Plague in Marseille


André Fabre                           2012

The Great Plague of Marseille has been one of the most important outbreaks of bubonic plague in the early 18th century in Europe since the devastating episodes which began in the fourteenth century.

Arriving in Marseille in 1720, the disease killed 100,000 people in the city and the surrounding provinces

In 1720, the plague arrived at the port of Marseille from the Levant with a merchant ship, the Grand-Saint-Antoine, coming from Sidon in Lebanon, after several calls at Smyrna, Tripoli, and plague-ridden Cyprus.

Following the death on board of a Turkish passenger, several crew members fell victim to the plague, including the ship's surgeon. The ship was refused entry to the port of Livorno and, on arrival at Marseille, was promptly placed under quarantine by the port authorities.

Powerful city merchants needed the silk and cotton cargo of the ship for the great medieval fair at Beaucaire and pressured authorities to lift the quarantine.

A few days later, the disease broke out in the city. Hospitals were quickly overwhelmed, and residents panicked, driving the sick from their homes and out of the city. Mass graves were dug but were quickly filled. Eventually the number of dead overcame city public health efforts, until thousands of corpses lay scattered and in piles around the city.

Attempts to stop the spread of plague included an Act of Parliament of Aix that levied the death penalty for any communication between Marseille and the rest of Provence.

To enforce this separation, a plague wall, the Mur de la Peste, was erected across the countryside. Remains of the wall can still be seen in different parts of the Plateau de Vaucluse.

During a two-year period, 50,000 of Marseille's total population of 90,000 died, and an additional 50,000 people succumbed as the plague spread north, eventually reaching Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Apt and Toulon

In 1998, an excavation of a mass grave of victims of the bubonic plague outbreak was conducted by scholars from the Université de la Méditerranée.[4] The excavation provided an opportunity to study more than 200 skeletons from an area in Marseille known as the Monastery of the Observance.

In addition to modern laboratory testing, archival records were studied to determine the conditions and dates surrounding the use of this mass grave. This multidisciplinary approach revealed previously unknown facts and insights concerning the epidemic of 1722. The reconstruction of the skull of one body, a 15-year-old boy, revealed the first historical evidence of an autopsy dated to the spring of 1722. The anatomic techniques used appear to be identical to those described in a surgical book dating from 1708.

Finally, Marseille recovered quickly from the plague outbreakBy 1765, the growing population was back at its pre-1720 level.


Date de dernière mise à jour : 29/07/2013

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