What Happened During Europe’s Last Deadly Plague? | History Hit

What Happened During Europe’s Last Deadly Plague?

History Hit

24 Sep 2021
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L'Intérieur du Port de Marseille by Joseph Vernet, c. 1754.
Image Credit: Public Domain

The great plagues that swept over Europe in the Middle Ages are one of history’s strangest phenomenons. Historians, scientists and anthropologists still don’t really know what really caused them, where they came from or why they suddenly disappeared only to return a few centuries later. The only thing that is certain is that they have had a profound effect on world history.

The last (to date) of these great waves of death to hit Europe happened on the coast of Southern France, in Marseille, where 100,000 people died in just 2 years.

Marseille — a prepared city?

The people of Marseille, the wealthy and strategically important city on the Mediterranean coast, knew all about plagues.

Epidemics had hit the city in 1580 and again in 1650: in response, they had established a sanitation board for maintaining good healthy conditions in the city. 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.

As a port city, Marseille also regularly had ships arriving from distant harbours carrying new diseases on board. In an attempt to combat this, they implemented a surprisingly sophisticated three-tier system to quarantine every ship that came into the harbour, which involved 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 fact that over half of Marseille’s population died in this terrible final plague is even more shocking.

1665-1666 was not a good time for the people of London. Not only was most of the city engulfed by what soon became known as The Great Fire of London in September 1666, but months before the most infamous outbreak of disease in British history occurred: the Great Plague.
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Globalisation and disease

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 25 May 1720, a ship called Grand-Sainte-Antoine arrived from Sidon in Lebanon, carrying a prized cargo of silk and cotton. There was nothing unusual in this itself: however, the ship had docked in Cyprus en route, where an outbreak of plague had been reported.

Having already been refused port in Livorno, the ship was placed in a quarantine bay outside the city docks while the occupants began to die. The first victim was a Turkish passenger, who infected the ship’s surgeon, and then 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.

Michael is a Senior Human Osteologist at MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology). This involves the identification, analysis, interpretation of skeletal assemblages, and the production of specialist reports on inhumation and cremation burials.
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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. It took hold rapidly. Although  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. The nature of contagion and infection was not understood, nor were there any treatments available.

The plague arrives

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.

A depiction of the hotel de ville in Marseille during the 1720 outbreak of plague by Michel Serre.

Image Credit: Public Domain.

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. The region had an overall death rate of somewhere around

In the two years between May 1720 and May 1722, 100,000 died from plague, 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 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 of bubonic plague have happened in Europe since.

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