The curious parallels between our reactions to Covid and Europe's last Great Plague

Anthony Peregrine
·8-min read
The last major outbreak of the plague in Europe occurred exactly 300 years ago - Getty
The last major outbreak of the plague in Europe occurred exactly 300 years ago - Getty

The disease arrived from the east (or did it?). It took Europeans unawares. They were unsure of the nature of the illness, how it was transmitted, how to protect against it and what might be the best treatment. It spread quickly, official measures always running somewhat behind. Businesses were shut, festivals cancelled. Under pressure, hospital facilities were expanded. Involvement of the national government led to tough lockdown and quarantine measures, swingeing penalties for contravention, and a great deal of fake news. Influential voices claimed the economic and social effects of the cure would be worse than the disease.

Then the epidemic died down. Then it flared again, in a second wave. Which brings us up to date. Or, on the other hand, takes us back exactly 300 years, to Europe’s last great plague epidemic. The outbreak devastated Marseille and Provence, notably those bits (Luberon, Avignon, Arles, Aix) where, these days, we like to go on holiday. And – here’s the point – the parallels between 1720/21 and 2020 are striking. Granted, the present unpleasantness is less fatal per head of population. By 1722, up to 120,000 of Provence’s 400,000 people had succumbed. In 2020, there have also been fewer corpses left out for weeks to rot on sunny streets than was the case in Marseille. According to contemporaries, they became squelchy.

Other than that, though, it sometimes appears that, in recent months, we and our leaders have been following a 300-year-old blueprint. The traditional story starts in Marseille in spring 1720. France’s main Mediterranean port was booming, having overcome the baneful effects of the recent French financial crisis (precipitated by Scottish economist and wide boy, John Law: a whole different tale). 

The Port of Marseille in 1720 - Getty
The Port of Marseille in 1720 - Getty

Things were looking good when, on May 25, 1720, a merchant ship, the Grand Saint Antoine, sailed in. The three-master had arrived from Sidon, via Cyprus and Livorno, with bales of cotton and silks worth, in today’s terms, around £8 million. En route, nine of the crew had died. In the circumstances, the Grand Saint Antoine should have been sent to moor at one of Marseille’s offshore islands, for Tier 3 quarantine. Following epidemics in earlier centuries, the port city was pretty good at quarantine measures.

It was, though, even better at corruption. Ship’s captain Jean-Baptiste Chataud claimed the crew members had been killed by food poisoning. Meanwhile, the city’s chief magistrate, Jean-Baptiste Estelle, leaned on the port health authorities to let the cargo be landed ASAP. It is maybe no coincidence that Estelle had a shedload of cash invested in the goods. To profit properly, he needed them sold on pronto at that summer’s commercial fairs, notably in Beaucaire.

And so it came to pass. The materials were unloaded, full of fleas carrying the Yersin bacillus. Shortly, dockers and porters were developing the swellings in armpits and groin, the headaches, raging thirst and fever of the plague. Marseille was under assault. This long-accepted version gained a twist in 2016, courtesy of German researchers. Having examined DNA from teeth exhumed from Marseillais plague pits, they reckoned the 1720 outbreak was a direct descendant of the 14th-century Black Death. This raised the possibility that the plague wasn’t imported from the Levant but had been lying dormant somewhere in western Europe for nearly four centuries. No-one knows where.

Avignon - Getty
Avignon - Getty

Whatever the provenance, it appears that the Grand Saint Antoine was somehow involved. And developments were, anyway, getting out of hand in Marseille. Unsurprisingly, city magistrates tried to hush up the outbreak (Another parallel with 2020?). There was, for a start, genuine disagreement among medical men as to whether the nastiness really was the plague. They’d not seen a case for 70 years: surely plague was a disease of the past in France? More influential was a desire to avoid popular panic and, most of all, not to prejudice trade. The government in Paris was assured, quite falsely, that port affairs were all tickety-boo.

In truth, plague was rampant. Deaths stacked up to a thousand a day by late summer. Cemeteries were overwhelmed, so bodies were chucked in mass graves and covered in quicklime. Businesses and schools, bars and brothels were shut. The port, too. Houses of plague victims were walled up (In 2020, Wuhan residents had their apartment lifts switched off). As a local priest said: “God has declared war on His people.” The policy of secrecy was coming apart at the seams. On August 12, Daniel Defoe referred to the epidemic in the Daily Post in London.

Measures of prevention and cure were hit and miss. Sulphur and arsenic-based confections may have been slightly useful in disinfecting houses, vinegar-soaked masks in protecting people; bloodletting, amulets and the taking of powdered toad not so much. Both authorities and people tried to distil certainty from uncertainty. Religious fervour escalated.  Many who could – essentially the rich – legged it from town. But others who could have, didn’t. Chief magistrate Estelle made amends for earlier duplicity by sticking around to administer aid and rescue services. While other clerics hid, Bishop Henri de Belsunce was out and about, helping the sick and dying, using his own money for supplies and taking open-air Mass barefooted and bareheaded.

The good bishop attends to the sick - Getty
The good bishop attends to the sick - Getty

The most celebrated hero was Chevalier Nicolas Roze. Recently returned from consular office in the Peloponnese, he was appointed commissaire general – military man in charge – of the poor Rive Neuve district south of Marseille’s Old Port. He closed the district off, organised temporary hospitals, bought in food and erected gallows to dissuade looters. His most famous moment came on September 16. Some 1,200 bodies had been accumulating on a quay for weeks. As a contemporary wrote: “They looked hardly human, their limbs set in motion by maggots”. Roze organised convicts to clear them into hastily-converted bastions. Most of the convicts died as a result. Roze himself caught the plague but was among the 20-40% to survive.

By now, the Prince Regent and his Conseil d’Etat had taken things in hand, the first instance of national government decisively intervening in such a crisis. The main aim was to stop the plague rampaging through the land. To this end, two-metre high plague walls went up across miles of Provence. They were manned by troops ordered to pen in the pestilence. The penalty for illicit movement across Provence was death. Certain authorities, like the doctor François Chicoyneau drafted into Marseille at the height of the outbreak, thought the quarantine measures counterproductive. Plague was propagated via miasma, or noxious air, against which wall and troops were little use. More than that, quarantine had social and economic effects which actually exacerbated the epidemic. The “cure” was, anyway, worse than the disease.

Whatever the truth, the plague was already, pre-walls, spreading up to 30 miles a month. It hit Aix, Toulon, the Camargue – and Arles, brought in by a Marseille fishmonger. From Alès, the disease spread to Gevaudan, today’s Lozère. Meanwhile, back in Marseille, the government-appointed commander-in-chief of the city, Charles-Claude Andrault de Langeron, was administering martial law, ordering the slaughter of dogs and cats, and having cannons fired to disperse allegedly killer miasma.

Then, as 1720 became 1721, so the outbreak in Marseilles slowed. Shops and businesses re-opened, fishing re-started and, in spring, Bishop de Belsunce, lead a huge procession, dedicating the city to the Sacred Heart. Life was returning to normal when (hear the echoes) a second wave struck in early 1722. Panic stations – but, this time, deaths were far fewer. By summer, after 27 months, it was all but over again. Of the 120,000 dead, 40,000 had been in Marseille – slightly fewer than half the population. Strangely, and while other cities like Arles took decades to recover, Marseille bounced back in about five years. Marriages among survivors, and the birth rate, soared, as did immigration from the Alps and further afield.

You'll find remnants of the plague wall near the town of Gordes - Getty
You'll find remnants of the plague wall near the town of Gordes - Getty

Ship’s captain Chataud was gaoled for his part in bringing in the plague. Magistrate Estelle was cleared. Chevalier Roze survived, was widowed at 47, and made a second marriage to a 17-year-old. There’s a bust of him on the Quai de la Tourette, for memories of the plague persist in the city. A greater honour yet, they’ve also taken his name for the virage sud of the Vélodrome stadium, home to the Olympique de Marseille soccer club. Bishop de Belsunce has his statue before the city cathedral and, in the Jardin de la Bibliothèque a Colonne de la Peste (Plague Column) commemorates Marseillais fortitude in 1720-22. Meanwhile, elements of the plague wall remain. Best place to see them – or include them in a stirring hike – is from Cabrières-d’Avignon, near Gordes, east of Avignon.  

It is perhaps interesting to speculate who, in the context of the 2020 pandemic, will merit his or her commemorative bust or statue, where it should be raised and whether visitors will still be interested in 300 years’ time. If you have suggestions, we need to hear them.