It is an image that many recognise but most know nothing about. The plague mask—with its elongated beak and dark, soulless eyes—has been replicated in costume shops around the world [see left]. Indeed, so prevalent are these masks at parties and balls, one might be tempted to think it is a design entirely imagined by Italian mask-makers for the Venetian Carnival. But where did this mask originate and what purpose did it serve during plague outbreaks?

Although the plague ravaged Europe in the 14th century, killing nearly two-thirds of its population, the earliest textual description of the mask dates from the 17th century. Charles de Lorme, chief physician to Louis XIII and likely inventor behind the design, wrote:

The nose [is] half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the [herbs] enclosed further along in the beak. Under the coat we wear boots made in Moroccan leather (goat leather) from the front of the breeches in smooth skin that are attached to said boots, and a short sleeved blouse in smooth skin, the bottom of which is tucked into the breeches. The hat and gloves are also made of the same skin…with spectacles over the eyes. [1]

From this description, it is tempting to conclude that de Lorme was trying to protect himself against germs by wearing something akin to a modern-day biohazard suit. However, a coherent germ theory did not emerge until the mid-19th century with the experiments of Joseph Lister, Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur. That said, de Lorme was trying to protect himself against something he believed was just as insidious and just as dangerous as we understand germs to be today: miasma, or poisonous vapours associated with decomposition and foul air.

De Lorme imagined that the herbs stuffed in the end of the beak would purify the air and prevent the plague doctor from breathing in the miasma, while the leather overcoat, breeches, boots and gloves would ensure that the skin was not exposed at any time.  The hat [see right] was that which was typically worn by physicians during the early modern period and thus served a purely symbolic purpose. The wooden cane, on the other hand, was likely used to keep patients at a distance, or else direct caregivers on how to move the bodies of infected victims during examinations. It was not used, as some suppose, to beat away the rats who are today widely believed to have carried fleas infected with yersinia pestis, the bacterium better known as plague.

It is difficult to know how ubiquitous the plague mask was in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most physicians fled the city during outbreaks, leaving the dying to fend for themselves. Those who did remain behind rarely mention it in their writing, making the mask all the more elusive to historians.

Today, the plague mask lives on in the imaginations of artists, writers and film-makers [click here for a stunning example]. Through them, it has been transformed into something altogether different, for the plague mask which was once used to ward off death, has now become the very symbol of it.

1. Quoted and translated in Michel Tibayrenc (ed.), Encyclopedia of Infectious Diseases: Modern Methodologies (2007) p. 680. From M. Lucenet, ‘La peste, fleau majeur’ extraits de la Bibliotheque InterUniversitaire, Paris (1994).