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Plague and Pestilence: Visions of the Plague in Marseilles

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.

Dress of a Marseilles Doctor, 1720 amp;<br />
German Caricature of the same
Dress of a Marseilles Doctor, 1720 &
German Caricature of the same

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 [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] 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.

Michel Serre. <em>View of the Town Hall, Marseilles during the Plague of 1720</em>
Michel Serre. View of the Town Hall, Marseilles during the Plague of 1720

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 [4] 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.

Baron Gérard. Monseigneur de Belsunce during
the Plague of Marseille in 1720

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. <em>La peste dans le ville de Marseille en 1720</em>
J.F. de Troy. La peste dans le ville de Marseille en 1720

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.

Michel Serre. <em>Scène de la peste de 1720 à la Tourette (Marseille)</em>
Michel Serre. Scène de la peste de 1720 à la Tourette (Marseille)

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 [5] figures this picture as well as the preceding, so, too, does Gaffarel. [6] 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, [7] 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.

<em>Baron Gros. Les Pestiferes de Jaffa</em>
Baron Gros. Les Pestiferes de Jaffa

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 [8] 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 [9] 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, [10] 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.


[1] Traite de la Peste, 2 vols., Geneve, 1721; Johns Hopkins Hospital  Bulletin, August 1898.     

[2] Janus, 1897, p. 297 ; and Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin.

[3] La Peste de 1720, p. 96.    

[4] Essay on Man, iv. 107-8.

[5] vol. x, p. 91.

[6] p. 214.

[7] Richer, L ‘Art et la medecine.

[8] Histoire de Napoleon, ed. 1834, vol. i, p. 354.

[9] Bourrienne et ses erreurs.

[10] Memoires sur Napolion.     

Chapter XIII from Plague and pestilence in literature and art  by Raymond Crawfurd.

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Capítulo XIII de Plague and pestilence in literature and art  de Raymond Crawfurd.

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2 Comentarios

  • […] Plague and Pestilence: Visions of the Plague in Marseilles de Raymond Crawfurd es una bitácora de la Gran Peste de Marsella, en la que Crawfurd intercala interesantes apuntes históricos, con imágenes relativas a la epidemia que azotó a la ciudad portuaria del sur de Francia en 1720. […]

  • Roland Courtot dijo: 15 mayo, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    La imagen del grabado de J.F. de Troy. La peste dans la ville de Marseille en 1720 arriba presentada, debe verse al inverso derecha/izquierda. Porque la plaza de la Tourette, donde ocurre la escena de la pesta, esta situada al norte del fanal a la entrada del puerto: por eso, si se mira hacia el fanal, el mar debe ser à la derecha del dibujo, y no a la izquierda como lo vemos aquí.
    Como la leyenda del grabado esta perfectamente lisible, la imagen a sido imprenta como estaba, y el autor tenia en este caso que precisar que el lector ve el paisaje en sentido inverso: puede obtener una imagen verdadera mirando a la imagen en un espejo.
    Eso se da en los grabados si el dibujante de la placa de cobre dibuja al derecho: el dibujo sale al inverso de la prensa de grabación. Eso ocurre a veces con los grabados de “vedute” del siglo 18

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