He moves slowly and people give him a wide berth. He wears a long dark leather robe and gloves. He carries a staff and, often, a lantern.
The hat indicated the wearer was a physician, though the degree of training received by any given plague doctor must have varied considerably. Some attempted to cure their patients with the medicine of the day. Many simply attended and kept statistics on the infected and the dead. A few may have been outright scam artists who hoped to benefit financially from the dying and desperate.
A mask offered protection from contact. The beak contained sweet-smelling flowers and herbs, in keeping with miasmatic notions of disease. People at the time believed that such fragments could counteract the plague.
The staff could be employed to touch a patient or as a pointer.
A source of light, carried by either the Doctor himself or a bearer, would be required by anyone who might have to move about after sunset.
Multiple sources credit the French physician Charles de Lorme (1584–1678) with assembling the popular plague doctor ensemble, though it cannot be established if this is fact, or a later attribution made to a noted medical figure of the time. It's not even clear now how widely-used the outfit might have been. Its use appears to have been limited to France and Italy, and we remain uncertain regarding how many medical practitioners there felt it necessary to dress up like anthropomorphic ravens.
In popular imagination, however, the plague doctor was everywhere, a sign of impending doom. He often gets anachronistically thrown into medieval Europe, along with Renaissance jousting armour and King Arthur.1 While the bubonic plague ransacked Europe in the 1300s, killing perhaps one-third of the population and no doubt catching the attention of physicians, it was its recurrence in the 1600s that brought forth the iconic plague doctor. The costumes were occasionally revived in subsequent outbreaks, and found their way into popular culture, doubtlessly because they're simultaneously intriguing and creepy as hell.
The Plague Doctor (Il Medico della Peste) became a familiar, frightening figure in Venice's Carnevale, a memento mori moving through the crowds. Cartoonist Antonio Prohias seemingly blended the image with the cartoon cliché of an intelligence agent for the Cold War era adversaries in Mad Magazine's Spy vs. Spy. One of Batman's lesser-known villains, Merrymaker, wears the outfit. Plague Doctor costumes, popularized online, haunt twenty-first century Halloween and creepypasta. The iconic mask figures in the haunting TV adaptation of 12 Monkeys and numerous other television shows, videogames, novels, and stories.2 The costume has infiltrated Steampunk, despite the genre and style taking its cue from a much later era (Serkin).
However popular the outfit may or may not have been historically, it has now entrenched itself in our imaginations. Indeed, I watched two such doctors walk silently down the street at night in October of 2019. Much as I would like to make those corvid-beaked anachronisms a dramatic foreshadowing of the COVID-19 pandemic that began soon after, their appearance likely has more to do with the now widespread popularity of the Plague Doctor, a sinister figure that has found a place on the darker side of popular culture.
1. "The Plague in Popular Culture" article, for example, at the anonymous plague-related site, https://dembuboes.weebly.com/ mistakenly places the plague doctor outfits in the 1300s, and repeats the essentially discredited claim that "Ring Around the Rosie" originally referenced the plague. UPDATE: Since revised.
2. My description of the alien Ghyel in the short story "Let There Be" (On Spec 91. Winter 2012-2013. 20-26) was influenced by the plague doctor outfit.
"Black Death." Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Christian J. Mussap. "The Plague Doctor of Venice." RACP Internal Medical Journal. May 13, 2019.
Daniel Rennie. "Inside The Terrifying But Necessary Job Of A Medieval Plague Doctor." allthatsinteresting.com. December 3, 2020]. (despite the title, it focuses on the seventeenth-century doctor, and places him in his correct era).
Jesselyn Shields. "17th-century Plague Doctors Were the Stuff of Nightmares." howstuffworks.com. February 12, 2020.
Austin Sirkin. "Why is Steampunk Plagued by Plague Doctors?" steampunk.wonderhowto.com. March 10, 2013.