Fear The Plague Doctor!
The Black Death - a fitting name for one of the largest and most devastating pandemics in all of human history. The Black Death is responsible for an estimated 75 to 200 million deaths in Europe and Eurasia between 1346 and 1353. It was a disease that haunted people of all over, causing many to lose loved ones and live in fear of contamination. The Black Death was a plague known as the bubonic plague - initially, the infected person will experience flu-like symptoms in the first one to seven days of being infected. The person may experience the chills, headaches, vomiting, and fever prior to lymph nodes forming where they will often spread. The bubonic plague was commonly spread through infected fleas from small animals, as well as exposure to body fluids from an infected dead animal. The bacteria could enter through a bug bite and travel to the lymph nodes, where they will swell. The Black Death, in particular, is believed to have originated in Central Asia, where it was spread through infected rats that made their way onto merchant ships.
So where do the plague doctors fit in to all of this? Plague doctors were the doctors assigned to treat patients infected with the plague - if you couldn't guess by the name. In areas of the world where the plague was quickly becoming an epidemic, towns would hire plague doctors to tend to the sick and essentially tally the total number of victims the plague affected. The crazy thing about many of the plague doctors - especially in France and the Netherlands - is that many of them were not even actually trained as physicians. They were considered community doctors and essentially just signed up for the job without any prior experience or training. These doctors would go from town to town to "treat" the patients, although they rarely actually cured their patients of the plague. They were mostly just making the ill comfortable and getting a count of the number of infected for demographic purposes; pretty wild. They would often practice bloodletting (removing blood from the infected in hopes that the infection will leave with it) as well as using leeches to hopefully cure the diseased.
The iconic thing about plague doctors was the costume that they often bore - the intimidating beak-mask, heavy boots, gloves, thick over-the-clothing robes and even a wide-brim hat. The hat was used to identify their profession, and they would often carry canes with them to help direct and examine patients without needing to actually come in contact with the diseased. They were, after all, trying to avoid infecting themselves with the plague. But besides the rest of the costume, it is the beak-mask that will catch your attention before anything else. The mask covered the whole face of the plague doctor, and there was a usually long, curved beak which resembles that of a bird. The beak of the mask actually served a purpose, believe it or not! The beak was used to ward off foul smells, which was commonly believed to be a way of becoming infected. The early belief of miasma theory suggested that bad smells were a common way for disease to spread - and so plague doctors wanted to avoid the smells as much as possible (this theory was later disproved, of course). So to combat the bad smells and avoid infecting themselves, plague doctors would pack the beak of the mask with various aromatic items, such as spices, herbs, and even dried flowers. The mask would have two holes near the nostrils for the plague doctor to be able to inhale the perfumes and avoid the touch of the Black Plague at the same time.
Besides trying to keep the patient comfortable prior to death, the plague doctor would also bare witness to many wills of the people. They would also offer advice to the dying on their conduct prior to death. These doctors seemingly took on a therapeutic role, attempting to assist and ease the infected to their death. After the death of the ill patient, the plague doctor would sometimes be called to perform an autopsy on the body to find out the exact cause of the death and how the plague played a role in their death.
While the plague doctors of the 14th century were trying to do good, if you found yourself in their presence and under their care, there was a good chance it was a bad sign. Like mentioned before, these doctors rarely actually cured their patients, so if you were being treated by one of the plague doctors, there's a good chance Death would soon be at your doorstep. While the history and stories of the plague doctors may not be very well known, their iconic look with their beak-faced mask will forever go on to creep people out.