The plague of 1720, known as the plague of Marseille

The plague of 1720, known as the plague of Marseille

The last major event in Europe for the Black Plague date of 1720 and remains known as " plague of Marseille ". The Phocaean city then experienced its twentieth epidemic of this disease since antiquity. In the 15th century, the city was visited nine times. In the 17th century, thanks to the efforts of Cardinal Richelieu and then of Louis XIV, suspicious ships could not dock, the port police were vigilant. Signed and countersigned health certificates were required before mooring and based on these documents, quarantine was ordered or not. But under the Regency and the freedom of morals, the situation is quite different….

The arrival of the Grand Saint Antoine in Marseille

On May 14, 1720, a Dutch flute, the Grand Saint Antoine arrives in sight of one of the islands of the Frioul archipelago, facing Marseille, loaded with precious fabrics and cotton bales worth one hundred thousand crowns , from Asia.

For some, the boat, which left Seyde on January 31, had called in ports where the plague epidemic was declared, notably in Damascus. In Tripoli, the storm having damaged the sails, the boat recovered others from a ship whose crew had perished from the plague ... For others, the boat would have all its clear patents, that is to say , targeted in ports not infested by the plague!

Despite everything, deaths are declared on board: a passenger, seven sailors and the surgeon. The captain, aware that it is a serious illness, had stopped in Livorno and provided with a diagnostic certificate drawn up by the Italians, mentioning a pestilential malignant fever, docks in good standing in Marseille. Another sailor died on May 27.

The cargo belonging to Captain Chataud as well as to notables of the city of Marseille, including the alderman Estelle, was unloaded after only four days to be sold as quickly as possible on the markets of Beaucaire. Usually, suspicious boats are rigorously inspected and quarantined. Having a little doubt, the authorities decreed a light quarantine towards the Isle of Jarre, the sailors will come out only twenty days later! But the scourge is in the streets of the city….

The first victims of the plague of 1720

On June 20, a fifty-eight-year-old washerwoman collapses in a street, a bubo at the corner of her lip. On June 28, in the same neighborhood, a tailor and his wife die, on July 1 another woman wears a coal on her nose. It turns out that the first patients touched the cargo of fabrics and the fleas carrying the plague were in the folds of the fabrics; the bite made by the rat flea causes septicemia and after a maximum of three days the patient dies. The disease is spreading briskly with one or two deaths a day in a crowded city where hygiene is deplorable. On July 9, doctors suspected the plague when they discovered a thirteen-year-old child with the disease and informed the authorities. Guards are posted in front of the house. But the municipality is trying to hide these deaths, so that business does not suffer. From this moment, we speak of the Plague - the bacillus being named Yersinia pestis from the name of the researcher Alexandre Yersin who discovered it in 1894.

Entire neighborhoods were affected when one of the associate physicians, Mr. Peyssonel, warned the aldermen on July 18 that the danger was present and pressing. On July 23, fourteen people died in the same street ... the population was frightened, the doctor insisted on the aldermen to make them understand that it was indeed the plague. As only reaction, guards are posted at the beginning of the infected streets, the sick bodies and the other members of the families displaced in the middle of the night ... The doctor Peyssonel warns the neighboring towns which react quickly by prohibiting all trade and comings and goings of people with Marseilles. Thus in the surroundings and beyond Languedoc, as far as Rodez and Toulouse, any person coming from Provence is subject to quarantine, the goods are "vented" for forty days and no travel. is not possible without a health certificate. The persons in charge of the posts and couriers are required "to make perfume in the presence of one of the consuls of the place letters coming from Marseille and neighboring places".

Marseilles trade is blocked, there will soon be no more food! Three markets are located two leagues from the city, one on the Chemin d'Aix, the other on the Chemin d'Aubagne and the last at L'Estaque, in the port for goods from the sea. The Marseillais can thus buy provisions from sellers protected by a double barrier.

The increasingly worried inhabitants left the city, some in the hinterland on the heights, others by boat, trying to take their belongings. Soon there are only the priests, the aldermen and a few inhabitants animated by the faith spread by the Bishop of Belsunce. Under his command, militias were formed to clear infected houses, maintain order, and help the poor. The "crows", these requisitioned men, take the corpses out of the houses to transport them in dumpsters but in the process steal the goods remaining with the former inhabitants.

The peak of the disease

From July 30, forty deaths per day. Others are found nearby. August 9: one hundred dead. August 15: three hundred dead. A new contagion appeared on August 21 which killed the sick, the remaining guards and some convicts. The surviving aldermen, including M Moustier must carry out their own orders, helped by a few unreached men to remove the bodies by the hundreds. Hundred convicts are made available to the alderman, but they die in 6 days, corpses litter the streets again. Eight hundred people die a day. And from August 30: a thousand deaths per day.

Everywhere the bodies pile up, the “Cours” the most beautiful promenade of Marseillais is littered with sick, all come to shelter under the beautiful trees… the municipality, having no more “crows” employ convicts to transport the bodies and up to twenty dumpers circulate endlessly ... All the dogs wander, die, they are thrown into the sea ... the smell is more than pestilential with the heat and the sun.

Pits with a dangerous infection are covered with lime, then earth. Faced with the immensity of the number of corpses, other solutions must be found. The churches are open, the vaults filled with all the bodies, lime poured over them, so the streets are a little emptied of these horrors.

In an attempt to stem the scourge, the remaining sick were isolated, the houses were disinfected and smoked, then the dead were cremated. The caregivers wear the duckbill mask, designed by De Lorme, physician to Louis XIII, in which aromatic plants such as cloves and rosemary are placed. On their feet, they wear Moroccan leather ankle boots from the Levant, plain-skin breeches, a shirt, hat and gloves all in skin.

Recipes from all over the world reach Marseille, made up of ingredients each stranger than the next: toad powder and viper's heart and liver pills! Apparently the most effective would be the vinegar on a sponge placed in front of your mouth. History also reports that three professions are spared from the plague: goatherds and grooms, the scent of animals repel rat fleas and oil carriers because oil repels them too!

Personalities devote themselves: the Chevalier Roze and the galley slaves in his service will collect and bury between a thousand and two thousand dead. The Bishop of Belsunce, whose clergy was wiped out in the fifth, daily visits the sick, gives the holy sacraments and distributes large alms. Aldermen Moustier and Estelle, the painter Serre, the lieutenant of the Admiralty Gérin-Ricard, as well as doctors also participate.

In mid September, entering and leaving Marseille was prohibited, the mail was disinfected, the fabrics and the boat were finally burned on the 26th on the Isle of Jarre. But it is far too late, because the bacillus has spread inland, to Provence and Languedoc. On September 21, four hundred deaths were recorded.

Towards the end of misfortune

At the end of September 1720, we saw a few poor people, leaning on a stick which we nicknamed "the sticks of Saint Roch", walking through the streets in search of food. They survived the disease. By recounting their experience, we come to the conclusion that you don't get the plague twice. Meanwhile, the inhabitants begin to return to Marseille, their astonishment is great when he discovers a deserted and almost dead city.

Deaths decrease from October 1. Beggars are sent to Charité, the hospital becoming specialized in treating the plague. The Bishop of Belsunce places the city under the protection of the Sacred Heart of Jesus by celebrating a mass on November 1, 1720, with a procession and the offering of a candle with the city’s arms. On November 30, there are only two to five deaths a day.

The papal states then built the Plague Wall in the Vaucluse (Gordes, Murs) to protect the Comtat Venaissin, twenty seven kilometers long, in dry stone. In March 1721 another wall, constantly guarded by French troops to prevent any passage, was built to protect the surrounding areas, between the Durance and Mont Ventoux in order to prevent any relationship between the Comtat Venaissin and the Dauphiné which is not not yet reached.

The following years

Marseille ended with the plague in February 1721. But the disease spread to Toulon and Aix en Provence. And yet, cases are recognized again in Marseille, in March-April with about two hundred and fifty deaths, these patients being much less contagious, they are only relapses.

Immediately, the aldermen act, close the gates of the city, a hospital for the rich and one for the poor are built, the poor being treated at the expense of the city. The epidemic is ending. Calm returns, the inhabitants come out again and walk, the survivors are happy to see each other again.

But in June, twenty people were struck again by the disease. Doctors began to reassure the population, and set up procedures. Each neighborhood is assigned a commissioner with workers under his command to clean all the houses marked with a red cross (where the infection is). After throwing everything away, we do three fumigations: one with aromatic herbs, one with gunpowder, the third with arsenic and other drugs. Then one or two layers of lime are thrown on the walls and floors. The problem then arises for the boats, they have to be disinfected and the goods sent to the neighboring islands. There remain the churches where all the bodies were stored in the vaults. You have to seal the doors and cement all the joints. Last point to eradicate this scourge: find all the objects stolen during this period, because of course, once the inhabitants left their house, there were often thieves. A lot of research is undertaken, everyone is putting their hands in the dough and so the inhabitants can finally find their peace.

Assessment of the plague of 1720 in Marseille

Marseilles, whose population reached approximately ninety thousand inhabitants at the beginning of the year 1720, sees itself reduced by half: forty thousand dead in the city and ten thousand in the surroundings. One hundred and twenty thousand deaths are recorded in the south east.

Captain Chataud, at the origin of this scourge, is accused of deception and imprisoned. On September 8, 1720, he joined the Château d'If, accused of "contraventions of health orders, false declarations, of having brought in goods before the purge and of having favored the escape of a man from crew during quarantine ”. On April 7, 1721, he joined the royal prisons of the Admiralty. He was forgotten ... until July 8, 1723, when he was declared "out of court and trial" and released on August 3.

A statue bearing the effigy of Bishop Belsunce was installed on the Cours in 1802, then moved to stand today on the forecourt of the Cathedral of the Major; in the center of the city, streets bear the names of the aldermen; a commemorative plaque was created in memory of the aldermen, it is visible at the Museum of the History of Marseille.


- Marseille dead city: the plague of 1720. collective work. Other Time, 2008.

- The curse of the Great Saint Anthony by Patrick Mouton. Other Time, 2001.

- Account of the plague of Marseilles in 1720, by Father Papon.

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