Anything But Great – A Morbid Misnomer: The Great Plague Of Marseilles (Part Two)

The Great Plague of Marseilles is a misnomer. It was the opposite of “Great”, causing death, depopulation and widespread deprivation on an almost unfathomable scale. Histories of the plague often note that the population of Marseilles recovered relatively fast. It was back at pre-plague levels less than fifty years after it devastated the city. That is an uplifting coda to a horrific event, but it does nothing to temper the sheer human misery that beset both the city and surrounding countryside from 1720-22.

One of the few physical remnants left from the time of the plague can be found in the Vaucluse region, northwest of Marseilles. Here a crumbling, dry stone wall is the only trace left of a barrier that once stretched for 27 kilometers between Provence and the Comtat Venaissan (County of Venaissan). In front of the wall was a ditch and parapet of earth, a bit back from the wall were sentry posts manned by guards that stopped anyone from the south trying to travel beyond it. Known as the Le Mur de la Peste (The Wall of the Plague), this was an attempt to create a physical barrier that would contain the plague. The problem was that south of Le Mur it had already spread, with lethal results. This brings up a second reason the Great Plague of Marseilles is a misnomer. The plague affected an area much greater than just the city of Marseilles. The surrounding countryside was hit almost as hard. The scope of the suffering is hard to grasp even today.

Last Remains - Le Mur de la Peste (The Wall of the Plague)

Last Remains – Le Mur de la Peste (The Wall of the Plague) (Credit: Wikipedia)

Consumed With The Stricken – An Expanding Horror
The first hints of plague in Marseille had begun about a month after the arrival of the Grand-Saint-Antoine ship at the port in May of 1720. Its cargo of silk fabric and cotton loaded on the Levantine coast carried the seeds of southeastern France’s destruction. The outbreak was slow, but began to expand at the beginning of July when two women in the city died. They showed symptoms of the plague before they succumbed. Then eight days later, doctors attending a gravely ill twelve year old boy diagnosed his illness as plague. They alerted a city alderman who spread the word. Precautions were taken to seal the homes of those who were believed to have died from the disease. This did little good because it had already spread.  On August 9th, the first day of one hundred deaths occurred, with many more to follow. Less than two months after the first sign of an outbreak, every district in Marseilles was consumed with the stricken.

The horrors of the plague would end all too often in death for the sufferer, but the living were also witness to horrifying scenes. The strain of plague that hit Marseilles with such deadly force was bubonic. Caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, bubonic plague is transmitted through the bites of fleas which breed on vermin. It infects and then rapidly multiplies in the lymph nodes, causing painful swelling which forms bubos, a sort of dark blister usually found in the groin, armpits or neck area. Bubos were the nasty hallmark of this type of plague. For treatment at the time, doctors would burst them, falsely believing that this would lead to a cure. In reality, it was a totally ineffective form of treatment. Those infected suffered from a range of ever worsening symptoms including ferocious bouts of fever, painful muscle cramps, gangrene, bloody vomiting, coma and finally death. First hundreds, then thousands in Marseilles were beset by these maladies. Hospitals quickly became overwhelmed.

Vue de l'Hotel de Ville pendant la peste de 1720 - View of the Town Hall during the plague of 1720

Vue de l’Hotel de Ville pendant la peste de 1720 (View of the Town Hall during the plague of 1720) (Credit: Michel Serre)

Mass Transmission – Punishable By Death
The rudimentary public health infrastructure of Marseilles could not cope. Infirmaries ran out of room to hold the dead. Bodies were tossed out into the street, exacerbating the crisis. The close quarters of the old town acted as a breeding ground. Most of those suffering were left to die at home. Whole families succumbed. Homes of those who had died underwent combustion with sulfur, this did little good. Bodies were thrown in mass graves filled with quicklime in another futile attempt to fend off the pestilence. At one point the situation grew so extreme, that a thousand people were said to have died in a single day. Whole sections of the city lost almost all of their population. Outlying areas in Provence feared they would be next.

By mid-summer the situation had turned so dire that a provincial court in the nearby city of Aix passed legislation making communication with anyone from Marseille a capital offense, punishable by death. At about the same time, Le Mur de la Peste was erected. A two meter wall and armed guards could only do so much. Aix ended up getting suffering grave casualties, losing a quarter of its population. The city of Arles suffered just as much. The plague was at its worst in the Mediterranean ports. In Toulon the mortality rate was 50%. In Marseille the plague finally began to lessen in the autumn with the advent of cooler weather. Deaths had fallen to one per day by the winter of 1721. The worst was over, but this bout of bubonic plague was not finished with Marseilles.

Vue du cours pendant la peste de 1720 (View of the course during the plague)

Vue du cours pendant la peste de 1720 (View of the course during the plague) (Credit: Michel Serre)

Dead Last – A Plague On Population
In the spring of 1722 there was another outbreak, causing mass panic and more deaths. It would take twenty-six months before the Great Plague of Marseilles had completely run its course. The demographic changes wrought upon the city as well as southeastern France were staggering. It is estimated that Marseilles lost approximately 50,000 of its 90,000 pre-plague population. That same number died in the provincial hinterlands. This sent the economy into a tailspin. Strangely enough it did not take very long to recover. The city took measures to protect the population from another outbreak. Port sanitation facilities were upgraded. Cargo would now be offloaded straight from the water into a quarantine facility that was surrounded by fifteen foot high walls. This only took place after inspections on an offshore island. Crews were vetted just as closely. Such measures helped, but they could never bring back the 100,000 men, women and children who died as the result of the last major plague to strike Europe.

Reminders Of Rats – A City Betrayed: The Great Plague Of Marseilles (Part One)

I was running through the old historic quarter of Marseilles, Le Panier. Following the twisting and turning streets I climbed stone stairways and then just as quickly plunged back down another set of steps again. I lost my way, rounding what seemed to be a thousand corners. I followed quaint, cobbled paths through narrow passageways to nowhere in particular. At times it felt as though I had covered every street, every alleyway, every impasse and every square Le Panier offered, but then I would suddenly realize a new route or perhaps an old one I had misremembered. Everything looked different and alike all at once. I spent much of the run in a blissful confusion, lost in the maze of Old Marseilles. Then suddenly something squished beneath my right foot, transporting me back to the present.

Looking down I noticed a fat, fleshy rat, lifeless and rubbery. I leapt in a sudden fright. I had stepped on a large dead rat. I noticed another one nearby. My pace quickened as I hurried away, turning at the next corner. Then the fear left me as quickly as it had arrived though the experience was embedded in my memory. Le Panier may have been quaint, cozy and historic, but in the early morning it was also pungent and dirty, covered with the residue of late night activities. From this a scent, a sight, a hint of the past came to me. A reminder of what Marseilles was like for more centuries than I could possibly imagine. Centuries past when a lack of hygiene brought deadly diseases that laid the entire city’s population waste.  Death was sometimes brought by ships unknowingly transporting a lethal cargo, which would then lead to a dreaded plague. The worst outbreak to hit the city was also one of the last major plagues in Europe, devastating the populace from 1720-1722 during what came to be known as the Great Plague of Marseilles.

Le Panier - the maze of Old Marseilles

Le Panier – the maze of Old Marseilles

Quarantine In Marseilles – The Power Of Life & Death
On my last day in Marseilles I was walking back from Fort St. Jean toward the Vieux Port (Old Port) area. During that short, pleasant stroll along the Quai des Ports I suddenly came upon a long stone building. The structure had obviously stood the test of time and could rightly be termed “historic.” While studying the building I came across an information sign in French. Instantly I recognized the word “quarantine.” Then it dawned on me that this building had been a make or break point for any ship that wanted to enter the port of Marseilles. The building had once held the power of life and death over the city, both economic and biological. Such structures were part of lazarets, quarantine facilities such as buildings or islands for seafaring crews and cargo. Captains would enter the building to present their ships’ manifests. These would be carefully studied by personnel who worked for the city’s sanitation board to make sure a ship did not transport a dreaded disease to Marseilles. If anything was found that constituted a threat to public health, the ship would be turned away. Conversely, if the ship was given a clean bill of health, then it would be allowed to enter the port.

The consequences of each decision on whether to allow a ship to pass into the port or not were huge. The ships bringing goods to or from the port were the lifeblood of commerce for the city.  Ironically, these same ships could bring untold devastation. That stone building along the Quai des Ports is one of the few physical remnants left of the quarantine system setup to protect Marseilles from the plague. The system was a response to a deadly outbreak that struck the city in 1580. The quarantine consisted of three tiers that would scrutinize and confine the cargo and crew of every ship that arrived in the harbor. Any hint of plague uncovered during an inspection would result in the ship being isolated at an island well outside the harbor.

An 18th century perspective of the Great Plague Of Marseilles

An 18th century perspective of the Great Plague Of Marseilles

Captains also had to present detailed logs to sanitation officials. These documented each city their ship had visited prior to arrival in Marseilles. If one of those cities was known to have had an outbreak of plague, the ship would then be confined to the second part of the quarantine system with facilities on another group of islands just off the coast of Marseilles. The crew, along with their ship, would then be forced to wait for several weeks. If no signs of plague were found then entry would be allowed. Even ships deemed disease free would have to wait for two and a half weeks before they could enter the port. The quarantine system did a good job of protecting Marseilles from plague for well over a hundred years. Then in the early 18th century the system suddenly broke down as pressure from commercial interests led to a sidestepping of the usual regulations. This proved to be a fatal mistake.

A Fatal Passage – The Grand-Saint-Antoine’s Deadly Cargo
In 1720 a merchant ship, the Grand-Saint-Antoine, was sailing around the eastern Mediterranean making multiple ports of call. In Syria and Lebanon the ship took on fabrics and cotton that were likely contaminated with the plague bacillus Yersina pestis. This was the same extremely virulent form of plague that had caused the infamous Black Death in the 14th century.  While the Grand-Saint-Antoine was traveling to Cyprus in early April, a Turkish passenger on board died. His body was thrown into the sea, but soon thereafter several crew members also succumbed. At the northern Italian port of Livorno the ship was denied entry. When it arrived on May 25th in Marseilles it was immediately put into quarantine.

Scene of the plague in Marseilles

Scene of the plague in Marseilles (Credit: Michel Serre)

A decision was then made that the ship and its cargo should be sent to a nearby island. That decision would soon be changed. The wealthy commercial interests in the city wanted the silk and cotton offloaded. A popular trade fair was due to take place at the town of Beaucaire in July. Getting the ship’s valuable cargo in the hands of powerful merchants took precedence over the imminent danger of plague to the inhabitants of the city. Thus the cargo came ashore and with it the plague. Exactly a month after the Grand-Saint-Antoine had first called at Marseilles, several porters who had offloaded bales of cotton died. These were the first of tens of thousands of deaths to come, not only in Marseilles, but also Provence. One of the last great outbreaks of plague in Europe was underway.

Reduced To Ruin – Massilia & Marseilles: A Future Few Care To See

Of all the cities in France, Marseilles is the oldest. It was founded 2,600 years ago by colonists from ancient Greece. This comes as something of a surprise. Many would likely guess Paris as France’s oldest city, since it is by far the nation’s largest, most famous and important city, but Paris was founded three and a half centuries after Massila, as Marseilles was then known. This first city on what would eventually become mainland France was a colony created by the Phocaeans. These Greek people hailed from the Aegean coast of eastern Anatolia (part of present day Turkey). They were known for their extensive exploration of the Mediterranean. According to Herodotus they discovered the Adriatic Sea as well as parts of the Italian and Spanish coasts.

Classical civilization traveled with the Phocaeans across the Mediterranean onto the shores of France. This colonial foothold would later be exploited by other Empires, most prominently the Romans as they expanded into Gaul. Antiquity is something that Marseilles is rightfully proud of. The city was part of ancient Greece for six centuries, almost the same amount of time that it has now been part of France. Both before visiting Marseilles and after arriving in the city, I read numerous accounts that referenced its Greek origins. This left me wondering about Massilia. What if anything could be learned about pre-French, pre-Roman Massilia? Were there any physical remnants left to see from that period in the city?  My search to learn more about Massilia started where so much of classical history does, in legend and myth. The city’s founding is told by a story that mystifies and enlightens.

Massalia in ancient times

Massalia in ancient times (Credit: G. Bouchard)

A Natural Magnet For The Ancients – Massalia On the Mediterranean
It is not surprising that Massilia, a colony located on the classical world’s very fringes, has an early history based on legend. Its founding at the beginning of the 7th century BC lies deep within an age where written accounts concerning it were rare. History, like power abhors a vacuum, thus myth acts as a substitute for the lack of factual information. The legend goes that a Phocaean explorer by the name of Protis happened upon the Lacydon, a cove that was framed on each side by rocky peaks and fed by a freshwater stream. It was here that he received an invitation to a banquet being held by a Ligurian chief. The Ligurians were the people who inhabited the region north of the cove. The banquet was to decide which man would get to marry Gyptis, the chief’s daughter. Protis was chosen by Gyptis, who then gave him a ceremonial cup filled with water or wine (accounts vary). The happy couple decided to make their home on a hill north of the Lacydon.

From these beginnings the city of Massilia evolved or at least that is how the story’s told. Whatever the case, Massilia grew into a major trading port where a merchant class grew wealthy trading in such local products as cork, coral and wine. The city was home to two great temples, dedicated to Apollo and Artemis, demarcating its northern and southern ends. These structures were signs of the great wealth that Massilia’s traders were able to accumulate. A couple of centuries after its founding the city had a population of 6,000, a metropolis of the northern Mediterranean during that age. Massilia drew the attention of such famous personages as Aristotle who wrote about its government. The city was as an aristocratic republic, governed by the wealthiest ten percent of its citizenry. Cicero wrote that Massilia was ruled by wisdom. Its most notable son was the mathematician and astronomer Pytheas who was the first to ascertain that tides were connected to the phases of the moon.

Shimmering sea - the Mediterranean close to Marseille

Shimmering sea – the Mediterranean close to Marseilles

On Distant Shores –  Portal To The Past
Pytheas must have spent a good deal of time studying the comings and goings of the Mediterranean at the shoreline in Massilia. Many things have changed since that time, but not the sea which still washes the same shores. The sea that Pytheas studied was the one I watched sunlight shimmer on, transforming the water’s surface into flashes of silvery fire. This was the eternal glow of the Mediterranean, a natural magnet to eyes both ancient and modern. Classical Massilia and modern Marseilles both have one thing in common, their intimate connection to the Mediterranean. The sea has always kept this port city’s gaze fixed southward towards that limitless, enchanting horizon. The Greek golden age of Massilia eventually ran its course. The city was slowly surrounded and finally consumed by the Roman Empire. The Romans co-opted and then built upon the foundations laid by the Greeks.

The Greek and Roman presence can be seen most visibly beside the Centre Bourse shopping center in the old heart of Marseilles. Shopping complexes and ancient history may seem like a strange combination, but this is no ordinary city. The development of the complex inadvertently led to a major archeological find. In 1967 as the Centre Bourse was being constructed, the work revealed an eastern portion of Massilia’s ramparts in addition to a city gate. Roman dockyards were also unearthed in what archaeologists said was the best preserved remnant of a port’s facilities dating from antiquity. The city decided to protect these excavated ruins in the Jardin des Vestiges (Garden of Ruins) which is now an appendage of the Musee d’Histoire de Marseilles (MarseillesHistory Museum).

Jardin des Vestiges (Garden of Ruins) in Marseille - the last remnants of ancient Greek and Rome in the city

Jardin des Vestiges (Garden of Ruins) in Marseilles – the last remnants of ancient Greek and Rome in the city

The Future In Situ – Lasting Traces
A visit to the Jardin des Vestiges was a surreal experience for me. Looking down upon the ruins I could see the stone foundations of Marseille’s first port, two thousand plus years of history sprawling across the grounds. These physical, tangible relics of Massilia look small in comparison to their immediate surroundings. I could not help, but notice the apartment and office buildings, rows of modern structures that encircle the ancient port’s last traces. The setting showed little reverence for this splendid piece of the ancient past, other than the fact that it had been uncovered and left in situ. People walked by totally indifferent to this first iteration of their home city. Few of them taking the time to notice, let alone ponder, this stark reminder of Marseille’s very beginnings or the fact that one day all the surrounding development will also be reduced to ruin. The present eventually ending up just like the past, a future that few care to see.


Marseilles – The East Comes West: A French Mirage On The Mediterranean

It was supposed to be dangerous and beautiful, seedy yet enchanting, full of life as well as a place where you might fear for your life.  This was what I was led to believe before traveling to Marseilles, that gritty, idyllic French city that rises from the dreamy blue shore of the Mediterranean. My initial impressions helped peel back the multi-faceted layers that make up Marseilles. Everything I had read and researched beforehand turned out to be true, but there was so much more.

The Mediterranean as viewed from the Notre Dame de la Garde

The Mediterranean as viewed from the Notre Dame de la Garde

In France, But Not Of France – A Mediterranean City
It may be France’s second largest city, but Marseilles is rarely mentioned in the same sentence as Lyon, Nice, Strasbourg, Bordeaux or Toulouse, let alone Paris. It ranks low on the list of destination cities for visitors to France. That is odd because regionally Marseilles is often included in two of the most attractive and well-known tourist destinations in the world, Provence and the Cote d’Azur. While it might be included as part of these, the city really stands apart. There is nothing like it in France or for that matter, the world. It is an urban conurbation that size-wise is even larger than Paris. From the perspective of cultural geography the city is a contradiction. Marseilles is in France, but only partly of France. It is more a Mediterranean than a French city. It has a grittiness that is reminiscent of Eastern European cities, but a grandeur that is unmistakably French.

Though it is geographically in Western Europe, much of the eastern aspect that gives the city such a distinct identity washed onto its shores via a port that ranks as the 8th largest in the world. Due to the fact that topographically it is hemmed in and segregated from the interior of France by hills, Marseilles has looked southward to the Mediterranean for its economic and cultural life. Over the past couple of hundred years Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, Italians fleeing poverty, Armenians fleeing genocide, Spaniards fleeing fascism,  Algerians, Tunisians and  Moroccans fleeing poverty all came to Marseilles seeking refuge, wealth and most importantly, a new start. This has made the city a mélange of cultures, with French culture leaving its imprint on them all.

Spice of life - in the Arab market area of Marseille

Spice of life – in the Arab market area of Marseille

Making Anyone Feel Foreign – Arabia In Marseilles
Marseilles does not suffer nearly as much segregation as other French cities. The dividing line between rich and poor, upper middle class, working class and low brow had often been blurred. Fortune and misfortune rub elbows on a daily basis. From the Vieux Port (Old Port) area inequality and the vicissitudes of fortune radiate outward. Beggars and bankers side step one another along the city’s main boulevard, La Canebiere. A couple of blocks away glittering Zara-esque storefronts sparkle while a homeless man lurks one doorway down. Haute couture fashion shops stand along un-swept streets as high heels and cigarette butts share the same sidewalks. Then the visitor suddenly arrives at the Arab Market, an ascent or descent into another world depending upon one’s perspective. It is an all-out assault on the senses. Here the Maghreb meets Marseilles. French gives way to Arabic, the skin of its merchants is a delicate, pale brown, noise and energy proliferate as do crowds of hawkers and gawkers.

A bit further onward from the market are streets filled with all the disparate and desperate forms of life. Storefronts indicate the minority cultures that have found a home here. Afro-hair extensions on offer, men standing in doorways watching, talking and waiting for a living, a decadent, exuberant dynamism can be felt in every alleyway and rubbish strewn street. Darkness lurks in daylight as crime seems to be around every corner, but such a feeling is fleeting. It is loudly contradicted by the vibrancy and variety of life to be discovered amid these pulsing streets. The area is fraught with ambiguity, an Arabian France, where friendliness and danger are to be felt in equal measure. Here is the kind of place that can make almost anyone feel foreign. The outsider imagines the worst. And the worst turns out to be less than imagined. In my case it happened to be a young man who tried to short change me out of one euro over a bag of jellybeans. He smiled politely, while his eyes attempted to evade mine when I called him out for his petty attempt at crime.

The path to Notre Dame de la Garde

The path to Notre Dame de la Garde on the highest hilltop in Marseilles

Scaling the Heights – The Way To Notre Dame de la Garde
A bit further out from the city center Marseilles crawls away from the Mediterranean scaling the hillsides. Steep streets defeat even the most vigorous urban hiker making their way through the 6th arrondissement to the city’s highest hilltop. Hundreds of steps lead to precipitously inclining pavements. They then merge into yet another set of steps. Directional signs lead the way through a withering array of twists and turns to the highest hilltop in the city. The tourist fails to notice that they are striding past the more refined, upper middle class Marseilles. Dirty white and sea foam green shutters cover large windows. Homes are hidden by large walls or gates, with every entry point requiring a code. A rage for privacy pervades these silent streets. The bark of dogs is heard much more often than voices. People seem to live here, but they are rarely seen.

The architectural achievement that crowns the heights above this neighborhood and the culmination of many a visitor’s itinerary is the Notre Dame de la Garde. It can be glimpsed in fits and starts on a trek to the top. Disappearing and then reappearing in bit parts, always a false summit farther away. The irony of this faraway so close feature of the church will not be lost on the hunchbacked pilgrim plodding up to these heights. From many miles away in the city the church can be seen soaring prominently skyward. Then as one begins to make the lung bursting ascent it disappears completely from view. On faith, the pilgrim must follow signs and steps and stairs until they arrive with their forehead frothing with sweat just beneath the church’s towering presence. It is at this point that the pilgrim’s heart must fall. For all their climbing, they must suddenly realize the Notre Dame de la Garde reaches heights that can never quite be reached. The gold Madonna that tops the church seems to reach the heavens. Glancing back from just outside the church reveals a panoramic view of the city, its buildings glowing white and luminous, looking like a mirage. This could only be Marseilles.