Why Is Steampunk Plagued By Plague Doctors?

Steampunk is a well-known art form that has found its way into our lives in one form or another. Whether you have seen it in movies, read it in books, dabbled in fashion, or are an artist that enjoys steampunk themes, you will have heard of this genre at some point in your life. 

It might be a new thing, or it might be something you are well versed in. Regardless, you will probably have seen plague doctors embedded in the scene and wondered why these physicians from the 1300s are so prominent.

In this article, we are going to look at this question and hopefully uncover why the plague doctor has been plaguing the steampunk community for years. So, without further ado, let us begin with what steampunk actually is and where it came from. 

What Exactly Is Steampunk?

Today, steampunk is actually quite diverse and can extend to several different areas. The media portrays steampunk as a sub-genre that centers around science fiction and has elements of technology for aesthetic reasons. This technology is usually inspired by the 19th century and involves a lot of exposed gears and steam-powered technology.

The idea of steampunk can take place in a fantasy universe or in our world with an alternative history. Regardless of when a steampunk world in fantasy terms typically has a lot of steam-powered technology which is prominent at that time, this might extend to trains, cars, computers, and even airships.

An important facet of this sub-genre is the fact that even though the technology appears to be inspired from the 18th century, it is often portrayed as having technology on par with the modern world. With an added bonus of having a cool retro look to it. 

Steampunk can translate to many facets of people’s expression. It can, for example, refer to an artistic theme or style, a particular fashion type. The fashion of steampunk in particular is a mix of 9th-century and 20th-century elements that are tied together to create an almost futuristic yet retro look that is quite unique and yes plague doctors do frequently feature.

Where Did It Come From?

So, now that we have an idea of what steampunk fashion is, you must be wondering where it actually came from. This fashion type and art form has been around since 1987 and is thought to have come from the fiction portrayed in books and films. In fact, steampunk was also thought to be a byproduct of cyberpunk.

But today it is a sub-genre that has been around for decades and is its own thing. Since the 2000s, there has been growing popularity in this art form. This can be seen in the steampunk fashion stores that have popped up all over the place and the appearance of steampunk in films, books, and series all over the world. 

A Few Frequently Asked Questions 

Even though you now have a rough understanding of what steampunk is and where it came from, there might be a few things you would like to know before moving on. Let us look at some of the most frequently asked questions before we move on and learn about what the plague doctor is and where it came from. 

What Does Steampunk Mean? 

Steampunk is an art form and fashion movement that originates from fictional literature. The movement itself is inspired by the 19th century, science fiction, and technology from that time and before. It is a movement that is quite a niche movement and only a small portion of the public actually practices this art form. But, as a rule, steampunk has a tendency to show steam trains in its imagery and this is where the name of the sub-genre comes from. 

What Is Steampunk Based On?

Steampunk is an aesthetic that is inspired by Victorian England, this is between 1830 and the early 1900s. In addition to that, the Belle Époque era also plays a large part in the aesthetic feel of the steampunk movement. These eras are often modernized by using machinery being visible on the garments or pieces of art. This is typically depicted with the use of gears and other mechanical elements. 

Is Cyberpunk Like Steampunk

These two fashion movements are not the same. Cyberpunk tends to be set in a fictional world that is lawless and stars computers in its fictional universe. Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction and tends to make outdated technology its start and merges Victorian clothing with modern looks  

Is Steampunk Goth?

A lot of people think that steampunk is a merging of the goth culture and the cyberpunk culture. This fashion and art trend can certainly fall into a more gothic realm, especially with the use of darker elements. But it is not inherently goth, rather it can have goth elements within it, but steampunk is its own genre, an art form, and fashion niche. 

What Is A Plague Doctor?

Before we look into why the plague doctor is a constant presence in steampunk culture, it is essential to look into what exactly they are and where they came from. So, in this section of the article, we are going to look into this question and find out all about the terrifying plague doctor. 

Plague doctors first arrived on the scene between 1346 and 1352, in the time of the bubonic plague. Also known at the time as the Black Death, this epidemic was one of the deadliest in human history and killed over 25 million people in Europe alone.

At the time, the people in power were growing desperate and decided to hire a new type of physician, one that would eventually come to be known as plague doctors. These physicians were young and had limited experience, with no real medical training. A good start when the lives of millions were in your hands. 

But, because of the deadly nature of the Black Death, expendable doctors were needed, people who could venture onto the plague-filled streets to count the dead and treat those that had been struck with this mysterious sickness. It was around this time that the plague doctor costume/suit was made. Charles de I-Orme, who was the chief physician of King Louis XIII, was the one that created this doctor’s uniform. It included the following: 

  • Leggings: The pants were coated in wax and animal fat so that the fabric was not permeable anymore, and no fluids could soak into the fabric. This helped reduce the risk of the plagued people’s fluids infecting the doctors. 
  • Boots: Plague doctors would have worse high boots made of goat leather or other leather types, the boots were tied to the pants of the person so that no skin was exposed to miasmas or bodily fluids. 
  • Coat: The coat was covered in wax and then the garment was coated in animal fat to help minimize the risk of bodily fluids touching the doctor’s skin. 
  • Gloves: The gloves were waxed and coated in hard animal fat to stop bodily fluids soaking into the gloves and infecting the doctor. 
  • Hat: The hat was used as a symbol of the person’s status and showed those around them that they were in fact doctors. 
  • Mask: Plague doctors wore an iconic mask with a bird-like beak, which they put special scented substances in which supposedly would stop them from getting sick. The masks had class goggles over the eyes and also small breathing holes where the doctor’s nose would be. 

Plague doctors believed that the plague was spread through vapors in the air, which is why they put strong-smelling substances in the beak of the mask. But, the nose holes in the mask were a counterintuitive design because they could still breathe in the foul air.

Regardless of the flawed science behind the doctors’ uniform, they did accidentally create a solution to minimize the actual cause of the plague. Fleas carried by rats and other animals were the real cause of the plague. Because their clothing was coated in wax and animal fat, there was less of a chance of being bitten by these fleas and contracting the plague. 

The bubonic plague is spread when a person is bitten by an infected flea, and can also spread from person to person. Especially when an infected fabric or material comes in contact with a break in the skin, such as a cut. 

So, plague doctors were inexperienced physicians who were especially prominent in the 1300s. They went out on the streets to tally the number of people that had died of the bubonic plague and treated the sick, however questionable their treatments were. With that in mind, let us take a look at what the link is between steampunk and these dark and mysterious physicians of the past. 

What Is The Connection Between Plague Doctors And Steampunk?

There was an Italian comedy that involved a character named Medico Della Peste or plague doctor, and it was this character who donned the beak mask, top hat, and other typical clothes of the plague doctor that first brought this kind of character to the spotlight.

It is often thought that these plague doctors represented the ideology of ‘Memento Mori’ which for those who do not know literally translates to ‘Remember That You Must Die’ this idea symbolizes the idea that life is fleeting, and we must live in the moment. 

But, why are plague doctors such a prominent part of the steampunk community? Well, there are many reasons why this is the case. We will be looking at the three most common reasons, and hopefully, that will help shed light on this topic. 

It Can Be Symbolic Of Death And Fear

The plague doctor is quite a frightening figure and does evoke some sense of fear. Wherever they go, there is sure to be sorry and misery. This can even be seen when you look at plague doctors in history. They worked with the dead and dying.

Tallying the number of people taken by the Black Death. Surrounded by the sick, whom they tried to cure. It is easy to see why plague doctors are associated with death and sadness. Some people think that the bird-like mask is symbolic of a god of death and can be a symbol of misfortune or even death. 

Seeing someone wearing one of these bird-like masks, you might wonder what lies beneath? A human face or a demon? It is a dramatic and creative image that fits with the idea of the often dark and gritty genre of steampunk. 

The Aesthetic Appeal And Erotic Connotations 

Steampunk is a beautiful mixture of dark and fantastical elements to create a nostalgic and charming look. The mysterious nature of the plague doctor and the amount of leather that is used for this costume can be seen as erotic.

Thereby making the visual and tactile experience of this particular costume impactful and still mysterious. The charming and romantic visual appearance of those that wear steampunk perfectly blends together the idea of dark, aesthetic, and mainstream culture to create this perfectly appealing costume. 

A Symbol Of Science And Experimentation

Steampunk can be explained as a science fiction sub-genre, and what better face for alchemical science and medicine than the mysterious-looking plague doctor.

In addition to that, some believe that these plague doctors are the predecessors of scientific work, regardless of the outrageous malpractices that are associated with them and the superstitious cures they did use herbs to try and treat the patients. This can be seen as an exploration spirit, which a lot of the steampunk community feels fits in with the idea of this art form. 

In addition to that, plague doctors were known to perform autopsies on those that had died of the plague in an endeavor to try and understand the human body and what the plague was doing, so they could cure it. Performing autopsies at the time were considered a heinous crime at the time, but the plague doctors did it anyway.

This lonely and treasonous rebellion is something that many think perfectly fits with the idea of steampunk and the spirit of scientific exploration. A lot of the representation is shown to be rebellious and almost romanticized, and who can blame them when the plague doctor is such a dark and mysterious figure. 

So, Why Is Steampunk Plagued By Plague Doctors? 

To answer this question once and for all, we must look back at the origin of these men of science. As we know, Charles de L’Orme was the one who created the iconic look we now love. But at the time of the Black Death, this uniform was designed to be functional and probably really uncomfortable to wear.

The thick clothing which was covered in substances that made it hard to keep cool and being covered head to two with just two little breathing holes must have been a sweaty and terribly warm situation. Regardless of their own discomfort these doctors went out and tried to cure the sick, despite an extremely high mortality rate of these plague doctors they did not give up. 

Some people think that plague doctors are in strict opposition to the idea of steampunk, plague doctors were thought to be superstitious. But, that would not be entirely correct. At the time, the science of the Black Death plague doctors would have used what was at that time the latest medical science. They did not chant prayers and bless the sick people in the hopes that they would get better.

No, plague doctors genuinely tried to cure the afflicted, giving them doses of herbs and drinks that were thought to cure the disease. Another thing that adds popularity and romanticized nature of these figures being prominent in steampunk is the idea of their scientific discovery.

Plague doctors had permission from the higher-ups to perform autopsies, which at the time was blasphemous and evil. Despite this, these doctors took the opportunity to try and learn what was causing the death of their patients by trying to understand the anatomy of those that had died. 

When you look at plague doctors in this light, it is easy to see why they are such prominent figures in steampunk. In another time, they would have been heroes of science, much like. Paving the way for medicine and alchemical healing. 

Those that are into steampunk will know that this community loves costumes and dressing up. What is not to love about a mysterious and dark-looking character with a bird-like mask. It is dramatic, dark, and even romantic if you do it right. The dark connotations associated with this mask of death are something that is often present in the dark and gritty world of steampunk.

Final Thoughts

That is all for this article, we hope that you have learned something new about the history of the plague doctor and why this makes them such poignant figures in the steampunk community. The spirit of discovery and science are core features of steampunk and the plague doctor is a fantastic vessel for these qualities, which is why they are such prominent figures. 

Cynthia Williams
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