Are Plague Doctors Steampunk?
Plague doctors with their distinctive beaked masks are an iconic image often associated with the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras in Europe. But do they have a place in the steampunk aesthetic and genre? Let’s explore the history and themes of plague doctors and steampunk to find out.
A Brief History of Plague Doctors
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Europe suffered from repeated outbreaks of the bubonic plague.
With limited medical knowledge at the time, doctors resorted to various methods to try to combat the disease.
Plague doctor outfits emerged in the 17th century as a way for physicians to try to protect themselves when treating plague victims. Their costume typically included:
- A long coat and gloves to cover the body
- Leather breeches
- A wide-brimmed hat
- A wooden cane to examine patients without touching them
- A beaked mask filled with herbs and spices thought to purify air and fend off “miasmas” that supposedly carried disease
The mask gave them an ominous, raven-like appearance. While not entirely effective, the plague doctor outfit offered some of the only defenses against contagion at the time before modern germ theory.
Plague doctors treated victims and collected data to analyze outbreaks.
They were both respected and feared. Their striking visual image came to symbolize the Black Death’s toll on society.
What is Steampunk?
Steampunk as a literary genre emerged in the late 1900s as a blend of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, and retro-futurism. Works imagine a version of the 19th century powered by steam machinery and fantastical technology before widespread electricity and computers.
Common steampunk tropes include:
- Steam-powered transport and inventions
- Eccentric scientists, engineers, and tinkerers
- Corsets, goggles, gears, and gas masks as fashion
- Exploration, discovery, and advancing knowledge
- Class struggles and rejection of conformity
Steampunk has expanded beyond books to become a vibrant aesthetic in music, art, film, fashion design, and costuming.
It celebrates vintage style infused with modern twists.
Do Plague Doctors Fit Into Steampunk?
At first glance, the plague doctor aesthetic seems to come from an earlier historic period than most steampunk, which draws primarily on the 1800s.
However, there are some strong thematic links between plague doctors and common steampunk motifs:
- Science and discovery – Plague doctors used primitive epidemiology and autopsy to study disease outbreaks, foreshadowing more advanced modern medicine and science. Steampunk imagines the possibilities of science and technology evolving in different directions.
- Masks and gas masks – The plague doctor’s beaked mask mirrors the goggles, respirators, and masks often worn by steampunk characters. Both are protective gear and obscure identity.
- Mysterious appearance – The striking look of plague doctors evokes a sense of mystery and drama. Steampunk explores mysterious and dynamic personas.
- Blending eras – Steampunk mashes up time periods, imagining retro-tech inVictorian times. Plague doctors could plausibly fit into this anachronistic history.
Examples of Plague Doctors in Steampunk Works
Some steampunk creators have incorporated plague doctors into their story worlds, showing how the theme can work in the genre:
- The manga series Black Butler features undertaker characters dressed as plague doctors who perform autopsies and shady experiments, aligning with steampunk’s darker tones.
- Dishonored, the steampunk video game series, has enemies called “Overseers” garbed like plague doctors, representing persecution and dogmatic authority for the protagonist to fight against.
- At steampunk events and conventions, some cosplayers and musicians dress as plague doctors, reinventing the motif with intricate masks, female twists, and punk/goth elements.
Verdict: Yes, Plague Doctors Can Be Steampunk
While not the most common, plague doctors can definitely co-exist within the eclectic steampunk universe. Their look resonates with core steampunk themes of discovery, mystery, and mixing historic and fanciful elements.
Plague doctor motifs blend well when incorporated selectively into steampunk stories and aesthetics.
With clever adaption, the iconic beaked mask can be at home in the neo-Victorian streets and laboratories of steampunk.
Plague doctors are a striking symbol to incorporate into the genre’s broader spirit of imagination and rebellion against stagnation.
So while not purely Victorian themselves, plague doctors can become honorary steampunk icons.
What do you think? Are plague doctors steampunk?