The Great Plague (Black Death) claimed the lives of hundreds of millions over the course of about four centuries. It laid waste to civilization and altered the course of history. It was one of the most frightening experiences that humankind has had to live through, and it required special medical attention and personnel to manage the devastations. To a large extent, this responsibility fell on the shoulders of a group of individuals now regarded as the medieval plague doctors. We have put together 7 fascinating facts you probably didn’t know about these doctors for your reading pleasure.
7 Fascinating Facts About Medieval Plague Doctors
1. They were not always doctors in the real sense of the word
Medieval plague doctors were born out of necessity. Before the plague arrived there were several kinds of doctors: native doctors, physicians, apothecaries, and herbalists amongst others. Physicians were the ones who had some level of medical training at the university. They also had surgeons, but they received no formal training, so they really had no scientific knowledge to back up their practices. Medicine in medieval times was mostly a lot of trial and error. When the plague began spreading, the physicians and apothecaries who treated the victims became known as plague doctors. Their specialty was treating and preventing plagues, and for over four hundred years, they made a living doing that.
2. They wore creepy outfits for protection
Long before scientists proved the germ theory of disease, medieval plague doctors had a hunch that there was something harmful in the air that was probably causing plagues to spread from person to person. As a result of this, they designed and started wearing a super creepy, cloak-like uniform to keep their entire body covered and prevent harmful substances from coming in contact with their skin. The uniform consisted of long, dark robes with gloves, a hat, sturdy boots, and a mask with glass eye holes and a long beak. The beaks were filled with aromatic herbs and drugs to purify the air and conceal the pungent smells emanating from the bodies of plague victims.
3. Medieval Plague Doctors were employed to treat everyone
In today’s medical world, patients pay individually for the healthcare services they receive from medical personnel. However, medieval plague doctors had it different because they were employed by a town or village to treat everyone in it. This meant that every sick person got the same level of treatment, whether they were wealthy or dirt-poor. According to the contract of Giovanni de Ventura who served as a plague doctor in Pavia in 1479, he was given a house, bestowed with citizenship, paid a monthly stipend and living expenses for his work by the city. Although he was precluded from charging the people he treated for his services, he could receive an additional payment from them if offered willingly.
4. They often subjected their patients to horrible treatments
Unfortunately for the people who lived at that time, medicine was a lot of hogwash and guesswork. Medieval plague doctors had very limited knowledge of the diseases they were treating, so they tried all sorts of dubious and dangerous tactics hoping one would prove right. They tried to force the toxic substances out of their patients by making them bleed out. They also drained the pus from buboes with sharp objects; rubbed frogs, leeches, toads, or fecal matter on them; poured mercury over afflicted persons and literally baked them in an oven, all in an attempt to get rid of the sickness.
5. Many of them performed autopsies on dead victims
Sure, medieval plague doctors were not the smartest of the bunch, but they were very keen on learning. Thanks to the research and painstaking work that they carried out, so much information about the plague is readily available to us today and has helped advance medical history. After a patient has passed, the doctors often dissected their bodies in search of anatomical and forensic information that could shed insight into what they were up against. They tried to figure out the cause of death of victims and whatever else they could about the strange disease that was killing and spreading rapidly.
6. In addition to treating patients, plague doctors kept records
This is perhaps the most salutary task performed by medieval plague doctors. Most of them kept detailed records and information about their patients, the town they were working in, and other important activities that were taking place at the time. Thanks to the registers that they kept, we can almost correctly estimate how many people were afflicted by the plagues and how many lives were lost to the terrible diseases. Medieval plague doctors were witnesses to history and they did their best to document it. They also performed other charitable services like writing down their patient’s last wishes, making wills, and testifying to wills being sorted.
7. They led a pretty solitary life
When they were not attending to the sick, medieval plague doctors were not allowed to move about and socialize freely unless accompanied by an escort. Their abodes were often situated far away from the rest of the population, to keep them healthy long enough to keep treating patients. After their contract term expires, plague doctors were required to spend 40 or more days in quarantine. Whether they were working or not, medieval plague doctors often found themselves feeling lonely.