of the outfit, plague doctors were covered from head to toe to keep the miasma from getting into the pores. Think of it as a primitive hazmat suit.

Know plagues? See if you know what the types are here.