The great plague of Marseille – 1720 to 1722
In Western Europe this was the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague that had first appeared in the 14th century as the Black Death. The plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis, was carried to the French trading port on the Grand-Saint-Antoine which had set out from the Levantine port of Sidon, having previously called in at Smyrna, Tripoli and more fatally at the plague-ridden island of Cyprus.
A Turkish passenger died during the voyage and with several crew members falling ill, the ship was denied entry at Livorno and sailed on to Marseille, where it was promptly put into quarantine in a lazaret adjacent to the harbor. All might have been well had not commercial expediency overruled any public health considerations. The cargo on the benighted ship, quantities of silk and cotton, were needed by the city merchants for the great fair at Beaucaire and pressure was exerted by the powerful mercantile lobby on the health officials to lift the quarantine.
This they did and not unsurprisingly within days the plague broke out in the city. So rapid was the spread that hospitals were overwhelmed and the frantic citizens drove the sick from their homes and out of the city. This served only to allow the bacillus to spread into the surrounding countryside. Mass graves were dug but they proved insufficient to accommodate all the cadavers and soon thousands of bodies lay scattered and piled up in the streets.
The horse having well and truly bolted the French officials tried belatedly to shut the stable door by passing legislation in the Parlement of Aix imposing the death penalty on anyone in Marseille seeking to communicate with other parts of Provence and, presumably, vice versa. Judicial execution or death by bubonic plague – must have been a tough call.
A more enduring measure to seal off Marseille from the rest of the mainland was the construction of a dry stone wall two meters high and 70 centimeters thick with guard posts set back from it, known as the Mur de la Peste. Parts of it are extant.
The plague over the two-year period that it was at its most virulent accounted for 50,000 of Marseille’s 90,000 population with a further 50,000 dying in the outlying countryside areas.
Once normality prevailed the French authorities enhanced the plague defences of this vital port by building a new lazaret, Lazeret d’Arenc, which boasted a double line of fifteen foot walls around a new compound to which ingress and egress was only permissible from the waterfront. Entry to the lazaret was only permissible once crew and cargoes had passed a rigorous inspection on an island away from the harbor. Despite the appalling loss of life it only took just over forty years for Marseille’s population to reach its pre-plague level.
One interesting side note. An archaeological excavation in 1998 uncovered a mass grave of plague victims dating to 1722. The skull of a 15 year-old boy revealed that an autopsy had been performed on his body – the first known example of this procedure. It appears that the autopsy followed the methodology described in a medical text-book published fourteen years earlier.