The bubonic plague struck France in 1720. The officials hesitated. Seems familiar?


OOn May 25, 1720, a ship named Grand Saint-Antoine arrived in the port of Marseille, France, loaded with cotton, fine silks and other goods. The invisible cargo it also carried, the bacteria known as Yersinia pestis, launched the Great Plague of Provence, the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in Europe.

Over a two-year period, the bubonic plague spread in the south-east of France, killing up to half of the people of Marseilles and up to 20% of the population of Provence.

As historian Tyler Stovall has observed, birthdays are dates on steroids that “offer their own perspectives on different types of historical processes.” As the world faces the Covid-19 pandemic – a public health crisis that raises more questions than answers as it unfolds – it is worth reviewing the great plague of Provence and the lessons it can offer.


Before returning to Marseille, the Grand Saint-Antoine had spent a year going around the Mediterranean, collecting goods for a trade fair that took place each year in the current town of Beaucaire. Several sailors died during his voyage, many of whom showed signs of bubonic plague, including buboes: painful and enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, groin and armpits.


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