Great Plague of Marseille

Orfeas Katsoulis | Nov 13, 2022

Table of Content


The Marseilles plague of 1720 was the last major plague epidemic to occur in France, corresponding to a resurgence of the second plague pandemic.

It was spread from the Grand Saint-Antoine, a ship from the Levant (the region of Syria), which docked in the port of Marseille on May 25, 1720, and was considered to be the source of the epidemic. The ship's cargo of cotton cloths and bales was contaminated with the bacillus that caused the plague. As a result of serious negligence, and in spite of a very strict protection system including the quarantine of passengers and goods, the plague spread throughout the city. The poorest and oldest districts were the most affected. Spreading from the neighborhoods near the port, the plague quickly spread throughout the city, causing between 30,000 and 40,000 deaths out of a population of 80,000 to 90,000, and then throughout Provence, where it claimed between 90,000 and 120,000 victims out of a population of approximately 400,000.

Responsibility for not enforcing regulations for potentially infected vessels was sought from the ship's captain, Jean-Baptiste Chataud, and the first alderman, Jean-Baptiste Estelle. No formal proof could be established. However, it is certain that the aldermen and the health stewards in charge of this regulation acted very lightly. Some goods, notably fabrics, which were initially supposed to be quarantined, were finally unloaded in Marseille.

During the epidemic, the feeding of the population as well as the evacuation of the corpses posed serious problems and mobilized the aldermen who showed great courage. The removal of the corpses from the Tourette district by the galley slaves of the Arsenal des galères mobilized for this purpose and placed under the command of Chevalier Roze constitutes a major event of this tragic event. The religious, led by Mgr de Belsunce, brought moral comfort to the dying.

This epidemic gave rise to numerous artistic representations, including those of the painter Michel Serre, who witnessed the epidemic firsthand. It is a significant historical episode, still present in the collective memory of the people of Marseilles.

Economic situation

Despite the financial difficulties of the city of Marseille, which had been heavily in debt since the end of the 17th century, trade in Marseille was booming after a temporary crisis following the Treaty of Rastadt (signed in 1714) which put an end to the War of the Spanish Succession. The value of products from the Levant brought to the port of Marseille in 1714 amounted to twenty-three million pounds, a sum never before reached. The outbreak of the plague brought a sudden halt to a powerful economic boom, synonymous with improved living conditions.

Urban planning of the city

The city is entirely surrounded by a new rampart built by order of Louis XIV by Nicolas Arnoul. This enclosure is based on the two powerful fortresses located on either side of the entrance to the port: Fort Saint-Jean and Fort Saint-Nicolas. The medieval ramparts were demolished and the surface area of the city was tripled, from 65 to 195 hectares. In the interior spaces thus conquered, new roads were built, intersecting perpendicularly.

This resulted in two types of urbanization that were not without influence on the development and spread of the plague, which first appeared in the old districts. To the north of the port was the old city, which corresponded to the medieval city with narrow, tortuous and unhealthy streets where craftsmen and merchants were located; it was in this area that the plague appeared and reached its peak. To the east and south, the new city developed with its new straight streets: rue de Rome, rue Paradis, rue Saint-Ferréol.

Health regulations

The plague was a permanent threat for Marseille, which was frequently linked to the Near East, where this disease was endemic. Epidemics struck the city on numerous occasions, notably in 1580 when the plague was very deadly and caused proportionally as many deaths if not more than that of 1720. A system was gradually put in place and proved its effectiveness since in 1720 Marseille had not experienced an epidemic for sixty years. This protection was based on the one hand on a sanitary cordon set up on a Mediterranean scale with the issuance of patents in the ports of the Levant, and on the other hand on a health office composed of stewards who decided on the duration of the quarantine for the crew, passengers and merchandise.

Each ship calling at a port in the Levant was issued a patent, a certificate issued by the consuls of the oriental ports to the captains of ships wishing to return to France, which specified the sanitary state of the city. There were three types of patents:

In the case of a clear patent, the duration of quarantine is usually eighteen days for persons, twenty-eight for the vessel and thirty-eight for the cargo. These periods are increased to twenty-five, thirty and forty respectively if the patent is suspect and thirty-five, fifty and sixty if the patent is gross.

A health office was created in Marseille. The date of its creation is unknown but it must have been before 1622 because a text from the Parliament of Provence dated that year refers to this establishment. This office, renewed every year by the city council, was composed of fourteen voluntary stewards chosen among merchants, merchants and former ship captains. The presidency was assumed in turn each week by one of the stewards, who then took the name of "intendant semainier". In order to ensure a good coordination between the city council and the board of health, the two aldermen who left office were automatically members of the board of health, which brought the total number of members to 16. They were assisted in their task by a large staff: secretaries, clerks, etc. A doctor and a surgeon are attached to this establishment.

The headquarters of the health office was first located on a floating pontoon based near Fort Saint-Jean, and then at the consigne sanitaire, a building built from 1719 on the plans of Antoine Mazin at the foot of Fort Saint-Jean. This building is still visible and was classified as a historical monument by order of November 23, 1949.

The procedures were strict: the captain of a ship coming from the Levant left his ship at the island of Pomègues and went by boat to the health office to present the patent that had been issued to him and, depending on the type of patent, the health office decided on the duration of the quarantine to be applied to the goods and people.

Quarantine facilities for the ships were established on Jarre Island, south of the harbor of Marseille, if the plague was confirmed, or on Pomègues Island where five hectares of land and buildings as well as a small harbor were set up to receive about thirty-five ships.

On the other hand, infirmaries, sometimes called lazarets because they were placed under the protection of Saint Lazarus, were set up for passengers and goods. These infirmaries were located by the sea, between the Joliette and Arenc coves, about 400 meters north of the city walls. Built under Colbert, they consisted of warehouses for merchandise and dwellings for travelers, on a 12-hectare site, surrounded by walls and with only three access points.

On May 25, 1720, the Grand-Saint-Antoine, a ship from the Near East, arrived in Marseille. It brought a precious load of silk fabrics and cotton bales, worth 300,000 pounds, to be sold at the Beaucaire fair in July.

Part of the cargo belonged to several notables of Marseille, including the first alderman Jean-Baptiste Estelle and the captain of the ship Jean-Baptiste Chataud. The ship was armed by Ghilhermy and Chaud, Jean-Baptiste Estelle, Antoine Bourguet and Jean-Baptiste Chataud, each interested for a quarter.

Journey and mortality on board

The Grand Saint-Antoine left Marseille on July 22, 1719 and successively linked Smyrna, Larnaca (Cyprus), and Sidon (Lebanon). In this city, she embarked silk fabrics and bags of ash intended for ballast and to absorb the humidity of the holds to ensure a better conservation of the precious fabrics. This ash was sold in Marseille to soap factories who incorporated it into their products (in 1978 divers who located the wreck of the Grand Saint-Antoine off Jarre Island brought up samples of ash). Consul Poullard, unaware that the plague was raging in Damascus, issued a clear patent even though the cargo was probably contaminated. The ship arrived in Tyre (today Sûr) and completed its cargo with new fabrics that were probably also contaminated. The ship set sail again, but had to stop in Tripoli, Lebanon, to repair damage caused by a violent storm. The vice-consul of Tripoli, Monhenoult, also issued a clear patent. On April 3, 1720, the ship headed towards Cyprus after having embarked fourteen passengers. On April 5, a Turk died on board and his corpse was thrown into the sea. The passengers went down to Cyprus and the ship left on April 18, 1720 in the direction of Marseille. On the way, five people died successively, including the surgeon on board.

The alert was serious and Captain Chataud decided to stop in the harbor of Le Brusc, near Toulon. This roadstead, well sheltered by the island of Les Embiez, has been a popular anchorage for sailors since antiquity. It is indeed the ancient Tauroentum. The reasons for this stopover are rather mysterious, but some historians believe that Chataud wanted to take the advice of the owners of the cargo in order to decide what to do.

The Great Saint Anthony then turned back to Livorno, where it arrived on May 17. The Italians forbade the ship to enter the port and had it anchored in a cove guarded by soldiers. This precaution was all the more judicious since the next day three people died on board. The corpses were examined by doctors who concluded that they were suffering from a "malignant pestilential fever"; this term should not lead to confusion, because for the doctors of the time it did not mean the plague. The authorities in Livorno mentioned on the back of the Tripoli patent that they had refused to allow the ship to enter the port because of the death of some of the crew due to this fever.

The ship then returned to Marseilles: there have been nine deaths on board since the departure from Tripoli.


Upon his arrival, Captain Chataud went to the health office to make his declaration to Intendant Tiran. He produced the clear patents and could only inform him of the deaths that had occurred during the crossing. On May 27, only two days after the arrival of the ship, a sailor died on board. The health office, unanimously decided to send the ship to the island of Jarre, then changed its mind and in a second deliberation, decided to have the corpse transferred to the infirmaries for examination and to send the ship to the island of Pomègues, in the archipelago of Frioul. On May 29, this same office decided, in an unusual move, to have the valuable goods disembarked at the infirmaries, while the cotton bales were to be transferred to the island of Jarre.

On June 3, the bureau reversed its position and made a decision that was even more favorable to the cargo owners: all goods would be unloaded at the infirmaries. Although no written proof exists, it is likely that interventions took place to have the least restrictive regulation adopted; it is impossible to know who actually intervened, but the intertwining of the interests of the merchant families and the authorities who ran the city are sufficient to understand the reasons for these numerous oversights. Captain Chataud's statement is falsified by adding a reference indicating that the crew members who died at sea died of bad food. The stewards of health probably wanted to save the cargo destined in part for the Beaucaire fair, which was to take place on July 22, 1720. On June 13, the day before the passengers were to be released from quarantine, the ship's health officer died. The surgeon on duty in the port, Gueirard, examined the corpse and concluded that it had died of old age, without observing any signs of plague.

A ship's boy fell ill and died on June 25. From that day on, several porters who had handled the cotton bales died in turn. The health office was seriously concerned and decided to transfer the ship to the island of Jarre, to burn the clothes of the deceased and to bury the corpses in quicklime. But these measures came too late, because the fabrics smuggled out of the infirmaries had already transmitted the plague to the city.

Spread of the plague

The ten deaths that occurred on the ship did not appear to have the characteristic symptoms of plague, such as charcoal and buboes. These obvious manifestations will appear in the city when fabrics from the Great St. Anthony, infested with fleas carrying Yersin's bacillus, begin to spread.

A- Porte de la Joliette, B- Porte royale or Porte d'Aix, C- Porte Bernard-du-Bois, D- Porte des Chartreux or des fainéants, E- Porte de Noailles, F- Porte d'Aubagne, G- Porte de Rome, H- Porte de Paradis, I- Porte Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, J- Porte de Saint-Victor, K- Arsenal des galères, L- Estacade isolating the galleys, M- Abbaye Saint-Victor, N- Fort Saint-Nicolas, O- Fort Saint-Jean.

1- Saint-Laurent church, 2- Cathédrale de la Major, 3- Église des Accoules, 4- Église Saint-Martin, 5- Église Saint-Ferréol, 6- Église des Augustins, 7- La Vieille Charité, 8- Hôpital du Saint-Esprit (Hôtel-Dieu), 9- Couvent des Présentines, 10- Couvent des Récollets, 11- Couvent de la Visitation, 12- Rue Belle-Table, 13- Place du Palais 14- Rue de l'Échelle, 15- Rue Jean-Galant, 16- Place des Prêcheurs, 17- Rue de l'Oratoire, 18- Rue des Grands-Carmes, 19- Rue des Fabres, 20- Cours Belsunce, 21- Hôtel de ville, 22- Place des Moulins, 23- Place de Lenche, 24- La Canebière, 25- Rue Saint-Ferréol, 26- Rue Paradis, 27- Place du Champ-Major (place Montyon), 28- Construction site.

On June 20, 1720, in rue Belle-Table, a narrow and dark alley in the old town, a woman, Marie Dauplan, died within a few hours. At the time, the doctors doubted that this death was really due to the plague. Indeed, it seems that a first plague outbreak among the crew had been contained until the cotton bales were unpacked and spread the fleas that carried the disease.

On June 28, a tailor, Michel Cresp, died suddenly. On July 1, two women, Eygazière and Tanouse, living on rue de l'Échelle, another deprived district of the city, died, one of a charcoal (a superinfected sore at the site of a flea bite, not to be confused with anthrax) on the nose, the other with buboes, obvious signs of the plague.

From July 9 on, it was obvious that the plague was present; on that day Charles Peyssonnel and his son Jean-André Peyssonnel, both doctors, called to the bedside of a twelve-year-old child on Jean-Galland Street, diagnosed the plague and warned the aldermen. The dead were buried in quicklime and their houses were walled up. The aldermen still hoped that the contagion was limited. The ship's cargo was transferred from the infirmaries to Jarre Island. From July 21 on, the number of deaths only increased; Father Giraud was able to write that "God declares war on his people".

The measures taken, such as burning sulphur in the houses, were not very effective. The plague epidemic progressed in the old city. Wealthy people left Marseille to take refuge in their bastides located in the surroundings. The galley corps, at the request of the galley doctor who affirmed that it was indeed the plague, entrenched itself in the arsenal which was isolated from the sea by a boom made of floating beams. The modest people created a huge camp on the plain of Saint-Michel (currently Place Jean-Jaurès). On July 31, 1720, the Parliament of Aix forbade the people of Marseilles to leave their land and the inhabitants of Provence to communicate with them.

From August 9 on, more than a hundred people die every day. The infirmaries could no longer receive the sick; the corpses were thrown into the streets. In mid-August, François Chicoyneau and Verny, physicians from the University of Montpellier, came to Marseilles on the orders of the Regent, advised by his first physician Pierre Chirac. Emulators of the Salerno medical school, their diagnosis, in opposition to the scholastically trained Marseilles doctors, was obvious: it was the plague.

At the end of August, all the districts of Marseille were affected, including the Rive-Neuve district, separated from the city by the port and the vast arsenal of the galleys. In spite of the measures taken by Knight Roze, who was then the captain of this district, it was impossible to cut off all communication with the old contaminated city, hence the spread of the contagion. Three hundred people died every day. Entire families disappeared, no street in the old town was spared. Churches closed their doors one after the other: one thousand people died every day.

Numerous regulations were put in place by the various local authorities and parliaments. In order to harmonize the regulations, the Conseil d'Etat issued a ruling on September 14, 1720, which annulled all the measures taken, declared the blockade of Marseille and regulated the maritime police. The decree marked an assertive takeover of royal power and a dispossession of the powers of local authorities, to such an extent that the parliament of Aix protested by refusing to register it. It was posted on all the limits it set and announced heavy sanctions for anyone who violated the provisions concerning quarantines and health tickets (galley for men and banishment for women, death in case of recidivism). But it was already too late: the bacillus had spread inland and it would take another two years of struggle to eradicate the plague from Languedoc and Provence, for it was on September 22, 1722 that the last quarantine was ordered in Avignon. A sanitary cordon was set up to protect the rest of France, with the plague wall in the Vaucluse mountains extended to the Durance along the Jabron and then to the Alps.

Marseille was not the only city in Provence to be attacked by the epidemic, which also affected Arles, Aix-en-Provence and Toulon. The small towns located in the vicinity of these large cities were also affected by the plague: Allauch, Cassis, Aubagne, Marignane, etc. Only the town of La Ciotat, protected by its walls, was spared from the plague.

Languedoc and Comtat were also affected with the cities of Alès and Avignon. The city of Beaucaire was spared, probably thanks to the wise precaution of suppressing the traditional fair.

The Gévaudan was also contaminated with the cities of Marvejols and Mende. The Gévaudan epidemic claimed "only" 5,500 victims, which represented 41% of the population of the affected regions. La Canourgue lost 64% of its population and Marvejols 53%.

In total, the epidemic claimed between 90,000 and 120,000 victims (including Marseille) out of a population of 400,000 people. The last outbreaks died out at the end of 1722 in the communes of Avignon and Orange.

From October 1720 onwards, the plague began to recede in Marseilles and those affected recovered more easily; the daily mortality rate fell to about twenty people. This decrease continued at the beginning of 1721 with a daily mortality of one or two people. Stores reopened, work resumed in the port and fishing was once again practiced. Among the various signs that marked this revival of activity in 1721 was the resumption on February 19 of the deliberations of the Chamber of Commerce, which had been interrupted since July 19, 1720. On June 20, 1721, Mgr de Belsunce organized a large procession on the occasion of the feast of the Sacred Heart, in spite of Langeron's reluctance, who feared a return of the plague.

Mrs. Leprince de Beaumont, in the Memoirs of Madame Baroness de Batteville, describes the dramatic conditions in which the population of Marseille had to live: "The streets and doorways were covered with sick people who, confused with the dying, were abandoned by everyone, as the hospitals could no longer contain them. Fortunately, the bishop of Marseilles, accompanied by a few clergymen, brought spiritual and corporal help to all the sick, without distinction of rank.

New cases of plague occur in April 1722. It is the panic. At the request of Bishop de Belsunce, the aldermen made a solemn vow on May 28, 1722, following this relapse, to go and hear mass at the Visitation monastery on each anniversary date and to offer "a white wax candle or torch, weighing four pounds, decorated with the city's coat of arms, to be burned on that day before the Blessed Sacrament. This vow of May 28, 1722 was not fulfilled until the Revolution. From 1877 onwards, the Marseille-Provence Chamber of Commerce and Industry took up the vow without interruption until today, taking charge of the organization of a religious ceremony marked by the offering of a candle like the one described in 1722. The ceremony takes place in the church of the Sacred Heart of the Prado.

By the beginning of August 1722, the epidemic was under control, and there were no more illnesses or deaths caused by the plague.

Causes of the spread and type of plague

The ignorance in the 18th century of the causes and modes of propagation of the plague is responsible for the low efficiency of the medicine of the time and the precautionary measures taken: the bacillus responsible for the plague was not discovered by Alexandre Yersin until 1894. According to the descriptions of the time, it is possible to affirm that the plague of Marseille was bubonic or more precisely bubo-septicaemic. On the other hand, the pulmonary form, which could be transmitted by the patient's breathing alone, must be ruled out. If this type of plague had occurred, some historians believe that the disease could have affected the whole country, and all of Europe, with a considerable number of deaths. This statement is completely unfounded for other authors.

Rats and fleas are usually the vectors of the disease. However, the descriptions of the time by contemporaries such as Dr. Bertrand make no mention of rat mortality. The vector of transmission was indeed the flea, but it was transmitted from man to man or through their clothes and fabrics. Some believe that the rat played some role in the transmission of the disease. At the time, only the black rat was present in France; however, the behavior of this rodent is different from that of the gray rat, which is currently widespread. The sick black rat would die in remote places, while the gray rat will die in the streets. From a strictly entomological point of view, the flea involved (Xenopsylla cheopis) cannot generally withstand temperatures below 22 °C. After the disappearance of the main vectors (rats and then the most exposed humans), the weather conditions and local temperatures in Marseille may have been one of the factors aggravating and then reducing the spread of the plague via fleas from the end of May 1720 until October of the same year. From a meteorological point of view, the historical average of daytime temperatures recorded in Marseilles was 25°C for the month of June and 23°C in September, whereas in October, this value fell to an average of only 18°C. On the other hand, during the heat peaks from July to August, these average values rise to 26 °C in Marseille, which favors the reproduction and expansion of Xenopsylla cheopis fleas.

Means of control

Doctors (even plague doctors) are powerless in the face of this epidemic of which they know only the apparent symptoms. Preventive measures were largely traditional, even superstitious, such as the use of phylacteries. Some doctors like Chicoyeau, son-in-law of Pierre Chirac, the Regent's first physician, believed that the disease was not contagious. He touched the sick, dissected the corpses without any precaution: he had however the extraordinary luck not to have contracted the disease.

The disease being unknown, the result was a traditional therapy for the time: sweating, vomiting, purgation and of course the inevitable bloodletting which had no other result than to shorten the sufferings of the patient. As for surgical practices, they consisted in incising the buboes when they reached maturity.

However, not everything is useless. The dress of doctors with their leather or oilcloth apron reduces the risk of flea bites. The perfumes used to disinfect homes, based on sulfur and arsenic, can have an impact on the destruction of fleas. On the other hand, the famous vinegar of the four thieves has no effect. The origin of this potion is as follows: four thieves were arrested while robbing plague victims during the Toulouse epidemic in 1628-1631. In order to save their lives, they revealed the secret of the composition of a remedy that allowed them to preserve themselves from contagion. The preparation was made from wormwood, sage, mint, rosemary, rue, lavender, cinnamon, clove and garlic. Despite the revelation of this secret, the thieves would have been hanged. This antiseptic vinegar had its heyday and only disappeared from the Codex in 1884.

In addition to the measures of isolation of the city, some municipal authorities resorted to the serrado (the tightening), the generalized quarantine with isolation of each hearth, in the cases where the epidemic had already introduced in the city. The cities of Arles and Toulon underwent several sequences of confinement, as well as smaller towns such as Valletta, which were also subjected to this procedure. According to the historian Gilbert Buti, these generalized quarantines have a "limited and unequal effectiveness": their success is dependent on the relationship between the moment when the device is triggered and the progress of the incubation. These sequences raised the question of the supply of households and thus mobilized officials who, like notaries and clerics, had to go from house to house, running significant risks and risking spreading the disease themselves.

Rescue organization

In the general disarray, few officials remained at their posts. Under the authority of the viguier, Louis-Alphonse Fortia, marquis de Pilles, the aldermen of the year, Jean-Pierre de Moustiès and Balthazar Dieudé, and those of the previous year, Jean-Baptiste Estelle and Jean-Baptiste Audimar, spent themselves without counting the cost and showed great courage. Few of their collaborators remained in office with the exception of Capus, archivist and secretary general of the town hall, and Pichatty de Croissainte, the king's prosecutor. Jean-Pierre Rigord, subdelegate of the Intendant of Provence, and Jean-Jacques de Gérin, lieutenant of the Admiralty, also remained in their posts.

A squadron leader, Charles-Claude Andrault de Langeron, arrived in Marseilles on September 4, 1720 with extraordinary powers: he had all the officials under his command, including the viceroy and the aldermen. Other civilians helped him: the painter Michel Serre, who each left a very interesting testimony on what they had seen in the form of paintings representing scenes of this epidemic for one and a memoir entitled Relation historique de la peste de Marseille en 1720 for the other.

Cardin Lebret collected titles and functions since he was both intendant of Provence and president of the parliament of Provence. Brought up in the school of the great civil servants who had been directly inspired by the methods of Colbert and Louvois, he loved order above all; he was the king's representative in Provence and by his activity and competence encouraged and stimulated the aldermen. However, he only fought the plague from afar and, following the evolution of the contaminated areas, resided in Aix-en-Provence, then Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and Barbentane. It was in the latter city that he welcomed on March 21, 1721 a group of twenty-one apprentice surgeons and physicians who had come from Paris to help. Among these volunteers was Jacques Daviel, who was to become master surgeon and oculist to the king. Similarly, the Parliament of Provence followed the evolution of the epidemic from afar and, faced with its spread, withdrew to Saint-Rémy de Provence and then to Saint-Michel de Frigolet.

Under the direction of the aldermen, the municipal administration had a triple task: supplying the population, maintaining order and, above all, removing corpses. Wheat was purchased from private individuals, the consuls of the province and the intendant of Languedoc. With the agreement of the intendant Lebret, the viguier and the aldermen were given extraordinary powers and offenses were severely repressed. The removal of the corpses was the most distressing task because of the lack of manpower and the risk of contagion.

A painting by Dominique Antoine Magaud entitled "Civil Courage: The Plague of 1720 in Marseilles" painted in 1864 and currently on display at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Marseilles, shows a working meeting of the main people in charge of the city's administration. The figures depicted are: standing, Chevalier Roze pointing with his left arm to Mgr de Belsunce in the background; around the table are the aldermen Estelle, Dieudé, Audimar, who has his back to the table, and Moustier; to the right of Chevalier Roze is represented Commander de Langeron leaning on his elbow and seemingly immersed in deep meditation. In the background and to the left are the painter Michel Serre, Father Milley and a capuchin.

Evacuation of corpses

From the beginning of August 1720, church vaults and cemeteries were no longer authorized to receive the bodies of plague victims, who had to be taken to the infirmaries by the "corbels" (morticians). From August 8 onwards, the opening of mass graves became necessary. A company of grenadiers forcibly removed peasants from the countryside in order to dig about fifteen graves outside the ramparts.

On August 9, the stretchers were no longer sufficient and the first dump trucks appeared to remove the corpses. In mid-August, the infirmaries could no longer receive the sick or the dead, and the corpses were left in the streets. Carts were in short supply; the aldermen had the authority to take carriages from the countryside. The dumpers could not circulate in the narrow streets of the Saint-Jean district of the old city, so stretchers were made to bring the corpses to the carts. To drive the carts and remove the corpses, the convicts of the galley arsenal were called upon, chosen from among the most mediocre rowers. But this undisciplined workforce required close supervision. The alderman Moustier himself, preceded and followed by four soldiers with bayonets fixed, led a detachment of convicts every day.

Although the aldermen managed to clear the city of most of the corpses, the Tourette district was not cleared. This neighborhood, inhabited by families of sailors and located near the church of Saint-Laurent, was completely ravaged by the plague. Only Chevalier Roze, who had distinguished himself in the cleaning of the Rive-Neuve district, accepted the mission to clear the Tourette district of its corpses. At the head of a detachment of one hundred convicts, he had a thousand corpses thrown into two old bastions and covered with quicklime. This is the most famous episode of this fight against the plague. Only five of the convicts survived.

Charnier de l'Observance

Throughout the 19th century, several old mass graves were discovered during various development works. These mass graves were never deemed worthy of archaeological interest and the human remains were reinterred or dumped. In order to fight against this regular destruction of archives, an excavation of a mass grave discovered at the corner of Jean-François-Leca and Observance streets was undertaken in 1994.

This pit was located in the former gardens of the Observance convent located below the Vieille Charité. This convent belonged to the Friars Minor of the Narrow Observance, so called because they observed the rule of Saint Francis to the letter. It was used as a hospital during the plague epidemic and was then sold as national property during the Revolution.

Nearly two hundred skeletons were exhumed between August and September 1994 and were subjected to anthropological and biological studies. The archaeologists found that the pit was unevenly filled. Three zones appear: to the east, a high-density zone with piles of bodies, in the center, a low-density zone with individualized burials, and finally, to the west, a zone with almost no density. This variation reflects the phases of the epidemic, which is decreasing rapidly. This relatively small number of burials leads archaeologists to believe that this is a pit that would have functioned during the second period of the epidemic, from May to July 1722.

There is no doubt that the individuals buried in this mass grave died of plague, since the DNA of the plague bacillus was found. The bodies were systematically covered with quicklime. With the exception of one body with a belt buckle, there are no elements of adornment. Fragments of sheets show that the corpses were buried naked in shrouds. A bronze pin stuck in the first phalanx of the big toe was often found: this was a usual practice at that time to verify the actual death of the individual. This multidisciplinary approach revealed previously unknown facts and information about the epidemic of 1722, such as the evidence of an anatomical gesture of opening the cranium of an adolescent of about fifteen years of age. The restoration of this skull in the laboratory allowed the reconstruction of the anatomical technique used for this autopsy, which seems to be identical to the one described in a medical book dating from 1708.

2016 Max Planck Institute study

According to Sciences et Avenir, a new study by the Max Planck Institute in 2016 reveals that this "Marseilles" plague epidemic did not come from the Middle East as previously thought, but was a resurgence of the Great Black Death that devastated Europe in the 14th century. The Yersinia pestis bacillus brought by the ship Grand-Saint-Antoine, which caused the plague epidemic that ravaged Provence between 1720 and 1722, thus remained latent for four centuries. This study thus suggests the probable existence of a permanent focus of rodent plague in Central and Eastern Europe (a focus that has now disappeared) in connection with those in the Caucasus.

There are in fact two main theories on the course of the second plague pandemic in Europe (from the 14th to the 18th century): one that explains it by repeated influxes from Central Asia, the other by the persistence of European or Caucasian sources.

During this epidemic, many people intervened to bring material or moral help to the population, which was particularly affected. The various responsibilities related to the spread of the plague are difficult to establish with precision and impartiality.

Civilian personalities

The Grand-Saint-Antoine should have carried out its quarantine on the island of Jarre in accordance with an instruction of 1716 and should never have disembarked its goods directly at the infirmaries because the ship suffered several deaths on board during its return to Marseille. Why were the regulations not respected and what were the various responsibilities?

At the time, the first person implicated was Captain Jean-Baptiste Chataud. He probably knew that the plague was on board his ship, but he made a declaration in accordance with the regulations, without hiding the deaths that had occurred during the crossing. However, he was imprisoned on September 8, 1720 at the Château d'If and was not released until September 1, 1723, even though his non-guilt had long been recognized.

The second person who was the subject of much controversy was the first alderman of the city of Marseille, Jean-Baptiste Estelle, who owned part of the precious cargo. Two thirds of this merchandise, estimated to be worth between 300 and 400,000 livres, belonged to a large number of small owners, the rest, or one third of the value, being divided equally among four owners, including Estelle. The first alderman was therefore the owner of goods worth about 25,000 livres, a large sum of money, but not considerable for a merchant of this importance. Estelle was initially suspected of influence peddling with the stewards of health for his own account as well as for the other merchants. Thanks to the support of Intendant Lebret, he was found innocent by the king in 1722 who granted him letters of nobility and an annual pension of 6,000 livres. Estelle did not benefit from such a favor for long because he died shortly after on January 16, 1723 at the age of 61. The possible responsibility of some people in the origin of the epidemic should not make us forget the great devotion of the aldermen and their collaborators.

The sanitary stewards probably bore a heavy responsibility. Indeed, they were both judge and jury: not independent of the merchants and the municipal authorities, they probably allowed themselves to be bent into adopting less rigorous rules for the quarantine of goods in the Grand Saint-Antoine. Moreover, the general laxity can be explained by the non-propagation of contagious diseases for about sixty years. The lack of discipline in the infirmaries led to the smuggling out of contaminated fabrics from various junk belonging to the crew. It was most likely these smuggled fabrics that spread the plague.

Among the civilian personalities, the figure that stands out the most is that of Chevalier Roze who, appointed captain of the Rive-Neuve district, organized the supply and committed all his possessions to finding wheat. The episode of the cleaning of the Tourette district is the most famous. The modesty of Chevalier Roze prevented him from showing his merits.

Finally, among the civilian personalities, we must not forget the doctors who, in spite of a science in its infancy at the time, sacrificed themselves. The name of Dr. Peyssonnel must be remembered, but we must also remember that twenty-five surgeons out of thirty died. Similarly, a hundred teenagers served as nurses and died in great numbers.


The most famous religious figure was the bishop of Marseille, Mgr de Belsunce, who distinguished himself by his zeal and dedication to helping the sick. Faced with this unprecedented epidemic, he decided to visit the sick by administering the last rites. He was also seen distributing abundant alms to relieve his flock. On November 1, 1720, on the advice of Anne-Madeleine Rémusat, he decided to consecrate the city to the Sacred Heart of Jesus during an expiatory ceremony in the courtyard that now bears his name. The bishop celebrated mass bareheaded, barefoot and with a torch in his hand.

On December 31, 1720, he organized a general procession to the common graves located mostly outside the ramparts; the blessing was given to each of these graves. In order to provide material aid to the sick, he alienated a large part of his patrimony.

Out of more than two hundred and fifty religious, a fifth of them, like the Jesuit Father Millet, succumbed to the epidemic while caring for and helping the plague victims. These courageous attitudes were not generalized. Thus, the monks of Saint Victor's Abbey closed themselves behind the walls of their monastery and were content to send alms. Similarly, the canons of the church of Saint-Martin, which was demolished in the 19th century to build the rue Colbert, took refuge in the countryside.

Before the plague, in early 1720, the city of Marseille had a population of about 90,000. The number of deaths caused by this epidemic varies according to estimates. Some put the death toll at between 30,000 and 35,000, while others put it at 40,000 for the city and 50,000 for the city and its surrounding area combined.

This loss of population was quickly compensated in only three or four years. Such a phenomenon can be explained by a drop in mortality and a significant increase in the birth rate linked to an increase in marriages, but also and above all by immigration from nearby regions (the current department of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) or from far away regions (such as Liguria, Switzerland or Catalonia). Immigration repaired most of the losses.

For the economy, it was a brutal blow because the port was closed for thirty months and the factories were shut down. But the consequences due solely to the plague are difficult to identify because they are intertwined with those caused by the collapse of the Law system. It is clear, however, that the paralysis of the port had multiple repercussions on the economy. Added to this was a distrust of the port of Marseilles that did not end until 1724, long after the epidemic had ended in 1722.

The memory of the plague of 1720, a tragic event of exceptional magnitude, still seems to be present in the collective memory of the people of Marseille. Thus, until the 1940s, Marseillais sometimes pronounced the name Moustier to say "shit". This may explain the large number of paintings, engravings or sculptures and publications of historical works or novels concerning this epidemic.

Paintings and engravings

About ten works seem to have been produced during or shortly after the epidemic: three paintings by Michel Serre, four engravings by Jacques Rigaud, an ex-voto by François Arnaud, a painting by Jean-François de Troy and a sketch attributed to Dandré-Bardon. The paintings by Michel Serre, a courageous curator of the Saint-Ferréol district, are all the more interesting as he was a direct witness to the event. These contemporary works can be classified into two groups.

The first represents the street scenes. It consists of two imposing canvases by Michel Serre: "Vue de l'hôtel de ville" (h. 3.05 × L. 2.77) and "Vue du Cours" (currently cours Belsunce) (h. 3.17 × L. 4.40), and four engravings by Rigaud. The two paintings by Michel Serre were bought by M. de Cannis who had them exhibited in England and Holland. They are part of the collection attributed by Mgr de Belsunce to the Jesuit college that bears his name. They remained there until the suppression of the order in 1762. They were then acquired by the city on October 24, 1763, to be placed in the city hall, from where they were transferred in 1804 to the new museum installed in the former Bernardine convent, now the Lycée Thiers. They are now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Marseille. The painting "Vue de l'Hôtel de ville" (View of the City Hall) is remarkably well rendered, from the scenes of the removal of the corpses to the pavilion of the City Hall and the building next to it with its mullioned windows. The left side of this painting, at the sunset of the town hall, has been mutilated.

The second group represents the burial of the plague-ridden corpses on the esplanade of La Tourette by Chevalier Roze; it is the third painting by Michel Serre, "Scène de la peste de 1720 à la Tourette" (h. 1.25 × L. 2.10) exhibited in the Musée Atger in Montpellier, and the painting by Jean-François de Troy, "Le chevalier Roze à la Tourette" (h. 2.28 × L. 3.75) painted in 1725 and now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Marseille. This last painting was used as a model by Thomassin to make an engraving in 1727 which is in the Musée de la Marine in Marseille. The sketch attributed to Dandré-Bardon, which is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen, also concerns the Chevalier Roze. The painting "Scène de la peste de 1720 à la Tourette" (Plague scene of 1720 at La Tourette) by Michel Serre is said to have belonged to Chevalier Roze himself; it is the one where the plague victims are the most present, along with the convicts, whose dramatic aspect is reinforced by a headband soaked in vinegar, which is supposed to protect them from the contagion. The presence of the knight Roze, the aldermen and the troop pickets at the corner of the streets is made necessary by the dreaded conduct of the convicts. This painting also provides the best representation of the baroque portal of the old cathedral of La Major, destroyed in 1851 to make way for the new cathedral.

After the event, other artists painted different pictures representing the plague: Paulin Guérin with "Le Chevalier Roze fait inhumer les pestiférés" (The Knight Roze burying the plague victims), painted in 1826 and exhibited in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Marseille, Jean-Baptiste Duffaud with "Le Chevalier Roze à la montée des Accoules" (The Knight Roze at the rise of the Accoules), painted in 1911 and exhibited in the Musée du Vieux Marseille and D. A. Magaud with "Le Courage civil : la peste de 1720 à Marseille" exhibited at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Marseille.

These paintings participate in the glorification of heroes, civil for the knight Roze, religious for Mgr de Belsunce, by highlighting the courage and dedication of these characters. The knight Roze personifies the exemplary nature of the intervention of the State, a new and decisive element in 1720.

Sculptures and stained glass

The most famous statue is that of Mgr de Belsunce, made by Joseph Marius Ramus and erected in 1853 on the course that now bears his name; it is currently on the square of the Cathedral of the Major. During the Second World War this statue was hidden by resistance fighters in a warehouse on the Boulevard de Louvain so that it would not be taken by the occupying army for the recovery of the bronze after recasting.

Other monuments and sculptures commemorate this event: the statues of Mgr de Belsunce, of the Chevalier Roze and of the Intendant of Provence Lebret can be found on the facades of the prefecture; the bust of J. Daviel at the Hôtel-Dieu of Marseille and that of the Chevalier Roze. The portraits of Dr. Peyssonnel and surgeon Daviel are on the walls of the metro station La Timone.

Two stained glass windows in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Marseille represent the consecration of the city of Marseille to the Sacred Heart of Jesus by Mgr de Belsunce on the advice of the visitandine Anne-Madeleine Rémusat and the other the vow made by the aldermen on May 28, 1722 following this consecration.

In order to honor the heroism of the Marseillais during the plague of 1720, a monument was erected under the First Empire at Place Estrangin-Pastré and inaugurated on September 16, 1802 by Prefect Delacroix. This monument consists of a sculpture by Chardigny representing the genius of immortality placed at the top of a column taken from the crypts of the abbey of Saint-Victor. This monument was transported in 1839 to Place Félix-Baret (formerly Place Saint-Ferréol), then in 1865 to the library garden where it can still be seen. The original statue of Chardigny is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Marseille and it is only a copy that crowns the building today. On the pedestal are four marble plaques with the following inscriptions:

On the left side of the plinth there is a reference to the capture by Tunisian pirates of a ship loaded with wheat sent by Pope Clement XII to help the people of Marseilles; having learned the destination of the cargo, the Tunisian corsairs let the ship continue its journey.

This event is taken up by many writers:


  1. Great Plague of Marseille
  2. Peste de Marseille (1720)
  3. p. 19-23 et 56-57.
  4. a et b p. 209.
  5. p. 205-206.
  6. Masson, 1911, p. 225.
  7. Joutard, 1988, p. 126.
  8. ^ Duchêne & Contrucci, 2004
  9. ^ p. 17 Françoise Hildesheimer
  10. ^ p. 53, Françoise Hildesheimer
  11. ^ p. 361, Roger Duchêne et Jean Contrucci
  12. a b Paul (1843–1920) Auteur du texte Gaffarel, Marquis de Auteur du texte Duranty: La peste de 1720 à Marseille et en France : d’après des documents inédits... / Paul Gaffarel et Mis de Duranty. 1911 (Online [abgerufen am 28. April 2020]).
  13. a b Contrucci, Jean, 1939: Marseille : 2600 ans d’histoire. Fayard, [Paris] 1998, ISBN 2-213-60197-6.
  14. a b Charles Carrière: Négociants marseillais au XVIIIe siècle; contribution à l’étude des économies maritimes. Institut historique de Provence, Marseille 1973 (Online [abgerufen am 28. April 2020]).
  15. Amargier, Paul A., Joutard, Philippe.: Histoire de Marseille en treize événements. J. Laffitte, [Marseille] 1988, ISBN 2-86276-145-1.

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