The enigmatic great plagues that ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages remain a mysterious phenomenon. Despite extensive research by historians, scientists, and anthropologists, the true cause, origin, and sudden disappearance of these deadly outbreaks remain unknown. However, one certainty is the profound impact they left on world history.
The most recent (to date) of these catastrophic waves of death struck the Southern coast of France, specifically in Marseille, between 1720 and 1722, where a staggering 100,000 lives were lost in a mere 2-year period.
Marseille was prepared for an outbreak
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.
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.
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.
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 French government also paid for even greater port security after these events, and there were no more slips in port security.
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. 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.