Wear and gear of the plague workers
In the Middle Ages, doctors wore the clothes that were in accordance with their social status, even when they visited the plague-stricken. As seen on this woodcut of a physician visiting a plague patient, they would carry a sponge or a piece of bread soaked in vinegar in one hand, holding it in front of the nose and mouth as often as possible. This meant to protect against the inhaling of the bad air that was generally considered the external cause of diseases, and it may also have softened the stench. His other hand he needed for taking the pulse of his patient, the most important diagnostical technique of that time. The physician is accompanied by two assistants with fumigating torches, the one on the right carries a container with a urinal flask – the visual inspection of someone’s urine being the second diagnostic method.
The early seventeenth century saw the emergence of a variety of costumes and equipment that were meant to offer protection against the plague, mirroring conceptions about contagion of their place and time.
Plague doctors were advised to wear smooth fabrics, in order to prevent the poisonous particles that were thought of as the agents of contagion, from sticking to it. These fabrics differed from country to country, ideally they were black. Often named are Morocco leather, camlet, silk, serge and waxed linen.
Many plague officials took to the last, a choice mainly based on the practical advantages of being not too hot, not too expensive, and resistent to water and dirt. Long robes or overcoats of this material were worn by priests, paramedics, disinfectors, employees of the lazarets, militian officers, surgeons and even doctors. They were available with or without open hoods.
A luxury option was the scented variant, these linen fabrics were impregnated with wax that was mixed with odorous substances.
Gloves, usually made of Morocco leather or chamois, were the most common of all garments that were used by plague workers. They offered a basic first-line protection, and they could be obligatory or only recommended. Sometimes an alternative way of covering the hands was applied by wearing very long sleeves.
Physicians, in contrast to surgeons and barbers, had to be able to take the pulse of their patients. For this reason they could wear gloves that had the index- and middle finger cut off. This was also practised by priests who needed to anoint the sick during their performance of the Last Rite. Often they chose to wear no gloves at all.
As with the rest of the equipage, the footwear of plague-workers was in line with their importance.
A physician would normally wear his everyday shoes, but could cover them with overshoes as well. Others employed boots or leather stockings that could reach as high up as the buttocks. Hospital staff such as the employees of the Marseille lazaret, could wear wooden clogs combined with waxed linen pants that were close-fitting at the ankles. Wooden sandals are mentioned on some occasions.
From early modern times on, it would be quite normal for doctors to wear a cane, as any gentleman did. It was a fashionable mark of ones social status, and it came in handy when chasing street dogs away. In the hands of a plague doctor, it could serve others functions as well.
It helped in keeping social distance in two ways. Rods in certain colors or shapes were sometimes mandatory for plague workers, as a warning sign so that other people could avoid them. They could also be used as a tool to handle bed clothes etc. and to push sick people away. Pricking with a sharp stick was also a method of determining whether someone was dead or not.
Finally, the cane or rod was used for giving directions, which was particularly functional when communication was hampered by a covered face and a mouth full of herbs.
Smoke and perfume
Plague officials carried all sorts of fragrant materials with them, in ornate containers such as the pomander (from the French ‘pomme d’ambre’), and other beautifully crafted boxes. Smelling these on a regular interval was considered an elegant protection against contagion on the street and during patient visits. Less luxurious, but still quite expensive, was an orange spiked with cloves. And those who couldn’t afford this took a handful of fragrant flowers or herbs.
Pomanders contained strong-smelling substances like ambergris, civet, muscus, beaver castor, mixed with more pleasant aromas such as rose petals, cinnamon and cloves. The latter were also put directly in the nose, again because of the prophylactic effect that was traditionally ascribed to such ingredients, as well as with the purpose of forming a physical barricade against the penetration of the body by miasmas. The same concept was applied to the mouth, often mentioned are ingredients such as cloves, cinnamon, angelica root, juniper berry, garlic, rue, lemon seeds, ginger, candied citrus fruit and rose petals.
Smoke was also believed to drive out the bad air. Chambers, houses and even whole cities were fumigated in attempts to get rid of the disease. For use on a smaller scale, there were torches or metal devices that produced prophylactic smoke or vapor. Smoking a tobacco pipe was also propagated as an easy measure that one could apply for personal safety.
One Italian doctor from the 18th century advised priests to use an ear trumpet when taking confessions of patients, who often had a hoarse voice, this in order to prevent their breath from penetrating the body through the ears.
Pincers and spoons
Priests could also use special tweezers or long spoons when administering the sacraments to victims.
Physicians would usually wear a hat that fitted their status under any circumstances in any era. But plague doctors weren’t always learned physicians; on the contrary. Although a plague doctor from Rome is depicted here, the model of his hat is not typical for that city, nor for any other region. The cosplayers don’t mind. It’s difficult to determine whether the artist meant to depict a particular type of headgear, or if he was just a clumsy draughtsman.
Sometimes a wig left no place for a hat, but even without one this doctor maintained ample dignity.
When Italian cities were struck by a plague epidemic, the tasks of transporting the sick and burying the dead were often fulfilled by brotherhoods such as the Confraternita della Misericordia. These lay brothers were dressed in long black robes with closed hoods since the fifteenth century. They didn’t wear this uniform to protect themselves against contagion, but in order to remain anonymous; they did their works of charity in the name of God.
Lay brothers of the Penitent confraternities in southern France could wear hoods as well. Like the Italian Misericordia, they often assisted in care for the sick and burying of the dead.
Left: a lay brother from Florence in a full-body suit of waxed linen. Note the hat with two upturned sides, this was to distinguish them from clergymen, who wore flat-brimmed hats.
Members of the Italian confraternities often wore gloves as well, for even the hands – calloused in case of a workman, clean and ringed for noblemen or traders – can give a clue to someone’s identity.
Right: hooded penitents assisting in collecting plague victims to be buried in the French town of Aix, 1720. The lay brother standing next to the cart is holding a piece of cloth, probably drenched in vinegar, near his face. A vinegar-soaked sponge could also be attached under the hood. Small sponges could be placed directly in the nostrils
When other plague officials started to wear the same outfits, they occasionally added eye glasses. This may have found its roots in the ancient belief that the plague could be transmitted through eye contact with patients or even by looking at victims only, which was particularly strong in Italy. Some Italian plague workers reportedly used goggles when visiting patients.
And soaked sponges remained the principal PPE until the end of the 19th century. Carried by hand, like we’ve seen at the top of this page, stuffed in the nose or attached under a hood. Devices such as the ones below could have come in handy; the left one showing the accessorized option, at the right the cheaper DIY version.
Better than nothing?
During an epidemic, plague workers used all kinds of gear and clothing in their efforts to protect themselves. Although there was no knowledge of the way the infection spread, some of these pieces of equipment may have coincidentally saved lives.
High boots or leather stockings offered protection against being bitten by the fleas that carried the plague. The use of canes and gloves when handling clothes and blankets of patients and the deceased further reduced this danger. A closed hood with eyeglasses can form a defense against the airborne kind to some extent. When the wearer complied with social distancing as well – and the greater the distance, the more effective it would be – there was a reasonable chance of survival. But where it concerned clothes, precautions such as the above have always been the exception rather than the rule.
Images without subscript: Naked corpse bearer: detail from ‘La Peste’ by Mattia Preti, 1640, Private Collection; Gloves, detail from portrait of a gentleman by Donatien Nonotte (attr.), 18th century; Plague doctor using his cane, detail from engraving ‘Starvation during the siege of Leyden’ by Willem de Haen, 1612-1614, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam; Plague Doctor from Rome, woodcut by Sebastiano Zecchini (publ.) British Museum; Plague Doctor in J.J. Manget (1721): Traité de la peste; postcard with lay brother from the Florence Misericordia, ca. 1900, Private Collection.
HJMattie febr 17, 2022