What is it about?

The ‘historical’ plague doctor with his long robe, gloves, cane and of course his beak-shaped mask, is surrounded by misunderstandings. Yet he has become such a recognisable and powerful symbol of the plague, that his image keeps appearing when subjects such as the plague, pandemics in general or protective wear are treated, in popular articles as well as scholarly papers. The assumed analogy between the masks of our own recent pandemic and the PPE of the plague doctor has boosted his omnipresence even more, resulting in an overload of misinformation. The concept of the plague doctor is compiled from at least three sources: the prints from 1656, the descriptions in the biography of the supposed inventor of the costume, Charles de Lorme, and the print and description in Jean-Jacques Manget’s plague treatise from 1721. This article focuses on the description of the plague suit in Charles de Lorme’s biography by Michel de Saint-Martin. The author had a reputation for being very eccentric and gullible, and there are many assertions in his book that are demonstrably incorrect. But if De Lorme was the author of the first full-body plague costume, it bore hardly any resemblance to the ‘Doctor Beak’ from the popular prints.

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Why is it important?

Plague doctor images are so ubiquitous that they tend to block our view on the medical PPE that has been used through the ages in reality and, in a broader sense, on conceptions about contagion and protective measures in the early modern period. This article aims to tackle some of the misunderstandings that surround this subject by critically examining the most often cited sources about the invention of the plague costume.


The iconography of plague doctor depictions from the 17th and 18th century has had my interest since I curated an exhibition about epidemics through history in 2001. These are works of art that contain strong allegoric and satiric implications, but the supposed historicity of the depicted outfit has led many historians astray. I hope to publish my findings about the prints in the near future, it felt logic to start off with the beginning: the first plague costume. Many thanks to EHMH for their willingness to publish.

Herbert J. Mattie

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Men in Tights: Charles De Lorme (1584–1678) and the First Plague Costume, European Journal for the History of Medicine and Health, November 2023, Brill,
DOI: 10.1163/26667711-bja10033.
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