Did plague doctors wear those masks?

I get asked this question a lot when I teach courses in the history of medicine or the history of science.  Even more commonly, people tell me they “know” what plague doctors looked like: they had a mask with a long beak, goggles, gloves and a garment that covered them from chin to ankles.  Indeed, the 12-year-old son of some friends of mine just dressed up as a plague doctor for Halloween in precisely this costume.  But doubts about the historical accuracy of the plague mask have nagged at me for a while.  If it was so common, why didn’t I ever run across mentions of this costume in historical sources or in histories of the plague written by academic historians?  A Google search on “plague doctor” turns up an enormous number of images of men in beaked masks and black cloaks, and numerous sites that assert as historical fact that this is what doctors wore during plague epidemics.  Let me give you a couple of my favorite examples:

There is a doctor character in the enormously popular video game Assassin’s Creed who wears a plague mask. I pulled this picture from the Assassin’s Creed Wiki, which explains that,


“To protect themselves from this pandemic, doctors dressed in a long black cloak covered with a coating of wax, along with a very primitive beak-shaped plague mask, although not all doctors chose to wear it. Within this Medico Della Peste mask, there were usually flower petals, burning incense or aromatic herbs to rid of bad smells, since it was believed that disease was transmitted through “bad air.” The eyes of the mask were also made out of glass, as it was believed that sicknesses could be caught through face-to-face contact with patients, or by touching infected objects.”

My other favorite was this fantastically creepy video on YouTube: The Plague Doctor.  Set in 17th-century London, a sick gravedigger visits a plague doctor, only to be told he is dying and that the doctor will not treat him.  In anger, he slashes the doctor’s protective glove, thus infecting him with the deadly plague.

My problem with these representations is that the only even remotely contemporary image I can find of a plague doctor in such a get up is this one, from 1656:


Paul Fürst, “Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom.” Reproduced from Eugen Holländer, Die Karikatur und Satire in der Medizin, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart, 1921), p. 171. Wikimedia Commons.

This image was originally a single-sheet broadside, produced by the German engraver Paul Fürst of Nuremberg.  The reproduction that appears all over the internet (generally without attribution) is from Eugen Holländer’s Die Karikatur und Satire in der Medizin, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart, 1921).  This entire book is available on-line here.  The first thing I would note is that this is VERY late in the history of the plague.  The very last plague epidemics in Europe were in the early eighteenth century.  The second thing is that this is a SATIRE.  As this seems to be the main primary source for what plague doctors wore and what they did, I’d like to look at it in detail.  The title is “Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom” (Dr. Beak from Rome).  The caption at the bottom is in German.  I’ll give the original (for those who can read German but not the old-fashioned Gothic lettering) and my translation.  (Corrections and suggestions are more than welcome!)

Kleidung wider den Tod zu Rom. Anno 1656. Also gehen die Doctores Medici daher zu Rom, wann sie die an der Pest erkranckte personen besuchen, sie zu curiren und tragen, sich widerm Gifft zu sichern, ein langes kleid von gewäxtem Tüch ihr Angesicht ist verlarvt, für den Augen haben sie grosse Crÿstalline Brillen, wider Nasen einen langen Schnabel mit wolriechender Specereÿ, in der Hände, welche mit Handschüher wol versehen ist, eine lange Rüthe und darmit deüten sie, was man thun, und gebraüchen sol.

Clothing to ward off death in Rome, 1656. The doctors of medicine in Rome go about thus, when they visit people sick with the plague in order to take care of them. And they wear, to protect themselves from poison [infection], a long robe made of waxed cloth. Their face is wrapped up; in front of their eyes they have large crystal glasses; over their nose they have a long beak filled with good-smelling spices; in their hands, which are protected by gloves, they carry a long rod and with this they indicate what people should do and what [medicines] they should use.

This sounds exactly like the description of the plague doctor’s attire from the Assassin’s Creed Wiki (and numerous other websites).  That seems pretty conclusive, right?  It’s a primary source document, so here we have a seventeenth-century person’s description of plague doctors he actually observed.  Or do we?  Here’s what gives me pause.  The verses on either side of the figure are what mark the broadside as satirical (also calling the figure “Dr. Beak”).  These verses are in a mixture of Latin and German.  Again, I will include them here in both the original languages and my translation.  I am not nearly good enough to render them into rhymed English, but I’ve tried to capture the sense of the originals.  (Again, suggestions and corrections are welcome!)

Vos Creditis, als eine fabel

quod scribitur vom Doctor Schnabel

der fugit die Contagion

et aufert seinen Lohn darvon

Cadavera sucht er zu fristen

Gleich wie der Corvus auf der Misten

Ah Credite, sihet nicht dort hin

Dann Romae regnat die Pestin.

Quis non deberet sehr erschrecken

für seiner Virgul oder stecken

qua loquitur als wär er stumm

und deutet sein consilium.

Wie mancher Credit ohne zweiffel

das ihn tentir ein schwartzen teuffl

Marsupium heist seine Höll

und aurum die geholte seel.

You believe it is a fable

What is written about Dr. Beak

Who flees the contagion

And snatches his wage from it

He seeks cadavers to eke out a living

Just like the raven on the dung heap

Oh believe, don’t look away

For the plague rules Rome.

Who would not be very frightened

Before his little rod or stick

By which means he speaks as though he were mute, and indicates his decision

So many a one believes without doubt

That he is touched by a black devil

His hell is called “purse”

And the souls he fetches are gold.

The verses begin by marking the plague doctor as an UNFAMILIAR sight.  You may believe what I’m about to tell you is just a fable, the author begins.  In other words, this is NOT how doctors in Germany dress.  This is a strange, Italian custom.  And then he goes on to lampoon the plague doctors of Rome.  They protect themselves from contagion, but they profit from it.  They seek out the dying to get money from them, just like ravens (or crows) scavenging in a pile of shit.  Like the Devil, who goes among the dying, seeking souls he can drag into hell, Dr. Beak goes among the dying, seeking gold coins to put in his purse.  This satire certainly resonates with a good bit of contemporary critique of doctors as rapacious and greedy.  But I wonder, was the comparison of the plague doctor to a raven inspired by the resemblance of the plague mask to a bird’s beak, or was it the other way around?  Was the mask in this image exaggerated to look beak-like because of the comparison to an avian scavenger?  Note that the fingers on the gloves are elongated and pointed, like the talons of a bird.  There is nothing in either the poem or the passage below the image to indicate why this might be medically efficacious. Finally, at the end of the rod is an hour glass with wings, a visual symbol of the saying “tempus fugit” (time flies) (originally from Virgil’s Georgics).  Surely no plague doctor ever literally carried such a device!  Rather, the emblem suggests that the doctor is the harbinger of death rather than a savior.  All things considered, I’m left unconvinced that this is a literal description of the costume of a plague doctor.  And I’ve yet to find evidence that would convince me.

Why does it matter whether or not plague doctors dressed up like ghoulish carrion birds?  One problem I have with the popularity of the figure of the plague doctor is that it erases the very real contributions of women to medical practice generally, and to the care of plague victims specifically.  Numerous historians of medicine (I’m thinking here of Monica Green, Katherine Park, Margaret Pelling, Mary Fissell, Deborah Harkness and Gianna Pomata among others) have documented the presence of female healers in medieval and early modern Europe.  These women did not function exclusively as midwives (although all midwives were women).  Rather, they performed a wide range of medical services and treated men, women and children for all kinds of illnesses and injuries.  A substantial amount of medical care in medieval and early modern Europe was provided by women, and yet women do not figure in any popular representations of the plague, except perhaps as victims.  In 17th-century England, where the creepy video is ostensibly set, the people who sought out plague victims and determined the cause of death were women called “searchers.”  They did the dangerous work of examining dead bodies, not the doctors.  (For more on the searchers, see here.)  Indeed, there were repeated accusations in early modern London that “doctors,” that is, men with medical degrees who were members of the Royal Society of Physicians, fled London for their country houses whenever a plague epidemic threatened.  These same doctors then complained bitterly about female “empirics” cutting into their business by treating plague victims.

So, what’s my answer to the question?  Did plague doctors actually wear those masks?  I still don’t know.  But I find the question of when and why the figure of the masked plague doctor became iconic in representations of plague to be an increasingly intriguing one.

UPDATE: Great video on the plague and plague doctors by Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris.

Faces of Aristotle

In my introduction to the course, I discussed Raphael’s painting “The School of Athens,” in which Aristotle is one of the two central figures. We will be spending a considerable amount of time in this course discussing the works of Aristotle, in the subject areas of astronomy, meteorology, physics and biology. In fact, we will spend more time examining Aristotle and his influence than any other figure in this course. However, the Aristotle that you will encounter in this history of science course is not the Aristotle you would encounter in a philosophy course or a political science course. We will focus on a few selected works by Aristotle on a relatively narrow range of topics given Aristotle’s total output. Further, there is a huge gap between the actual flesh and blood man named Aristotle who lived in Athens over two thousand years ago – a person we can only know in a fragmentary way through his extant writings and some archaeological evidence – and historical reconstructions of Aristotle. I say “historical reconstructionS” (plural), because there are and have been many many different historical reconstructions of Aristotle. In different times and places people have imagined who Aristotle was and why he was important in very different ways.

Last week we explored some of these different ways of imaging Aristotle. We began by looking at one of the most common images of Aristotle in the modern Western world. A Google image search on “Aristotle” pulls up dozens of versions of this image:

"Aristotle Altemps Inv8575" by Copy of Lysippus - Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Wikimedia Commons.

This bust is a Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippus, ca. 330 BCE. I think the fact that this is the first and most common image of Aristotle that pops up on a Google search suggests that we in modern America tend to see Aristotle as a venerable, ancient, historical figure. We see him as very far removed in time from us – the marble bust is not nearly as lifelike as the richly imagined, colorful figure in Raphael’s painting. Further, we tend to associate Aristotle with a number of fields that have been (and to a large extend continue to be) predominantly white and male: science, philosophy, and politics. (I judge this in part by the types of websites that use this particular image of Aristotle.) And yet, this is not, historically the only way of imagining Aristotle or the only way of assessing his importance. I asked students to explore different ways of imaging Aristotle by finding images of Aristotle from a range of periods and contexts.  Each of the five discussion groups selected a different image of Aristotle and discussed possible meaning of this image. Each group selected a different image – and to my relief, no two groups picked the same image! The five groups picked widely varying images in different media, by different artists and from different time periods.  I’ve arranged them here in chronological order, along with some of the information and links each group found.

1) This image was contributed by Zachary Connor, Sofia Buscarini, Lindsey Hamilton, Bryce Corlee, Nicole Palmeter, Benjamin Kraft and Cameron Owens.

British Library MS Or.2784, folio 96r.

British Library MS Or.2784, folio 96r.

This is an illumination from an Arabic manuscript produced in Baghdad in the first half of the thirteenth century. It depicts Aristotle (on the right) instructing Alexander the Great (on the left).  The manuscript itself is a compilation of Aristotle’s works on animals together with works by the Syrian physician ‘Ubayd Allah ibn Bakhtishu. It is titled The Description and Uses of Animals, and it is currently held by the British Library in London (MS Or.2784, folio 96r). The artist is unknown. The group noted that this depiction of Aristotle in a medieval Arabic manuscript indicates his and his fellow Greeks’ influence on the approach to science in Islamic culture. They further noted the interesting detail that Aristotle is positioned slightly higher than Alexander the Great, perhaps indicating the very high esteem philosophy and Aristotle were held in the Islamic world.






2) These images were contributed by Conrad Young, Taylor Greene, Brandon Curd, Jason Troy, Kiley Poppino, Matt Banks, Michael Rath, John Stacy and Addie Bickerstaff.


Hans Baldung Grien, "Phyllis and Aristotle"(1503), held in Louvre.  Wikimedia Commons.

Hans Baldung Grien, “Phyllis and Aristotle”(1503), held in Louvre. Wikimedia Commons.

Hans Baldung Grien, "Phyllis and Aristotle" (1513). Wikimedia Commons.

Hans Baldung Grien, “Phyllis and Aristotle” (1513). Wikimedia Commons.


Aquamanile in the Form of Aristotle and Phyllis, Southern Netherlands, late 14th or early 15th century. Metropolitan Museum Of Art.


All of them depict the apocryphal story of Aristotle and Phyllis, a popular tale in the late Middle Ages and early modern period. There are some different variations of this story, but the basic gist is that Phyllis is the wife or mistress of Aristotle’s student Alexander the Great. In one version, Aristotle tells Alexander to refrain from sexual intercourse, and in retaliation, Phyllis seduces Aristotle, telling him that she will have sex with him if he will get down on all fours like a beast and let her ride him. The group thought that these images humanized Aristotle, commonly regarded as the father of Western philosophy. These images – which portray a woman using her powers of seduction to overcome the male intellect – may also reflect changing ideas about women and gender in this period.  For more images of this story, click here.  For a nice thought piece on this story, see Justin Smith’s blog.

3) This image was contributed by Zachary Smith, Eric Lopez, Austin Dickerson, Sam Black, Drew Bonham, Michael McQuaid, Justin Thrash, Sage Ranallo and Justin Mullins.

Jusepe de Ribera, "Aristotle" (1637).  Wikimedia Commons.

Jusepe de Ribera, “Aristotle” (1637). Wikimedia Commons.

This is a painting of Aristotle produced in 1637 by the Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera.  It is currently in the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  It was one of six in a series commissioned for the Prince of Lichtenstein, all of which were ancient philosophers. The group pointed out that Ribera has depicted Aristotle in contemporary dress, rather than historical garb. Also, he holds a book and paper (two inventions that came long after Aristotle’s lifetime!). Ribera’s perception of Aristotle is that of an impoverished philosopher (note the torn sleeve), something that in the time period was becoming more prominent – very much akin to the “starving artist image” now. Perhaps his implication was that philosophers are not motivated by money. If you zoom in on the image, you can see that the top paper under Aristotle’s hand contains the artist’s signature. The paper below this appears to contain geometrical diagrams.




4) This image was contributed by Wamika Kumar, Vanessa Maynard, Kim Brooks, Courtlan Roland, Tanner Linn, Nathan McGuffey, Jessica Caballero and Morgan Blodgett.

Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer" (1653).  Wikimedia Commons.

Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer” (1653). Wikimedia Commons.


This is a painting titled “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.” It was painted by the Dutch artist Rembrandt Van Rijn in 1653 for a Sicilian nobleman and art collector named Don Antonio Ruffo. The painting is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The group states that the image has been interpreted in different ways by scholars. Some argue that the image depicts Aristotle looking at the bust of Homer, envying his work. Another argument is that since Aristotle’s right hand (the dominant hand) is on top of the bust of Homer’s head, and his left hand is in the dark holding a golden chain, Rembrandt implies that knowledge (hand on brain) is more important than wealth (the hand with the golden chain in the dark). There are some interesting similarities with the Ribera image painted just a few years earlier. Rembrandt’s Aristotle, like Ribera’s, is dressed in contemporary fashion, and the theme of the superiority of knowledge to wealth may be present in both. However, note how splendidly Rembrandt’s Aristotle is dressed, with the enormous puffy silky sleeves and the heavy gold chain.  This is a far cry from the tattered robes on Ribera’s Aristotle!  For a great spoof of this image, see “Arisfroggle Contemplating the Bust of a Twerp.”

5) This image was contributed by Daniel Chamberlain, Jacob Moore, Ryan Fransen, Jacob Curtis, Laine Abernathy, Jessica Robertson, Carlos Ybarra, James Johnson and Collin Wade.

Francesco Hayez, "Aristotle" (1811).  Wikimedia Commons.

Francesco Hayez, “Aristotle” (1811). Wikimedia Commons.

This is a painting of Aristotle from 1811 by the Italian artist Francesco Hayez. He painted this while in Rome (1809-1814). It is currently in the Galleria dell’ Academia in Venice, Italy. Venice was Hayez’s hometown. In the painting, Hayez shows Aristotle deep in contemplation. Unlike the other four images of Aristotle, where he is shown in contemporary dress, Hayez portrays Aristotle in classical garb. The group suggests that by painting Aristotle in an ancient costume, Hayez depicts him more of a person from the past (rather like our picture of Aristotle today, as represented by the bust at the beginning of this post.) He’s someone in the pages of a history book, not a person whose work is still relevant. This could show the progression of modern thinking in Italy and Rome around the beginning of the nineteenth century.


If anyone has further information or thoughts on any of these images, or has more images of Aristotle to contribute, please comment!