The Black Death, also known as the Pestilence, or simply the Plague was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. It is believed to have originated in Central Asia and was brought to Europe towards the middle of the 14th century. Carried by the fleas, living on many rodents, most notably black rats, it spread rapidly and before anyone had time to react around a third of Europe’s population had already perished, or approximately 25 million people.
Throughout the next centuries outbreaks kept occurring, often with decimating consequences. Cities struck by the disease were often desperate and payed large sums to anyone willing to find a cure. Soon so-called plague doctors started to appear all across the continent, often with limited or none medical experience. Nevertheless, they were the only ones prepared to come in contact with the patients. They were payed directly by the city officials and so treated everyone equally, regardless of their social status. However, there was often little to nothing they could do for the helpless victims and so their chief assignment was to record their deaths and take care for the disposal of the bodies.
In some cities they also had special privileges and were allowed to perform autopsies, a practice which was largely forbidden during the Middle Ages. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that scientists finally discovered the bacterium responsible – Yersinia pestis. For the most part the predominating theory was that the disease was caused by miasma, or in other word – dead and rotting bodies were emanating bad air.
This belief lead to one of the most recognizable symbols of the plague – the plague doctor’s costume. It was designed by Charles de L’Orme, the chief physician of King Louis XIII, in the beginning of the 17th century and it quickly spread across Western Europe. It was specially crafted to protect the wearer from the outside, consisting of a waxed coat, a cane, and the distinctive mask. The wax coating was supposed to keep away bodily fluids, while the cane made possible for doctors to examine patients without actually touching them. The mask’s oversized beak was filled with flowers, herbs, or even vinegar, in an effort to block out the harmful air. This of course in no way stopped the infection and as a result many doctors contracted the disease and perished.