By: Raymond Crawfurd.
In the year 1720 plague found its way to Marseilles. It was believed to have been brought by a ship, the Grand- Saint- Antoine, which arrived on May 25 from the Levant. As usual, the attempt was made to hush it up for the sake of trade. At the beginning of August something had to be done, so on the advice of two physicians, Sicard, father and son, it was decided to light bonfires throughout the city. For lack of firewood this was not done, but also for lack of faith, for it was found that despite their vaunted specific the Sicards had fled the city. So sulphur was served out to the poor instead, wherewith to “perfume” their houses.
As early as August 2 the Town Council found it necessary to adopt special measures to keep physicians and surgeons to their task. Accordingly, they decided that the city should pay them a fixed salary in place of fees from the sick, and allow them smocks of oiled cloth, and sedan chairs to carry them on their rounds. There are several illustrations extant of the dress adopted by doctors in the plague of Marseilles. The same dress, with trifling variations, was worn elsewhere in France, in Switzerland, and in Germany, and had originated in Italy. It is shown in an old Venetian woodcut of a.d. 1493, from the works of Joannes de Ketham (Fasciculus Medicinae, 1493). This woodcut shows a physician in a long overall, but wearing only a skull-cap on his head, visiting a plague patient in bed. He is accompanied by attendants who carry lighted torches, while he himself holds a medicated sponge before his mouth and nose, as he feels the pulse. Grillot figured the dress as the frontispiece of his Lyon afflige de, la peste 1629, and Manget  has borrowed it from him. From his description it would seem that the mantle, breeches, shirt, boots, gloves, and hat were all of morocco leather. The beak attached to the mask was filled with aromatics, over which the air passed in respiration, and had an aperture for each eye, fitted with a disk of crystal.
M. Reber  describes an engraving by Johann Melchior Füssli, representing a doctor in the plague of Marseilles. The legend beneath it, in German, is (translated) ‘Sketch of a Cordovan-leather-clad doctor of Marseilles, having also a nose-case filled with smoking material to keep off the plague. With the wand he is to feel the pulse.’ Reber’s and Manget’s plates are both reproduced in the Bristol Medico-Chirurgical Journal, March 1898, from the Janus blocks. Gaffarel  gives the costumes both of a doctor and of a hospital attendant : they closely resemble the dress of the Italian charitable guilds of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. By August 9 some of the physicians and almost all the master-surgeons had fled, and an ordinance was issued demanding their return, or in default their expulsion from their respective corporations, and other special penalties as well. Two physicians named Gayon volunteered their services for the Hopital des Convalescents, but forthwith paid the penalty with their lives. In the absence of sufficient physicians in Marseilles, others were summoned from Montpellier, Paris, and elsewhere. These exhausted their energies in a dispute over the contagious character of plague. Chicoyneau and Chirac maintained that it was not contagious. Deidier proved, by successfully inoculating dogs with bile taken from plague subjects, that at any rate it was communicable. Each subsequently expounded his views in a formal discourse before the School of Montpellier.
Existing hospital accommodation was quite unequal to the needs. Emergency tents were erected outside the town, with mattresses for the sick. Chevalier Rose equipped and maintained a hospital in the district entrusted to him, at his own expense. A large temporary hospital of timber covered with sail-cloth was hurriedly erected, but when almost finished towards the end of September it was blown down by a gale, and was not rebuilt till October 4. This hospital, together with the Hopital General de la Charite of 800 beds, provided ultimately sufficient accommodation, so that none need remain in the streets. From the first the mortality was such that it was wellnigh impossible to bury the dead. On August 8 the Assembly resolved that carts should be used to carry the dead to burial, and that pits should be dug in which the bodies could be buried in lime. So two huge pits were dug outside the walls, between the gate of Aix and that of Joliette, M. Moustier overseeing the diggers and compelling them to work. Chevalier Rose also had pits dug and organized a corps of buriers in his own district. The duties of burial were at first entrusted to sturdy beggars, but in a brief space of time the supply of these failed, so that bodies began to accumulate in the houses and streets. Then convicts were requisitioned in relays from time to time.
These convicts were promised their liberty, to excite them to work — a promise that was never fulfilled in the case of the few who survived the task. Their ignorance of the management of carts and horses, their idleness and lust of robbery rendered them so unfit for the task, that Moustier and the other sheriffs and Chevalier Rose were compelled to be always present on horseback, to superintend the work. By August 21 corpses had already begun to accumulate in old parts of the city, where the streets were too narrow and steep for the carts to go. Accordingly, an order was issued that the vaults of the churches in the upper town should be used for burials in quicklime, and that, when full, they should be sealed up with cement. By the end of August the streets were literally strewn with dead bodies, some in an advanced stage of putrefaction, mingled with cats and dogs that had been killed, and bedding thrown out from the houses. The square in front of the building called the Loge, as also the Palissadoes of the port, were filled with bodies brought ashore from ships in the roadstead, to which whole families had fled in the belief that plague would not reach them on the water.
By September 6 more than 2,000 dead bodies were lying in the streets, exclusive of those in the houses. On the esplanade called La Tourette, lying towards the sea between the houses and the rampart, 1,000 corpses had lain rotting for weeks in the sun and emitting a frightful stench. They were too rotten even to be lifted into carts, and too foul to be carried to distant pits. Chevalier Rose, mindful maybe of Procopius, conceived the idea of throwing them into two huge vaults in the old bastions close to the esplanade, after breaking in their roofs. The task was carried out in fierce haste by 100 galley-slaves, who tied handkerchiefs dipped in vinegar over their mouths and noses. At the same time fishermen netted 10,000 dead dogs floating in the port and towed them out to sea.
In the parish of St. Ferriol, the finest quarter of the city, Michel Serre the painter undertook to see to the burial of the dead, with carts and galley-slaves placed at his disposal, himself providing food and lodging for the workers. A grateful city has repaid him by hanging his two large pictures of Marseilles during the plague close beneath the ceiling of an underground cellar, where it is impossible to decipher their details.
When all the bodies were disposed of, the sheriffs employed the galley-slaves to clear the filth from the streets and throw it into barges, which carried it out to sea.
In the early days of the epidemic, the sheriffs had forbidden the annual procession on August 16, in honour of St. Roch, at which the saint’s bust and relics were carried through the streets; but the people raised such an outcry that the procession was celebrated, the sheriffs attending with their halberdiers to prevent a crowd following. By September 7 even the civil authorities had come to regard the plague as an instrument of God’s wrath, and the magistrates, o appease it, vowed that every year the city should give 2,000 livres to a House of Charity, to be established under the protection of our Lady of Good Help, for orphans of the province.
At the height of the plague many parish priests and some of the monks fled: the services of the Church were mostly suspended. But many secular clergy and monks remained and devoted themselves unflinchingly to the sick. The bishop, Belsunce, nobly played his part. Wherever the poorest lay, there he went confessing, consoling, and exhorting them to patience. To the dying he carried the Sacrament, to the destitute the whole of his money in alms. Though plague invaded his palace and carried off those about him, it spared him. It is of him that Pope  asks,
Why drew Marseilles’ good Bishop purer breath
When nature sickened, and each gale was death?
On All Saints’ Day, Belsunce headed a procession through he streets from his palace, walking barefoot, as Borromeo of old, with a halter about his neck, and carrying the cross in his arms. He wished to appear among his people as a scapegoat laden with their sins, and as a victim destined to expiate them. Accompanied by the priests and canons of the Church he led the way to a place where an altar had been erected. There, after exhorting the people to repentance, he celebrated Mass before them all. Then he solemnly consecrated the city to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in honour of which he had instituted a yearly festival. The tears coursing down his face as he spoke moved all to cry aloud to the Lord for mercy. On November 16 Belsunce was emboldened to exorcise the waning plague. Calling together all that remained of the clergy to the church of Acoulles, he read all the prayers that the Pope had prescribed for deliverance from plague. Then after an eloquent and moving exhortation he carried up the Holy Sacrament to the cathedral’s roof, and there, under the open sky, with all the city lying before him, uttered a solemn benediction, and performed the full ritual of exorcism according to the forms of the Roman Catholic Church.
Belsunce was not the first human scapegoat to tread the streets of Marseilles in voluntary expiation for its people. In times of pestilence, in the old Greek colony of Massilia, one of the lower orders offered himself on behalf of his fellow citizens. Dressed in sacred garments and decked with sacred boughs he was led through the streets, amid the prayers of the people that their ills might fall on him, and then cast out of the city.
There stands this day on a lofty crest of land in the open square, right in front of the episcopal palace of Marseilles, a statue of Belsunce in bronze, by Ramus. The stone pedestal bears a commemorative inscription and two reliefs in bronze. In one, Marseilles in woman’s form is lying among her stricken children, while Belsunce and his attendant priests implore the Sacred Heart to stay the plague. In the other, Belsunce bears the Sacrament to sick and dying.
The statue of Belsunce, clad in full episcopal robes, stands with face raised and arms outstretched to heaven, in attitude of earnest supplication. Before him Nature has set a landscape of surpassing beauty: sea, earth, and sky give freely of their best. Far down below a polyglot people move hither and thither around the harbour quays, like ants, at their appointed tasks. Beyond it spreads a matchless expanse of Mediterranean sea, now smooth and silvery as a mirror, now fretful with the rising tide. Away over the sea and over the low land that bounds the bay, the evening sun lights up the face of Belsunce with a last lingering radiance, as it goes down to its setting in a glory of golden hues. If man’s graven image may enjoy the perfect happiness denied to man, then surely Belsunce has his reward.
Marseilles is rich in reminiscence of her bishop. In the Bureau d’ Intendance Sanitaire hangs a pleasing portrait f Belsunce by Gobert; while in the Musee may be seen a poor picture, by Mansian, of him giving the Sacrament to the victims of the plague. Francois Gerard (1770-1837) presented his Peste de Marseille to the Bureau d’ Intendance Sanitaire, where now it hangs. The wan dismal colouring of the picture accords ill with the striking vigour of the composition. In the foreground is set forth the whole tragedy of a family stricken with plague. On the ground lies the father writhing with agony: his hands are clenched, his eyes are starting from their sockets: the dressing in the right armpit indicates one site of the disease. The mother, seated on a chest, clasps to her body her elder boy, wrapped in a blanket, too weak to stand: the younger child leans against his mother, his eyes fixed in terror on his dying father. Anguish is depicted in the death-like pallor of the mother’s face. In the background Belsunce in full robes distributes to the sick and starving poor the bread which an attendant is carrying. To the left of the foreground bodies of the dead are lying huddled up beneath an awning, while to the right convicts are dragging corpses away for burial. The sublime serenity of the good bishop seems to bring to his stricken people in their anguish some promise of that peace which passeth all understanding.
J. F. de Troy the younger (1679-1752), himself an eyewitness of this plague, painted a masterly picture, which is now in the city Musee. It was executed for Rose in 1722. It depicts him seated on a white horse calmly directing the work of the convicts, who have been assigned to him, as they clear the esplanade of La Tourette of the accumulation of decomposing corpses. The sheriffs, also on horseback, aid the Chevalier in his task. The ground is strewn with corpses, which the convicts seize and hurl into the gaping mouths of the open vaults in the bastions. They work in furious haste, impelled by the foul odour of the bodies and the knowledge of the hazard of their task. Ferocity is depicted in their faces, haste in all the movements of their bodies. The whole scene is full of life and movement and spirit. In the sky hover angels shaking flaming torches. The colouring has been managed with wonderful effect to convey the feeling that sky and earth alike are filled with a poisonous and sickly miasma.
In another picture in the Sante at Marseilles Guerin has treated the same subject in a dull conventional manner. Chevalier Rose, bearing the dead body of a woman, fills the centre of the picture. Behind him a ludicrous boy is holding a white horse with one hand, and his nose with the other, and is bestowing on his nose a tenacious grip that would have been more appropriately bestowed on the horse. Convicts are dragging away the dead bodies that litter the ground.
The two large pictures by Michel Serre are of interest rather as pictorial records of old Marseilles, than as contributions to the artistic presentation of plague. One represents the Cours de Marseille, now known as the Cours Belsunce, during the plague. It is a handsome boulevard bordered on either side by trees, beneath which are seen tents hastily erected as temporary dwellings by those who have fled from their plague-contaminated dwellings to the shelter of the streets. Death and disease have followed them and are rampant on every side. Buriers are seen collecting the dead and carrying them off in carts. This picture has been engraved by Rigaud, and is figured in Crowle’s Illustrated Pennant’s London, vol. x, p. 93 ; also in Gaffarel’s La Peste de 1720, p. 304.
The other picture by Serre shows the open space in front of the Hotel de Ville together with part of the port of Marseilles. The scenes resemble those of his other picture, and we are reminded also that many took refuge in boats and anchored off the harbour, in the vain belief that plague could not reach them there. The space before the Town Hall became one heap of decomposing bodies that were landed from the boats or had drifted ashore from the waters of the harbour. Crowle  figures this picture as well as the preceding, so, too, does Gaffarel.  With the departure of plague from Marseilles, the disease had wellnigh disappeared from Europe. In the Levant it still flourished for a while. Patrick Russell, physician to the British factory at Aleppo, wrote a treatise on an epidemic that occurred during his residence there from 1760-2. Again, in 1771 it gained a footing at Moscow, claiming there no less than 80,000 victims. It was in vain that the people thronged the miraculous ikon of the Virgin at the Varvarka gate. Fearing the great concourse, the archbishop had the ikon removed to the Chudok monastery, but such was the fury of the maddened people, that they threatened to raze the building to the ground if the ikon were not restored; The archbishop yielded, but too late, for the mob dragged him from his monastery and massacred him in the open street. From that day the plague began to wane. So plague was banished from Europe by the worship of a picture, and with dramatic appropriateness the curtain fell on the final act in a scene of human sacrifice.
The celebrated picture Les Pestiferes de Jaffa by Baron Gros, now in the Louvre, has been the subject of much acrimonious controversy. The picture was ordered by Napoleon when First Consul, and excited extravagant enthusiasm on its exhibition in the Salon in 1804. Artists placed a palm-branch over it, and the public covered the whole frame with wreaths. It is, in fact, a large unattractive canvas, devoid of any exceptional merit either of composition or colour. It shows Napoleon accompanied by some of his staff standing among the plague-stricken soldiers in the interior of a mosque. One of the men is raising his right arm, so as to expose the bubo in his armpit, and Napoleon is laying his fingers on it.
There is also in existence a rough sketch,  which shows that Gros at the outset intended to present his subject differently. Napoleon, like St. Louis in the modern fresco in St. Sulpice, holds in his arms the body of a plague victim, which an Arab helps him to support. The general’s impassive features contrast strongly with the frightened appearance of his attendants.
Each of these two representations would seem to be actual historical occurrences during Napoleon’s campaign in Syria. Plague had broken out among the troops in Jaffa, where Napoleon had established a large hospital, and the generals had issued an alarming report as to its spread. It was Napoleon’s purpose to restore the moral of his army, which had been seriously affected by the outbreak. Norvin  represents Napoleon as visiting all the wards, accompanied by the generals Berthier and Bezzieres, the director-general Daure, and the head doctor Desgenettes. Napoleon spoke to the sick, encouraged them, and touched their wounds, saying, ‘You see, it is nothing.’ When he left the hospital, they blamed his imprudence. He replied coldly, ‘It is my duty, I am the general-in-chief.’ This studied indifference to the contagion, coupled with the fine behaviour of the head doctor Desgenettes, who inoculated himself with plague in the presence of the soldiers and applied to himself the same remedies as he prescribed for them, successfully accom- plished Napoleon’s purpose. The account of the incident given in a letter  by Comte d’Aure is slightly different. It runs, ‘He did more than touch the buboes : assisted by a Turkish orderly, General Buonaparte picked up and carried away a plague patient, who was lying across a doorway of one of the wards: we were much frightened at his acting thus, because the sick man’s clothing was covered with foam and the disgusting discharge from a broken bubo. The general continued his visit unmoved and interested, spoke to the sick, and sought in addressing them with words of consolation, to dissipate the panic that the plague was casting on their spirits.’ Bourrienne,  Napoleon’s secretary, however, says, ‘I walked by the general’s side, and I assert that I never saw him touch any of the infected.’
The Due de Rovigo in his Memoirs practically corroborates the Comte d’Aure. He says: ‘In order to convince them by the most obvious proof that their apprehensions were groundless, he desired that the bleeding tumour of one of his soldiers should be uncovered before him, and pressed it with his own hands.’ Desgenettes and General Andreossy, who were both present, confirm Rovigo and Comte d’Aure as against Bourrienne.
Napoleon’s secretary carries the narrative a stage further. He says that only sixty of those in the hospital had plague, and that as their removal involved a risk of infecting the whole army, Napoleon deliberated with his staff and the medical men, and decided to put them out of their misery by poison. Bourrienne says that he does not know who administered the poison, but that there was no question of their destruction. Bourrienne’s statements on any subject, as is generally recognized, need careful sifting, but out of the mass of conflicting testimony the plain fact would seem to emerge, that Napoleon did suggest that the death of some seven or eight, who were bound to die, should be accelerated, so that they might not infect the whole army. Napoleon himself, at St. Helena, did not deny this, and defended his action on the ground of humanity, stigmatizing the story of wholesale poisoning as an invention.
 Traite de la Peste, 2 vols., Geneve, 1721; Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin, August 1898.
 Janus, 1897, p. 297 ; and Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin.
 La Peste de 1720, p. 96.
 Essay on Man, iv. 107-8.
 vol. x, p. 91.
 p. 214.
 Richer, L ‘Art et la medecine.
 Histoire de Napoleon, ed. 1834, vol. i, p. 354.
 Bourrienne et ses erreurs.
 Memoires sur Napolion.
Chapter XIII from Plague and pestilence in literature and art by Raymond Crawfurd.
Complete source available in: https://archive.org/details/39002010304070.med.yale.edu
Capítulo XIII de Plague and pestilence in literature and art de Raymond Crawfurd.
Fuente completa disponible en: https://archive.org/details/39002010304070.med.yale.edu