The great plagues that swept over Europe in the Middle Ages are one of history’s strangest phenomenons, We still don’t adequately know what really caused them, where they came from and why they suddenly disappeared only to return a few centuries later, only that they have often had a profound effect on world history.
The last (to date) of these great waves of death to hit Europe happened on the beautiful coast of Southern France, where 100,000 people died in just two years.
Marseille — a prepared city?
The people of Marseille, the wealthy and strategically important city on the Mediterranean coast, knew all about plagues.
They had had one of their own in 1580 and again as recently as 1650, and had established a sanitation board for maintaining good healthy conditions in the city, where ships coming from distant harbours were a perfect means of introducing disease.
Though the connection between personal hygiene and contagion would not be definitively made for another century, the people of 18th-century Europe had already worked out that filth and squalor seemed to link in some way to the plague.
In addition, there was a surprisingly sophisticated three-tier system to quarantining every ship that came into the harbour, involving the searching of the captain’s logs and detailed notes of all the worldwide ports where plague activity had been reported.
Given these steps, which were normally sternly enforced, the deaths of over half of Marseille’s population are even more shocking.
By the early 18th century France was an international power, and Marseilles had grown wealthy from enjoying a monopoly on all its lucrative trade with the near-east.
On the 25th May 1720, a ship called theGrand-Sainte-Antoine arrived from Sidon in Lebanon, carrying a prized cargo of silk and cotton. There was nothing unusual in this, but the problem was that it had called at Cyprus on the way back, where that had been reports of the plague.
Having already been refused port in Livorno, it was now placed in a quarantine bay outside the city docks while the occupants began to die, starting with a Turkish passenger and then spreading to the ship’s surgeon and some of the crew.
Marseilles’ new wealth and power had made the city merchants greedy, however, and they were desperate for the ship’s cargo to reach the money-spinning fair at Beaucaire in time.
As a result, the sensible city authorities and sanitation board were pressured against their wills into lifting the state of quarantine on the ship, and its crew and cargo were allowed into the port.
Within days, signs of the plague were appearing in the city, which had a population of 90,000 at the time. Quickly, it took hold, and though medicine had come along way from the age of the Black Death in the 1340s, doctors were just as powerless to stop its progress as they had been then.
Quickly, the city was completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of the dead, and the infrastructure completely collapsed, leaving piles of rotting and diseased corpses lying openly in the hot streets.
The local parliament at Aix was aware of these horrifying events, and were forced to take the extremely drastic approach of threatening anyone who attempted to leave Marseilles or even communicate with the nearby towns with the death penalty.
To enforce this even further, a two-metre wall called “la mur de la peste” was erected all around the city, with heavily guarded posts at regular intervals.
In the end, it did little good. The plague spread to the rest of Provence fairly quickly, and ravaged the local towns of Aix Toulon and and Arles before finally fizzling out in 1722.
Over the two-year period from May 1720 100,000 were killed including 50,000 in Marseilles. Its population would not recover until 1765, but it avoided the fate of some plague towns of disappearing altogether due to a renewed expansion of trade, this time with the West Indies and Latin America.
The royal French government also paid for even greater port security after these events, and there were no more slips in port security.
In addition, there has been evidence of modern-style autopsies on the dead found at some of the plague pits around Marseilles, the first ever known to have occurred.
Perhaps the new knowledge gleaned during the Marseilles plague helped ensure that no such epidemics have happened in Europe since.