A broadside on doctors in Rome and their protective clothing against the plague; with an engraving after an Italian broadside showing a figure dressed with along coat, gloves, mask and hat, holding in the right hand a stick with a winged hourglass, in the left background the same figure and children running away, in the R background a view of an Italian city.
About Doctor Schnabel’s costume, the attempt to treat people ill with plague and the remedies they used:
► A wide-brimmed black hat worn close to the head. At the time, a wide-brimmed black hat would have identified a person as a doctor, much the same as how a hat may identify chefs, soldiers and workers nowadays. The wide-brimmed hat might have also been used as partial shielding from infection.
► A primitive gas mask in the shape of a bird’s beak. A common belief at the time was that the plague was spread by birds. It was thought that by dressing in a bird-like mask, the wearer could draw the plague away from the patient and onto the garment the plague doctor wore. The mask also included red glass eyepieces, which were thought to make the wearer impervious to evil. The beak of the mask was often filled with strongly aromatic herbs and spices to overpower the miasmas or “bad air” which was also thought to carry the plague. At the very least, it may have served a dual purpose, also dulling the smell of unburied corpses, sputum, and ruptured bouboules in plague victims.
► A long black overcoat. The overcoat worn by the plague doctor was tucked in behind the beak mask at the neckline to minimize skin exposure. It extended to the feet, and was often coated head to toe in suet or wax. A coating of suet may have been used with the thought that the plague could be drawn away from the flesh of the infected victim and either trapped by the suet, or repelled by the wax. The coating of wax likely served as protection against respiratory droplet contamination eventhough it was not known at the time if coughing carried the plague. It is likely that the overcoat was waxed to simply prevent sputum or other bodily fluids from clinging to it.
► A wooden cane. The cane was used to both direct family members to move the patient and other individuals nearby, and possibly to examine the patient with directly. Its precise purpose with relation to the plague victim isn’t known.
► Leather breeches. Similar to waders worn by fishermen, leather breeches were worn beneath the cloak to protect the legs and groin from infection. Since the plague often tended to manifest itself first in the lymph nodes, particular attention was paid to protecting the armpits, neck, and groin.
The plague doctors’ clothing also had a secondary use: to intentionally frighten and warn onlookers. The bedside manner common to doctors of today did not exist at the time; part of the appearance of the plague doctor’s clothing was meant to frighten onlookers, and to communicate that something very, very wrong was nearby, and that they too might become infected. It is unknown how often or widespread plague doctors were, or how effective they were in treatment of the disease. It’s likely that while offering some protection to the wearer, they may have actually contributed more to the spreading of the disease than its treatment, by unknowingly serving as vectors for infected fleas to move from host to host.
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