Mad masks – when protective face masks were all about the beak

To be a medieval plague doctor was a lonely, risky and pretty thankless job. They didn’t even get people clapping for them on a Thursday night.

In fact, the plague doctors during the Black Death in the 17th century tended to be the most junior members of the medical profession – the ones with little, or no, medical training and experience.

Their job wasn’t actually to try and treat patients who had caught the deadly bubonic plague, but to go into infected areas of the cities and record deaths.

And, to ‘protect’ them while they took on this wildly risky mission, they were dressed in what now looks like the kind of creepy outfit a horror movie villain would go skulking about in – in other words, not the most reassuring garb for putting patients at ease.

The suit itself was made of waxed leather – an attempt to prevent the infection from attaching itself to the fibres of fabric clothing. But it’s the mask that makes the whole outfit seem so curious.

The reason for the beak was the belief in those days that the infection was carried on the foul smelling air of the cities. The beak was stuffed with sweet smelling herbs and spices as a way to protect the wearer from breathing in the infected air – which would have been pretty smart… had they not gone and cut two prominent nostrils into the beak.

As far as protective gear goes it was, as you can imagine, not terribly successful. But, to be fair, while modern masks might do a far better job of protecting you from infection, they don’t make quite the same impression as a long leather beak. You can’t have everything we suppose.