Plague Doctors of the Renaissance

Plague Doctors of the Renaissance
During plague outbreaks it proved difficult to find doctors who were willing to treat plague patients. Not only would treating the patients put the physician at danger of contracting the disease, but it was also considered likely that the doctor would then spread the disease to his other patients.

Therefore, most infected towns hired "plague doctors," These doctors were specifically responsible for treating plague patients, and plague patients only, while refraining from interacting with any other citizens.

Following is a modern translation of a 1479 contract negotiated between a plague doctor, Mater Giovanni Ventura, and the officials in the city of Pavia, Italy.

Clause 1. The community of Pavia and its council shall provide the sum of 30 florins per month to Master Giovani de Ventura.

Clause 2. Payment of said funds shall be made two months in advance (there is a note which amended this to one month in advance).

Clause 3. This clause stipulated that the community must make adequate security pledges to guarantee payment of salary.

Clause 4. The community of Pavia and its council shall provide Dr. Ventura with "an adequate house in an adequate location, completely furnished.

Clause 5. The community of Pavia and its council shall continue to pay Master Giovani Ventura for a period of two months after the termination of his employment.

Clause 6. The said Master Giovani shall not be bound or held under obligation except only in attending the plague patients. [It later was added that] Giovani must treat all patients and visit infected places as it shall be found to be necessary].

Clause 7. The community of Pavia and its council "shall grant citizenship to Giovanni Ventura. [It later was added] according to how he shall behave himself.

Clause 8. In the event- may God forbid it- that the said Master Giovanni should die in the exercise of these duties, that the heirs shall not be required to make restitution' of any pan of his salary...

Clause 9. The said Master Giovanni shall not be able to ask a fee from anyone, unless the plague victim himself or his relatives shall freely offer it.

Clause 10. Whenever and however it shall come about- God forbid that it should that because of a plague of this kind the city may be brought so low that Master Giovanni can't have his wage nor the things necessary to his existence, that then and in that case Master Giovanni may be released from his obligation without any penalty.

Clause 11. The community of Pavia and its council is under obligation to maintain a barber who should be at least adequate and capable...

Clause 12. The community of Pavia and its council has and is under the obligation to provide said Master Giovanni with all and everything which is necessary for his life...

Clause 13. Should the Community of Pavia and its council not observe the previously agreed conditions, either partially or totally, then and in that case it would be" possible to said Master Giovanni to be totally free from any engagement notwithstanding the previous clauses or others to be made. [It later was added] the doctor shall notify the community at least ten days in advance so that the Community would be on the condition to provide (for a substitute).

Clause 14. Said Master Giovanni would have and should be obliged to do his best and visit the plague patients twice or three times or more times per day, as it will be found necessary.

(Source for the Plague Doctor Contract: Contract of the Plague Doctor)

Plague doctors wore a specific 'costume' to perform their duties in ministering to those suffering from the plague. At it's most basic level, the outfit was made to resemble an Egyptian god in order that the doctor might "scare off" the disease. The various pieces, though, also served very practical functions.

A popular seventeenth century poem described the plague doctor's costume:

As may be seen on picture here,
In Rome the doctors do appear,
When to their patients they are called,
In places by the plague appalled,
Their hats and cloaks, of fashion new,
Are made of oilcloth, dark of hue,
Their caps with glasses are designed,
Their bills with antidotes all lined,
That foulsome air may do no harm,
Nor cause the doctor man alarm,
The staff in hand must serve to show
Their noble trade where'er they go

Suit of Leather
A long waxed raincoat, leather or waxed-fabric clothes, including gloves and boots, and a wide brimmed leather hat/hood.

These items protected the plague doctor from physical contact with patients. Coincidentally, it also protected the doctor from flea bites, which were the major way the disease was spread!

Bird-Like Face Mask
The mask had two vent holes at the end of the long beak and glass inserts to protect the eyes. The beak was long in order to prevent the doctor from breathing in the horrible stench of the infected. It was filled with various medicinal herbs, dried flowers, spices, and sponges soaked in camphor or vinegar, all believed to aid the doctor's breathing process and to prevent them from coming in contact with the disease's "miasma."

This look of this mask resulted in an alternate name for plague doctors - "beak doctors!"

Doctor's Cane
The plague doctors also carried long wooden canes or staffs which they used to help them examine the patients, to remove or lift up the victims' clothing, or to take a patient's plus - all without having to actually touch the patient.

One of the most renowned plague doctors of the Renaissance was Michel de Nostraedame, known more commonly today as Nostradamus. Nostradamus was a doctor ahead of his time - his recommendations to his patients included drinking only boiled water, sleep in clean beds, and - perhaps most importantly - to leave infected towns as soon as possible!

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The Black Death & the Renaissance

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