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.
Vessels suspected of infection would normally have been quarantined for an extended period in one of the quarantine islands off the coast of Marseille. But this should not have been the case for the Grand Saint-Antoine.
The city’s first municipal magistrate, Jean-Baptiste Estelle, owned part of the ship and much of its lucrative cargo. He used his influence to organize the premature unloading of cargo in the city’s warehouses so that the goods could be sold soon after at the show.
The number of infections and deaths began to increase within days, and the threat to the economy of this major commercial port has become all too real. Instead of taking emergency measures to try to contain the infection, officials launched an elaborate misinformation campaign, going so far as to hire doctors to diagnose the disease as only malignant fever instead of the plague.
It was only two months after the first cases of bubonic plague appeared in Marseille that appropriate measures were taken. These included trade embargoes, quarantines, quick burial of corpses, distribution of food and aid, and disinfection campaigns using fire, smoke, vinegar or herbs. And the Grand Saint-Antoine was burned and sunk off the coast of Marseille.
But then it was too late. The epidemic spread from city to city and over the next two years, 126,000 lives were killed in Provence.
It may sound familiar. The Trump administration’s slow response to recognizing the Covid-19 pandemic has claimed more lives than would have been possible if the threat of infection had been taken seriously from the start. Instead, the president spent those crucial first weeks minimizing the risk of a coronavirus outbreak (in fact, he continues to do so). And when appropriate measures arrived, they arrived too late. What started as an epidemic has turned into a massive public health crisis that is now much more difficult to track and contain.
There are other parallels between the Great Plague in Provence and the Covid-19 pandemic. Back then, as it is today, people viewed disease as coming from far away, from “them”, not “us”. In the 1700s, the plague was even sometimes called “Levantina plague” or Levantine plague, referring to the region of the world occupied by Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and much of Turkey of today.
However, recent genetic studies have revealed that epidemics of plague in the early modern period of Europe, approximately between 1500 and 1800, could in fact originate from plague reservoirs on the continent rather than on merchant ships from the Levant . Such a possibility, however, would never have entered the minds of people living in Provence, who have instead adopted an orientalist narrative that remains to this day. Efforts to call SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, the Chinese virus, or the Wuhan virus, come from a long history of epidemiological scapegoats – when in fact, genetic tests have recently revealed that most of the cases of Covid-19 in New York came from Europe, not from Asia.
So, like today, the idea that the disease does not discriminate and affects everyone the same could not be further from the truth. During the Great Plague of Provence, the rich inhabitants of the cities not only in France but everywhere in Europe who feared that the plague would spread in their own regions, quickly left for the countryside, leaving in their wake a social and economic ruin. In recent weeks, New Yorkers have done much the same, leaving for destinations less affected by Covid-19.
In 1720 a British observer remarked on the uneven effects of the plague: “It is worthy of our opinion that in … contagious visits … the weight of judgment generally falls most heavily on the poor; not that it is sent more immediately… to them, but their unfortunate circumstances… to expose them there… The rich, armed by the danger of infection, fly on the infected ground… By this means, the trade stops, employment stops, and the poor who want work must therefore have their livelihood [sic] cut. This immediately reduces thousands of families to unspeakable misery and distress. “
Today too, it is the poor, as well as racial and ethnic minorities, who are suffering disproportionately from the health and economic effects of the pandemic in the United States and other countries.
Creeping disinformation is another theme that unites the great plague of Provence and the Covid-19 pandemic. In the 1720s, rumors and paranoia became a problem not only in France but throughout Europe, as well as in the colonies of the Americas and Asia, as people struggled to separate fact from fiction. Many even complained about the dangers of lying during public health crises, such as when a person protested in 1721: “Another great cause of our current plague terrors is the fact of giving too hasty a belief to every idle story and ill-founded concerning her. … So, we are responsible to the Whimsey of every petulant editor, who is made of the instruments of human conception, to bring the plague among us, or to drive it out again, as it can serve a bad trick.
Where social media platforms and right-wing populist outlets serve to amplify misinformation today, local newspapers, pamphlets and old-fashioned word-of-mouth have done bad service in the 18th century. Although their scope was more limited, the ailments were the same.
There are many other parallels between the two outbreaks, including the difficulty obtaining specific number of infections and deaths, hiring partisan doctors to support the government’s false allegations, or the way opportunists often exploited disasters to achieve goals that may not have been achievable before the emergency.
Here is one last lesson that can be drawn from the great plague of Provence and the history of the disease: whatever the severity or the trauma of the pandemic, for survivors, things always return to normal – or at least a reconfigured version of normal. For better or worse, people forget more quickly than they perhaps should, and the episode only becomes a subject for historians.
Cindy Ermus is an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at San Antonio and co-editor of the online journal Age of Revolutions. She is currently writing a book on the Great Plague in Provence.