Sunday, August 21, 2011

A doctor who could scare you to death

In my last blog post, there was a picture of a person wearing a homemade plague doctor mask. It was a long, beaked mask that looked like it was made from paper mache. I recognized this shape of mask from my trip to Venice a few years ago. There are many beautiful carnival masks for sale in Venice, and a lot of them have this beaked design:

I had no idea what I was looking at during my trip, but I did notice that this mask design was everywhere. Below is a photo I took through a shop window in Venice. I was actually trying to get a picture of the masks on the back wall, but ended up with the silhouette of plague doctor masks as a frame. If you click on this picture, you will see more of the details. The two masks at the top are a common design. Often you see either glasses painted around the eyes, or writing on the beak.

Once I returned from Venice, I looked up the symbolism of the beaked masks. I found that they were called "plague doctor" masks, but that made me more puzzled. Further web searches turned up the reason for the beak design. Doctors working during a plague would have been smelling some unpleasant odors. The beak left room for the doctor to stuff flowers and potpourri in front of his nose.

So the mask that I thought was goofy looking, turned out to be quite serious and practical!

The picture below shows the various parts of a plague doctor's outfit. Wearing a wide brimmed hat would have identified a man as a doctor. There's also a theory that a wide hat and long beak would keep the sickly from getting too close to a doctor's face, and therefore infecting him. The doctor would carry a stick to direct people and also inspect a patient without touching them. His long coat would be tucked into his mask and covered with suet and wax. The suet was supposed to draw the plague out of the victim and trap it. The wax was there to prevent body fluids from sticking to the doctor.

After posting the plague doctor picture from Ren Faire, I exchanged some interesting tweets with an artist who goes by the name King Unicorn. He created the plague doctor art doll that is pictured below:

Isn't this character cool? He's a non-traditional take on the doctor, but he's eerie in his own faceless way! Click the image to see more of this character and read the inspiration for the design. You'll freak out when you see his back! King Unicorn is a great illustrator as well as a sculptor, and I think you will all enjoy his work. Here's his web site:

Along with showing me a different kind of plague doctor, King Unicorn suggested an amazing movie to me: Restoration. The fact that this movie stars Robert Downey Jr. was reason enough for me to see it.

Besides getting to look at beautiful sets, costumes, and Robert Downey Jr., I learned a lot about 17th century England, and I liked the message of the film. It was shocking to go from viewing the excesses of the court, to seeing the plague-ridden villages that everyday people were living in. Throughout the movie, Robert Downey Jr.'s character (also named Robert) learns about his true talent to heal and also about what really matters in life.

I was thrilled to find an eight minute clip of Restoration that fits this post perfectly. I recommend watching the whole thing, but if you're pressed for time, you can skip to two parts of this. If you stop the video at 2:48, you will see the beak of the mask being stuffed with flowers and potpourri. If you skip to 3:42, you will see Robert wearing the entire plague doctor outfit.

Isn't the image of the plague doctor in this movie striking? Can you imagine seeing someone in this leather mask and hat? I think the plague doctor's outfit probably added more terror to the plague. By the way, the fire that is mentioned at the end of this clip wiped out a lot of the plague sufferers, and The Great Plague in general.

Since Robert looks almost Steampunk in his mask, I decided to do a web search for Steampunk plague doctor masks. I started by doing an Etsy search, and found all these goodies: Steampunk plague doctor masks

I think "Plague Doctor" would be a scary Halloween costume! "Plague Victim" might be an even scarier one...

Here's a trivia question for you: Who was the most famous plague doctor?

Answer: Nostradamus!

I was surprised to learn that Nostradamus was a plague doctor. The not so surprising part is that he was really ahead of his time. Nostradamus did not believe in using leeches on the sick, like a lot of doctors during his time did. When you consider that Nostradamus was practicing during the 16th century, and doctors were still blood-letting late into 19th century, he was way ahead of his time! Nostradamus' remedies of choice were: fresh air, clean water, and a juice preparation of rose hips that contained high amounts of Vitamin C.

On a side note, I was reminded of the old Spy vs. Spy cartoon while writing this post. I bet we can all guess what inspired these drawings...

I'm going to leave you with this beautiful tribute video to plague doctors. I think they deserve some kind of tribute, because these men were putting their lives into their hands while trying to help. Actually, most of the trained doctors had already fled the plague, so "plague doctors" were often regular citizens who stepped up to the task. This video is made from a slideshow of art and photos set to some great eerie music! I suggest watching this full screen if you can.


  1. As I might have mentioned before, History was my favourite subject in school and we studied The Great Plague and The Black Death multiple times. I found it all very fascinating! We watched multiple documentaries on it in class and The Plague Doctor was probably my favourite thing to learn about!

    I don't know if you already know this but the meaning of the children's rhyme -

    A ring, a ring o' roses,
    A pocket full o’ posies,
    Atishoo atishoo we all fall down

    - is supposed to be related to The Great Plague. A rosy rash was a symptom and as you know posies and herbs were used to protect people from the smell of the disease and sneezing and coughing was another major symptom of the disease which inevitably lead to 'we all fall down' dead.

    I love the Plague Doctor masks! They are such a macabre image nowadays and I can see why people would have feared seeing the Doctor coming along the road as it was probably a sign to them that death was near by.

    Great post! xx

  2. Awesome and interesting article (once again) Ms Justine!
    "Haunted by a profound melancholy"...
    Robert Downey Jr. is so debonair in this movie. Thanks for all the info on the masks ~ never thought of them before but the history is fascinating.

  3. Vain Glory Sinner ~ Yes, I do remember that you studied the plague in school! In fact, I thought of you while writing this. I figured if one of my blog followers had some knowledge of plague doctors, it would be you! So as my most expert follower on the plagues, I'm super glad you enjoyed this post. :)

    I'm not sure if you saw my reply to you last time, but I'm not at all surprised that history was your favorite subject. Since you are such a collector of antiques! It was one of my favorite subjects as well.

    Yes, I did know where that children's rhyme came from! I remember dancing around in a circle singing that on the playground, actually. Of course, at that point I didn't know its origins. American kids sing it a little differently. Instead of "Atishoo Atishoo", it's "Ashes Ashes, we all fall down." I guess we took it a step further with the morbid ending. :)

    Now I have that song running through my head...

    I hadn't thought of it that way, but I can totally see how seeing one of these doctors walk into your town would be disturbing. I guess you could pretty much assume the plague had hit your town if you saw one of these guys!

    Goth Clothes ~ Thank you! :) I'm so glad you enjoyed this post. I learned a lot in the process of writing it.

    Yes, isn't that a great quote? Debonair is the perfect word for him. I think Robert Downey Jr. brings something special to any movie he's in. He's quirky and offbeat, yet has a lot of class.

    I'm glad you learned something from this! Yeah, there was a surprising amount of history behind these masks. I'm sure there's still plenty more to learn!

  4. The first mask is beautiful, it looks like it's expensive!

    Robert Downey Jr. is such an awesome actor, looks like he did a pretty wide range in acting.

    You're definite right, the Plague Doctor and Plague victim would make an awesome Halloween costume! Very creative.

  5. Real Queen of Horror ~ Yes, it is expensive! That mask is being sold by a British seller and costs 99 pounds. That would be about $160 dollars for us. If you have some money to burn, you can CLICK HERE to buy it!

    Yeah, Robert Downey Jr. had a wide acting range in just this movie. At first he's really silly and doesn't take anything seriously. Then, as you can imagine with being a plague doctor, he gets serious. I thought he did a great job in this!

    Oh, hey! That would be a great couple's costume! One person could go as the doctor, and the other as the plague victim. I suppose that the victim costume wouldn't be much different than a lot of the zombie costumes I've seen...

  6. Fascinating post! I'm familiar with the plague doctor masks, from Etsy, but I really didn't know the history. I wonder how many plague doctors actually caught the plague?

    I love that top mask, too! It's gorgeous... but, I definitely don't have some money to burn, unfortunately. Haha.

    I love Venice! It's one of my favourite cities in the world. I went there a few times when I lived in London. My husband's family are Italian, and originally came from that region of Italy. He speaks Italian, which came in very handy on our travels. I'd love to go to Venice during the annual carnival.

    The clip from "Restoration" was brilliant. I've never seen that movie, but now I'm very interested!

  7. Great post. I actually have an old plague doctor mask my husband got in Europe somewhere. Would you mind if I used your plague doctor/ plague victim idea for a costume using his old mask? That is brilliant, although it might be another Halloween of everyone asking us what we are.

  8. A great post and a fun read. Masks have always fascinated me and the Plague Doctor mask has always been one of my favs!
    The pic of the Mask Shoppe in Venice is wonderful!

  9. Little Gothic Horrors ~

    Unfortunately, I read that a lot of plague doctors caught the plague, despite their special outfits. I also read that in some cases they even made things worse by spreading the disease. So, it got to the point where they couldn't even interact with the general public. I guess they were paid really well, but what a risk to take!

    Imagine walking into the plague as most people were trying to run from it. There are events in history that I can't even imagine. It makes me really grateful to be alive now!

    Oh how wonderful that your husband speaks Italian! I bet that helped during your trip. A lot of Italian people speak English, which was awesome for us. :) Sometimes communicating was a struggle, though. I remember the process of getting train tickets was interesting.

    Oh, being in Venice for carnival would be amazing! The history of mask wearing in Venice is fascinating and a little scary. That would be a great topic for a blog entry right there.

    Yeah, I really recommend "Restoration" because you'll learn a lot and it's a good story. I didn't know much about Charles II going into this, but I know a lot more now!

    Jessica ~ Thank you! Oh, how cool. Is your plague doctor mask from Italy, or another country? I would absolutely love it if you'd use the plague doctor/victim idea as a couple's costume! You have to promise to send me some photos if you end up doing that. Yeah, you might have to do some explaining, but think how much you'll be teaching people about history!

    Jeanne ~ Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed this post and my photo. It's funny that I wasn't even paying attention to the plague doctor masks when I took that picture. :) I have a few more spooky Venice photos to share if I ever do a blog post about my trip. There is some definite material to work with there...

  10. It is a very weird looking beak mask. The first time I heard or saw one was when Zak (Ghost Adventures) showed it and explained its use. It may look weird but like you said, it had a practical use. Also, I am jealous you were in Venice. It was Venice, Italy right?

  11. Crazy, I have a mask JUST like that! My husband and I purchased in Key West, FL on our trip to Mexico 3 yrs ago. I will find a picture and share w/you.

  12. Adsila ~ Oh, I'd be interested in watching the Ghost Adventures episode you mentioned. Maybe I can find that online somewhere.

    Yes, I was in Venice, Italy! It was an amazing experience. I have lots of spooky pictures from that trip, and plan to write a blog post including them.

    Madame Jen ~ Cool! I'd love to a see a photo of your mask. My email is on the upper left corner of my blog.

    Did you understand the symbolism of your mask when you bought it?

  13. Wow! Justine, I really love this post! I've always been intirgued by these masks, but never knew the history behind them. Thank you so much for sharing this knowledge =)

  14. Countess ~ Thank you! :) I'm glad that you enjoyed this post and learned something from it. I know I learned a lot in the process of writing this.

    Yes, the masks are intriguing! Even though I didn't understand what I was looking at when I first saw these masks, I realized there had to be some story behind them. They're so different from any other masks I've seen!

  15. This was a great post and I'm certainly excited to see the strange vision of the plague doctor I was given to work with included here.

    Plague doctors have been making a lot of appearances in cinema lately. Films like SEASON OF THE WITCH and SOLOMON KANE both feature the dress and role of the plague doctor to good use. While their appearances certainly elicit an appropriate uneasiness, RESTORATION's limited use of the plague doctor remains my favorite. That shot at 4:00 in the clip above is so wonderfully composed.

    For fans of 18th century style, Venetian Masquerades, monsters, and plague doctors, I'd recommend taking a look at Guy Davis' MARQUIS for some comic entertainment:

    Additionally, check out Ghoul Friday's Plague Doctor figures. I'm certain most have been sent far and away to infected homes, but one or two might be available for house calls:

    I certainly hope to see more plague doctors wandering the streets, checking the infected, and gathering treats this coming Halloween as a result of the interest well-crafted posts like this generate. Thanks for taking the time to research, write, and share, Justine. Bravo!

  16. I can't believe you found the logical explanation to the freaky bird masked docs, but you did. You are amazing.

  17. King Unicorn ~ Thank you so much for reading this and leaving me such a thoughtful response! I'm really glad you enjoyed this post. I can tell that you know a lot about the plague doctor topic, but I would be curious to know if any of what I wrote was new to you!

    I just stopped the video at 4:00 to see which part you meant. Yes, that's a striking moment when the doctor's silhouette walks through those double doors. It's so quiet with just the swishing of the incense swaying back and forth. The filming and sound during that part really built the tension of the scene. The first time I watched that part I was fearing what I'd see next!

    I meant to see "Season of the Witch" but never got around to it. I didn't hear such great reviews, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't like it! It looked visually interesting anyway. I'm not familiar with "Solomon Kane". I'll have to watch those movies next.

    I took a peek at the MARQUIS blog. There are some great drawings there. I really liked the ones with the extreme angles and Gothic church tops! I'll have to page through that blog some more.

    I looked at Ghoul Friday's little plague doctors too. They are, dare I say...cute. I always like creepy things at a smaller scale. I can't imagine a full scale sculpture of one of these. How freaky would that be? Ha! "sent to infected homes" :) Yeah, let's hope not...

    I would absolutely love to see little plague doctors coming to my door for candy this year! It would be fun to see a unique, historical costume once in a while. Hey, I bet with all the research you've done, plus your artistic skill, you could put together an awesome plague doctor costume for yourself this Halloween!

    Copyboy ~ Aww...Thank you! :) Actually, the internet helped out a little too. This is one of those topics that I could have spent a long time trying to figure out before the days of the internet. I'm not even sure if there are plague doctor references in any books at our library. I actually should check the next time I'm there. It's an interesting topic!

  18. This was a great post. I just love the plague doctor masks that have come up lately....beautiful and creepy.

    And I loved the film....really good story. Thanks for sharing. Really enjoyed reading your post.


  19. The Frog Queen ~ Thank you! I'm so glad that you enjoyed this one. :) So, you've watched "Restoration" in its entirety? I found the plot thought provoking and rich with history. I heard that the movie was based off of a book. So, I might have to read that.

    Yes, the masks are creepy but elegant in their way. The mask combined with the hat and long coat is a look that demands respect!

  20. That is one cool looking mask.

  21. I know! I feel like I need one of these masks after learning so much about them. I could probably scare the trick-or-treaters if I opened the door wearing one of these. :)

  22. Thanks for the update! Followed!

  23. That mask is so...unsettling. I wonder if plague victims were comforted or horrified to see the doctor cross their threshold. The idea of terror and medieval plague in Venice makes me think of Poe's The Masque of the Red Death - a quite chilling take on the inevitability of death as plague personified.

  24. Hey Eva! Good to see you here...

    Yeah, unsettling is a good word for it. I think the mask would be unsettling both because it looks creepy and also because the sight of it would be a signal to a town that the plague had hit. I can't imagine laying around sick and having this creepy bird face hover over me! The things people had to deal with in some time periods are just horrific.

    I'm sort of familiar with The Masque of the Red Death. I haven't read it in its entirety, though. I'll check out the link! Thanks for posting that. :)