Image Credit: j_naturalia_2
We know what you’re thinking, and no the Bird People have not decided to rise up against their human overlords….yet. The photo above depicts an individual fashioning the get up Plague Doctors wore when visiting patients during the Black Death in the 14th Century.
1/3 of the population of Europe was wiped out by the plague and the costume definitely reflects the creepiness of the times. Plague Doctors wore the frightening get up to mitigate their chances of catching the highly infectious disease, think of it as an archaic hazmat suit.
Now we get that the wide brimmed, black hat identified one as a doctor in those days, and that a long, tucked in cloak and leather breeches minimized skin exposure, but why would plague doctors want to appear to their patients as horrible birds? Were they trying to scare the bejesus out of their patients and the plague along with it?
According to Wikipedia, people of the day wrongly believed that the black death was being transmitted and spread by birds. Since Superstition abounded in the 14th century , it follows that if one dresses like a bird, the plague could be drawn away from the sick and on to the bird’s clothing (keep in mind medical science was non-existent at this time, they did what they could). The eyepieces of red glass were believed to shield the wearer from evil, which was obviously the root of the disease (they didn’t have the germ theory of disease back then either). But according to the same wikipedia article, the beak may have had a more practical use as well:
“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 of dulling the smell of unburied corpses, sputum, and ruptured bouboules in plague victims.”
The kicker to all this is that the plague wasn’t being spread by birds, it was being spread by fleas, most often riding on rats, and the wicked cool get up the plague doctors wore probably provided a great carrier vehicle for fleas to get from place to place. The plague doctor get up has now entered the popular conscious as a hallmark of horror. Though plague doctors proved to be ineffective, the profession provided a convenient occupation for those who loved to poke bodies without being called a weirdo.