Harry Stopes | In Marseille LRB November 5, 2021

The plague first arrived in Marseille on a ship from Spain in 588, forty-seven years after the outbreak of the disease in the eastern Mediterranean marked the start of the first pandemic. “Many citizens bought various goods” from the ship, according to Grégoire de Tours. “The fire of the plague did not spread to all the houses at once, but after a while, like a fire in the growing grain, it swept the whole town with the flame of the sickness.

The second plague pandemic began in the 14th century with the Black Death. The trading states and cities of the Mediterranean basin have developed a mosaic of public health systems to manage the flow of goods and suspicious people. From the 16th century, sailors and goods arriving in Marseille were confined to the Lazaretto on the island of Pomègues.

In the 18th century, the city had a three-tier 15- to 60-day quarantine system. The duration of the confinement depended on the state of health of the crew, the origin of the ship – the Levant and North African coasts were considered more suspect – and whether the captain could provide letters attesting to a healthy situation. in its recent stopovers.

The system was effective, but not perfect – Marseille was the site of the last major plague epidemic in Western Europe. Between 1720 and 1722, about half of the city’s 90,000 inhabitants died, along with a similar number elsewhere in Provence. The epidemic is the subject of Marseille in times of plague, a new exhibition atthe Marseille History Museum. The museum overlooks the old port where the Spanish plague ship docked.

The Great Saint-Antoine arrived May 25, 1720 from the Eastern Mediterranean via Livorno. He was loaded with cotton and silk sheets worth about 100,000 crowns. The ship’s investors intended to sell the merchandise to Beaucaire, a town in the Rhône between Nimes and Avignon, whose annual fair was the most important in the south of France. Under the strictest quarantine conditions, however, the cargo would be released too late for the fair.

One of the investors was Jean-Baptiste Estelle, a powerful figure in the city government. The exhibit hints that he may have had something to do with the Grand Saint-Antoinequarantine is applied lax. The ship and its remaining cargo – those that had not mysteriously escaped the Lazaretto – were set on fire in September, but the city was already infected.

Local authorities initially denied that the mysterious deaths in late June and early July were caused by the plague, fearing the effect on trade. “A malignant fever caused by unhealthy eating” was the official position, but it quickly became untenable. On July 31, the parliament of Provence banned all trade and all communication between the city and the region. Travel on the streets was restricted, schools closed, funeral rites regulated, and citizens ordered to burn sulfur in their homes to purify the air.

By the end of August, the death toll had risen to around a thousand a day. A priest had a blacksmith made a pair of six-foot pliers for socially distanced administration of the sacraments. They are on display at the museum with smaller forceps to hold the letters while disinfecting them with vinegar, medical tools for applying heat or cutting buboes, texts on treatments, a plague mask and a public appeal. of the city offering 1000 to 2000 pounds per month for surgeons to come to work there.

At the beginning of September, the royal authorities appointed Charles-Claude Andrault de Langeron as an extraordinary setting in Marseille. Six companies of soldiers are dispatched to clean up the city, stop looters, pick up corpses, close gambling dens, pick up rubbish, reorganize the hospital and count the dead. Orders have been issued against throwing stones or shooting in the city. The shops, however, remained open.

The bodies piled up in mass graves. By examining a site in Le Panier in the early 2000s, archaeologists found definitive evidence of the Yersinia pestis bacterium. Responsible for the third plague pandemic, which began in China in 1855, the bacillus is now known to have also caused the first two.

The permanent exhibition of the Museum of History describes Marseille as “a mixed picture … a poor city characterized by criminal gangs who settle their scores, but also an attractive and lively city where culture and tourism have become essential factors of development. economic “. While hitchhiking in the city in the summer of 2016, the driver told me as we passed the social housing estates in the north of Marseille that it was “the most dangerous place in France … we it feels like another country ”.

The city is currently experiencing a cycle of predatory affection. Average house prices rose 6.5 percent last year. After leaving the museum, I tried to find the plague well, walking the rue de l’Observance and all around the Panier, but I saw only restaurants and anti-gentrification graffiti: “AirBnB destroyed the city ” ; “My neighborhood is beautiful, but not hipster”; “Parisians, we don’t want you. “

Who can use which urban spaces under which conditions? To enter the museum, you must show proof of a negative Covid test or vaccination. Ditto at the Stade Vélodrome, where the other weekend I saw Olympique de Marseille beat Lorient 4-1. It was the first game since the funeral of former club owner Bernard Tapie, ‘The Boss’. A text from the group ultras South Winners was read aloud before the match:

Deep in France, in Europe and in the world, your daughters, your sons, our children, will continue to challenge the whole world – in joy, song, rage and euphoria – and will demonstrate, thanks to their good -loved Patron, what is it like to be from Marseille.

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