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Survive the epidemic: the experience of the Great Marseille Plague of 1720

Forrest Alan

The visitation of bubonic plague that struck the French Mediterranean port of Marseille in 1720 was the last to afflict western Europe, and it is as such that it has lived on in popular memory. Plague arrived in Marseille, as so often in the past, from the sea, aboard a cargo vessel arriving in the roads from the Levant, and it spread death and devastation both in the city itself and in the towns and villages of its hinterland. It killed nearly half the population, brought maritime commerce to a standstill, and led to a demographic catastrophe that would last for fifty years.  Fear and paranoia swept the city, and with it the sense that no one was safe, that anyone, rich and poor, nobleman and vagrant, risked being infected. The consequences and the reactions of the public are familiar to anyone who has lived through a pandemic, and it is instructive how little they have changed over the centuries: hospitals were overwhelmed, provisioning was threatened, the citizenry shunned their neighbours and avoided human contact, and those who could do so fled the city to seek safety elsewhere. The civic authorities had only time-honoured remedies to which to turn: quarantine, exclusion, fire, and the physical destruction of goods and property. And they faced the eternal quandary that still haunts us today: should they sacrifice lives to protect businesses and livelihoods, or risk seeing the commercial future of their city destroyed?

Keywords: history, France, Marseille, epidemic of 1720, plague
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