Great Plague of Marseille

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Contemporary engraving of Marseille during the Great Plague
Public notice on the disposal of corpses during the Great Plague

The Great Plague of Marseille was the last of the significant European outbreaks of bubonic plague. Arriving in Marseille, France in 1720, the disease killed 100,000 people in the city and the surrounding provinces.[1] However, Marseille recovered quickly from the plague outbreak. Economic activity took only a few years to recover, as trade expanded to the West Indies and Latin America. By 1765, the growing population was back at its pre-1720 level.

Outbreak and fatalities[edit]

This great outburst of plague was the last recurrence of a pandemic of bubonic plague, following the devastating episodes which began in the mid-fourteenth century with the European Black Death.[2] In 1720, the plague bacillus Yersinia pestis arrived at the port of Marseille from the Levant. The merchant ship, the Grand-Saint-Antoine, had departed from Sidon in Lebanon, having previously called 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 in the lazaret by the port authorities.[3] Due largely to its monopoly on French trade with the Levant, this important port had a large stock of imported goods in warehouses and was actively expanding its trade with other areas of the Middle East and emerging markets in the New World. 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.

The "mur de la peste"

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 the Parlement 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. The wall was built of dry stone, 2 m high and 70 cm thick, with guard posts set back from the wall. 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. Estimates indicate an overall death rate of between 25%-50% for the population in the larger area, with the city of Marseille at 40%, the area of Toulon at above 50%, and the area of Aix and Arles at 25%.

After the plague subsided, the royal government strengthened the plague defenses of the port, building the waterside Lazaret d'Arenc. A double line of fifteen-foot walls ringed the whitewashed compound, pierced on the waterside to permit the offloading of cargo from lighters, once merchantmen had passed inspection at an island further out in the harbour, where crews and cargoes were examined.[4]

Recent research[edit]

Bubonic plague victims in a mass grave from 1720-1721 in Martigues, France

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.[5] The excavation provided an opportunity to study more than 200 skeletons from an area in the second arrondissement 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.


  1. ^ Duchêne & Contrucci (2004).
  2. ^ Duchene and Contrucci (2004), Chronology. Marseille suffered from epidemics of the European Black Death in 1348 (recurring intermittently until 1361), in 1580 and 1582, and in 1649-1650.
  3. ^ Duchêne & Contrucci (2004), pages 361-362.
  4. ^ La peste et les lazarets de Marseille; briefly noted by Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory 1995:245f.
  5. ^ Signoli, Seguy, Biraben, Dutour & Belle (2002).


  • Duchêne, Roger; Contrucci, Jean (2004), Marseille, 26,000 ans d'histoire, Fayard, ISBN 2-213-60197-6  (French), Chapter 42, pages 360-378.
  • Signoli, Michel; Seguy, Isabelle; Biraben, Jean-Noel; Dutour, Olivier; Belle, Paul (2002), Paleodemography and Historical Demography in the Context of an Epidemic: Plague in Provence in the Eighteenth Century, Population (Institut National d'Études Démographiques) 57: 829–854  (English) (available on JSTOR)

See also[edit]