A Medieval House Call

From the 14th through the 16th centuries, the bubonic plague ravaged Europe. With little knowledge about medicine and sanitation, plague doctors were the best chance for survival. How did plague doctors help those afflicted, and why did they wear those funny costumes?

Doctor Beak from Rome
“Doctor Beak from Rome.” Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1348, a ship arriving in England carried something sinister on board—a strange ailment that caused its sufferers to sneeze blood and develop painful, egg-sized growths under their armpits. This was the first stop for this disease—known as the Black Death—that, in as few as seven years, would decimate anywhere between 35-50 percent of Europe's population.

The Black Death's real name was something less colorful. It was a bacterium known as Yersinia pestis and, until recently, it was widely believed to have reached Europe through infected rats and fleas aboard trade ships coming from Asia. New research indicates that gerbils may have been the germ carriers instead.

At the time the disease reached England, people in the Middle Ages had little understanding of disease and sanitation. People bathed only a few times a year, while food and waste were left to rot in the street.

Should anyone have fallen ill, the healthcare system was dismal at best. Many doctors relied on superstition and theoretical techniques to cure the Black Death, and many of these "cures" actually made the illness worse.

These doctors were known as the medico della peste—Italian for "plague doctor"—and wore garments that would later become a sort of brand—an iconic representation of the plague.

So, why exactly did these doctors wear the clothes they wore, and what practices did they use? When they could not stop the plague, how did the disease affect the rest of the world?

Plague Doctors and Plagued Doctors

During the time of the Black Death, plague doctors wore what could be considered today as a sort of hazmat suit. They are often depicted in woodcuts as having worn cloaks and their famous bird-like masks. The wide-brimmed hat was thought to add an extra layer of protection from the disease.

The "bird mask" is believed to have looked like a bird because the doctors believed the plague had been brought by contaminated birds so, by making their garments resemble the animal, they thought the bacteria would transfer from the patient to their clothing. They believed that in turn, the "removal" of the pestilence from the patient would help cure him or her.

Medico Peste
"Medico peste." Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Plague doctors also believed in the miasma theory, which is the idea that infectious disease is transmitted through bad smells. As a result, doctors often put strong-smelling herbs in the "beak" of their masks to protect themselves from the disease.

In addition to the masks and hats, medico della peste wore long garments and carried canes so they could examine patients from a distance without touching them. Not only were their costumes something out of a horror movie, medico della peste were terrifying to Europeans for another reason: they were plagued—pun not intended— with the responsibility of counting the number of dead patients.

Disease and Medieval Healthcare

Bloodletting, 16th Century
"Bloodletting, 16th Century." Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Middle Ages were certainly not a good time to get sick! Even something as simple as a cold could be made worse by medieval healthcare methods. Back then, doctors believed the body was composed of four "humors", or bodily fluids—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile—and that if any one of these humors could not function properly, then disease could invade. Therefore, a rational conclusion at the time was that doctors could force a patient to "empty" themselves of these extra fluids through a series of techniques. One of the most famous—and the most gruesome—of these techniques was known as bloodletting.

When bloodletting a patient, medico della peste would cut various areas of a patient's body and extract blood. The areas they decided to cut depended on which organ the doctors believed needed to be "drained." They hoped that by doing so, they could return the body's balance with its four humors. Needless to say, bloodletting did not slow the spread of the plague and it made its patients weaker.

Physician Letting Blood from a Patient
"Physician letting blood from a patient." Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Doctors also made poultices from onion and butter, oftentimes adding sprinkles of dried frog or arsenic depending on how close the patient was to dying. Often, the closer the patient was to dying, the more desperate and bizarre the treatments became. Other treatments included coating a patient in mercury, itself a poison, and heating them in an oven for a while!

Dark Days in Europe Lead to Changes in Society

One of the most important roles of the medico della peste was to help cure patients, but when even the doctors could not stop the disease, many regarded the plague as a punishment from God. A group of religious zealots known as the Flagellants would travel through towns and inflict punishment on sinners to atone for the sins that led to the plague.

Groups like the Flagellants increased friction between the Catholic church of the day and the rest of the population, especially when many who were devoted to their religion found that praying did not stop the disease.

Flagellants
"Flagellants." Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As the plague continued to kill more and more of the population, serfs—also known as indentured servants—found that the wealthy landowners they owed money to were dying off. As a result, the middle and lower classes had more freedom and could move more easily from place to place without staying under the protection of one master. Not only did this increase class diversity, but it also showed that the disease did not discriminate between classes when it infected people.

Healthcare Reform - Renaissance Style!

Unwittingly, the plague contributed to an entirely new era of thinking. It raised questions about long-held medicinal practices, corruption of church and state, and the very beliefs European societies had been built upon. By the end of the plague, the friction between the Catholic church and state would lead to an entire shift in how people perceived religion.

The plague led to the dawn of a new way of thinking: humanism, a philosophical concept that focused on man. This thinking would ultimately lead to the next chapter in Europe's colorful history—the Italian Renaissance!

Want to Learn More?