On May 25, 1720, a ship named the Grand Saint-Antoine arrived in the port of Marseille, France, laden with cotton, fine silks, and other goods. The invisible cargo it also carried, the bacteria known as Yersinia pestis, launched the Great Plague of Provence, the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in Europe.
Over a two-year period, the bubonic plague spread throughout southeastern France, killing up to half of the residents of Marseille and as much as 20% of the population of Provence.
As historian Tyler Stovall has observed, anniversaries are dates on steroids that “offer their own insights into different types of historical processes.” As the world faces the Covid-19 pandemic — a public health crisis that serves up more questions than answers as it continues to unfold — it is worth revisiting the Great Plague of Provence and the lessons it can offer.
Before arriving back in Marseille, the Grand Saint-Antoine had spent a year circumnavigating the Mediterranean, collecting goods destined for a trade fair that took place each year in what is now the commune of Beaucaire. During its voyage, several sailors had died, many with the telltale signs of bubonic plague, including buboes: painful, enlarged lymph nodes on the neck, groin, and underarms.
Ships suspected of infection would normally have been quarantined for an extended period at one of the quarantine islands off the coast of Marseille. But that was not to be the case for the Grand Saint-Antoine.
The city’s primary municipal magistrate, Jean-Baptiste Estelle, owned part of the ship as well as a large portion of its lucrative cargo. He used his influence to arrange for the premature unloading of the cargo into the city’s warehouses so the goods could be sold soon thereafter at the trade fair.
The number of infections and deaths began to climb within days, and the threat to the economy of this major commercial port became all too real. Instead of undertaking emergency measures to try to contain the infection, officials launched an elaborate campaign of misinformation, going as far as hiring doctors to diagnose the disease as only a malignant fever instead of the plague.
It wasn’t until two months after the first cases of bubonic plague appeared in Marseille that appropriate measures were undertaken. These included trade embargoes, quarantines, the prompt burial of corpses, the 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 by then it was too late. The epidemic went on to spread from town to town, and over the next two years took as many as 126,000 lives in Provence.
This might sound familiar. The Trump administration’s slow response in acknowledging the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in more deaths than may have otherwise resulted if the threat of the infection had been taken seriously from the very beginning. Instead, the president spent those crucial early weeks downplaying the risk of the coronavirus outbreak (in fact, he continues to do so). And when appropriate measures came, they came too late. What began as an outbreak turned into a massive public health crisis that is now far more difficult to track and contain.
There are other parallels between the Great Plague of Provence and the Covid-19 pandemic. Then, as now, people viewed diseases as coming from faraway lands, from “them,” not “us.” By the 1700s, the plague was sometimes even referred to as “la peste Levantina” or the Levantine plague, referring to the region of the world occupied by present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and much of Turkey.
Yet recent genetic studies have revealed that plague outbreaks throughout the early modern period of Europe, roughly between 1500 and 1800, could actually have come from plague reservoirs within the continent rather than on trade ships from the Levant. Such a possibility, though, would never have entered the minds of people living in Provence, who instead adopted an Orientalist narrative that survives to this day. Efforts to call SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, the Chinese virus or Wuhan virus stem from a long history of epidemiological scapegoating — when, in fact, genetic testing recently revealed that most cases of Covid-19 in New York came from Europe, not Asia.
Then, as now, the idea that disease does not discriminate and affects everyone equally could not be further from the truth. During the Great Plague of Provence, wealthy residents in cities not only in France but all over Europe who worried that the plague would spread to their own regions, swiftly departed for the countryside, leaving in their wake both social and economic ruin. In the last few weeks, New Yorkers have done much the same thing, departing for destinations less affected by Covid-19.
In 1720, one British observer remarked on the plague’s unequal effects: “‘Tis worthy of our Notice that in contagious…visitations…, the Weight of the Judgment generally falls heaviest upon the poor; not that it is more immediately sent…to them, but their unhappy Circumstances…expose them to it… The Rich, allarm’d by the Danger of the Infection, fly the infected Ground… By this means Trade stops, Employment ceases, and the Poor wanting Work, must of consequence have their Subsistance [sic] cut off. This immediately reduces Thousands of Families to inexpressible Misery and Distress.”
Today, too, it is the poor, along with racial and ethnic minorities, who are suffering disproportionately from the health-related and economic effects of the pandemic in the United States and other countries.
Rampant misinformation 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 all over Europe, as well as in the colonies in the Americas and Asia, as people struggled to separate fact from fiction. Many even complained of the dangers of lies during public health crises, as when one person protested in 1721: “Another great Cause of our present Terrors of the Plague is, the giving a too hasty Belief to every idle, ill-grounded Story concerning it…Thus we are liable to the Whimsey of every petulant News-Writer, who are made the Instruments of designing men, to bring the Plague amongst us, or drive it away again, as it may serve a wicked Turn.”
Where social media platforms and right-wing populist outlets serve to amplify misinformation today, local newspapers, pamphlets, and old-fashioned word of mouth provided the disservice in the eighteenth century. While more limited in reach, the evils were the same.
There are many other parallels between the two outbreaks, including the difficulty of obtaining accurate numbers of infections and deaths, the hiring of partisan doctors to support the government’s false claims, or the ways in which opportunists have often exploited disasters to achieve objectives that may not have been attainable before the emergency.
Here’s a final lesson that can be drawn from the Great Plague of Provence and the history of disease: No matter how terrible or how traumatic the pandemic, for the survivors things always go back to normal — or at least a reconfigured version of normal. For better or worse, people forget more quickly than perhaps they should, and the episode becomes a subject only for historians.
Cindy Ermus is an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at San Antonio and co-executive editor of the online journal Age of Revolutions. She is currently writing a book on the Great Plague of Provence.