We've been seeing a lot of plague doctors roaming the genre landscape lately – ominous figures in long overcoats, wide-brimmed hats, raven-beak masks and goggles are becoming a regular sight in cosplay circles, where the look is often embellished with gothic, cyberpunk or steampunk accents. The doctor's popularity spiked again in 2009 after his appearance in the game Assassin's Creed II, and talented artists continue to turn out some amazing variations on the theme.
The real-life plague doctor was a fairly common sight in Europe's Dark Ages, especially in Germany, Italy, France and Holland. He was usually not a doctor in the professional sense, but a public contractor hired to care for and document victims of bubonic plague – which first surfaced in the 6th century and wiped out millions of people across Europe in the centuries to follow. Plague doctors often received privileges not normally given to surgeons – including permission to perform autopsies – but they were also forbidden from coming into contact with the uninfected.
Image: Eugen Holländer Archive/Wikimedia Commons
It wasn't until the 17th century that the doc's distinctive look came into play, as designed by Charles de L'Orme in 1619. The “beak” contained aromatic materials designed to purify air breathed through the mouthpiece. Of course, that didn't actually work – such was the limit of medical knowledge at the time – but the waterproof full-body coverings were still a strong defense against contamination. As you can see, the look is hardly comforting, and his appearance in town was a sign of certain doom... in fact, to most people he was the personification of Death itself.
Photo: Tracy Elaine via Flickr
The doctor's appearance was the subject of a popular poem, and the beak-shaped mask was incorporated into stage plays, carnivals and other performances, usually representing Death. The look eventually became fashionable at masquerade parties, and the character's cultural popularity today is a modern extension of that trend.