At that time, it was believed that the clothing (which did not include only the mask) could purify the poisoned air.
Caused by bacteria transmitted by fleas from small animals (mainly rats), the bubonic plague was one of the most feared diseases in the world. With symptoms that resembled flu, including fever, headache and vomiting, the disease evolved to inflammation of the lymph nodes and, without treatment, caused the death of 30% to 90% of those infected in a period of ten days.
The bubonic plague pandemic that hit Europe, Asia and Africa in the 14th century and killed 50 million people (about a third of the European population at the time) became known as the “Black Death”.
In the 17th century, new outbreaks of the disease gave rise to an image that became emblematic and is still associated with the plague: doctors with a dress that covered them from head to toe and a mask with a bird’s beak. The reason behind the weird (and slightly scary) costume is the lack of scientific knowledge about the causes of the disease.
At that time, the current theory for the spread of infectious diseases was miasmatic. Formulated by the English doctor Thomas Sydenham and the Italian Giovanni Maria Lancisi, the theory argued that the diseases originated from miasmas, the fetid odors that came from putrefying organic matter and contaminated water. They would cause an imbalance in the patient’s body fluids, and it was believed that strong perfumes could protect from the plague.
The logic behind the masks was just that: to prevent the miasma from reaching the doctors’ nose. Filled with terga, a combination of more than 55 herbs and other spices that since ancient Greece was seen as an antidote to any poisoning, the idea was that the beak shape would provide enough time to purify the air.
The person responsible for the creation was the doctor Charles de Lorme, who took care of French royalty during the 17th century, among them King Louis XIII. In addition to the weird mask, the look consisted of a shirt inside the pants that connected to the boots, a coat covered with scented wax, a hat and gloves made of sheepskin, and a stick to keep the sick out.
Centuries later, it was proved that the outfit only served as a costume – especially in Italy, the iconic look appeared in plays of the genre “commedia dell’arte” and during the carnival. The microbial theory, confirmed at the end of the 19th century and accepted until today, established that microorganisms are the true causes of innumerable diseases, including bubonic plague.