Last Major Outbreak of Plague

On May 20, 1720, a ship carrying victims of plague arrived at the French port of Marseilles. Several days later, an epidemic began in the city. By the time the disease ran its course, fifty thousand people in the city had died, as well as an equal number throughout the countryside. The epidemic represented the last major outbreak of the plague in Europe.

Summary of Event

Bubonic plague, generally referred to as plague, is the result of infection by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. While most wild rodents may serve as reservoirs for the agent, it is most commonly carried by rats; transmission to humans results from bites by fleas carried by these animals. [kw]Last Major Outbreak of Plague (May, 1720-Dec., 1721)
[kw]Plague, Last Major Outbreak of (May, 1720-Dec., 1721)
[kw]Outbreak of Plague, Last Major (May, 1720-Dec., 1721)
[g]France;May, 1720-Dec., 1721: Last Major Outbreak of Plague[0560]
[c]Health and medicine;May, 1720-Dec., 1721: Last Major Outbreak of Plague[0560]
[c]Natural disasters;May, 1720-Dec., 1721: Last Major Outbreak of Plague[0560]
Chataud, Jean-Baptiste
Belzunce, Henri François Xavier de
Bertrand, Jean Baptiste

The first appearance of the bubonic plague in the Mediterranean area is suspected to have occurred as early as the third century b.c.e., according to a description later produced by Rufus of Ephesus (fl. 98-117 c.e.), a Greek physician and writer. However, the first confirmed epidemic of plague in Europe was the Plague of Justinian (542-543). While precise mortality figures are unknown, as many as ten thousand persons per day may have died in Constantinople alone. The failure of Justinian to restore Roman rule across the Mediterranean was in large part a result of the outbreak. The epidemic reached Gaul (France) through the port of Marseilles in 543.

The most devastating outbreaks of the plague in Europe occurred during the fourteenth century, when approximately one-third of the population, some 25 million persons, fell victim to a series of epidemics that came to be known collectively as the Black Death, or Great Plague. The disease appeared in Marseilles in 1346, probably carried on a ship arriving from the Middle East, where the disease had been endemic.

After the 1346 epidemic, despite occasional local outbreaks, Western Europe, particularly France, was largely spared large-scale epidemics of the plague for nearly four centuries. However, on May 25, 1720, the Grand St. Antoine, Grand St. Antoine[Grand Saint Antoine] a ship under the command of Captain Jean-Baptiste Chataud, arrived at Marseilles. The ship’s voyage had originated at Saida, Syria, in January, at a time when an outbreak of plague was occurring in that city. Seven sailors had died en route from an illness that likely had been the plague. Refused entry at several ports prior to its arrival at Marseilles, the Grand St. Antoine was placed in quarantine in a lazaretto near the port until the nature of the illness it carried could be determined.

The ship’s cargo included textile goods, silk, wool, and cotton, which city merchants wanted for the medieval fair held at Beaucaire. As a result, the quarantine was prematurely lifted in mid-June. Among the first victims once the ship had docked were several of the porters who transported its merchandise to local warehouses. French physicians who examined the men noted the presence of “large tumors the size of hen’s eggs” in the groin, the buboes typical in cases of the plague. The first cases within the general population appeared soon on the rue de l’Escale. The disease first caused the death of a young woman and, shortly afterward, her young daughter. By the end of the month, several people who had come in contact with the cloth carried on the Grand St. Antoine became ill with what local doctors had been calling “malignant fevers.” By the end of July, the outbreak had spread beyond control.

A decree of the Parliament of Aix (August, 1720) placed the city itself under quarantine. Quarantines The death penalty was threatened for anyone leaving Marseilles, and a “plague wall” was erected outside the city. Guard posts were placed at intervals behind the wall, portions of which still remain nearly three hundred years later, but by this time, thousands of people had already fled into the countryside, carrying the plague with them. The disease reached Aubagne on August 15 and Toulon the following week.

The resulting epidemic, spanning the period between 1720 and 1722, devastated southern France. Much of what is known is based upon the eyewitness accounts of Jean Baptiste Bertrand, one of the physicians who attended the victims in Marseilles. Bertrand himself contracted plague during the course of the epidemic, but he recovered. His wife and children were not as fortunate. Bertrand later recorded his observations in a lengthy treatise.

Between June, 1720, and December, 1721, nearly 95,000 persons in a provincial population of 250,000 died of plague. Of the 90,000 persons who lived in Marseilles and its surroundings, 40,000 reportedly died. Nearly every police officer succumbed, as did most other public servants (doctors, surgeons, guards). Thousands of corpses were reported in the streets, as not only the corbeaux, special transporters for corpses, but also beggars hired for the same purpose all died. Some idea of the devastation may be discerned from numbers reported by Bertrand: Among one hundred master hatters, fifty-three died. More than 80 percent of master joiners died in the epidemic, while 370 of 400 cobblers survived. The disease was largely spent by the end of 1721, although another, smaller outbreak of the plague came again in May, 1722. This time the epidemic lasted only until August, with mortality significantly reduced when compared with the numbers from the previous two years.

The outbreak was particularly devastating to the poor of the city, as well as to those clerics who ministered to their needs. Among the Jesuits Jesuits;French plague who ministered in the province of Provence, eighteen died. Forty-three Capuchin clerics died. Numerous individuals were singled out for their service despite the devastation, particularly the local bishop, Henri François Xavier de Belzunce. Belzunce was observed providing rites of burial to those dying of the plague, ignoring the danger to himself. He also mortgaged his own property to purchase relief for victims or their survivors.

Captain Chataud was subsequently arrested for his part in docking the ship at the city. Imprisoned in the Chateau d’If, he was later brought to trial. On July 8, 1723, his case was declared nolo contendere, but he was spared further punishment.

The main outbreak of the plague was essentially ended by December, 1721. Reasons for its disappearance remain obscure. Certainly, a significant factor was simply the lack of potential victims, as those susceptible had either died or remained immune. The presence of other, cross-reacting bacilli in the population, which would have produced immunity against the plague bacillus, has been proposed as another possible reason for the near-disappearance of the disease. Evidence remains lacking in support of that theory, however. More likely, the stricter enforcement of quarantine measures, which prevented more plague-infested rats from entering Marseilles, accounts for the conclusion of the epidemic.


Epidemics of plague in Europe had occurred periodically for much of the preceding one thousand years. However, the outbreak in Marseilles represented the last significant appearance of the disease in western Europe. Several reasons may account for this. First, the outbreak was, to an extent, self-limiting. While the role of the rat flea in spreading plague would not be determined for another hundred years, it was clear that spread of the disease was not necessarily the result of simple contagion between affected persons and the population at large. More important was the enforcement of quarantine carried out by European countries, in particular Great Britain. Quarantines had previously been maintained in theory, but their actual practice was often limited. A major outbreak had occurred in 1665 throughout England; the strict enforcement of the quarantine after 1720 resulted in no further appearance of the disease.

Other factors may also have contributed to the partial disappearance of the disease, including improved sanitary procedures that reduced exposure to infected rats and better shipping practices, which prevented infected animals from being transported by sea. The memories of plague epidemics remained within the collective populations, however, as commemorative events in places such as Marseilles continued into the twentieth century.

While western Europe was relatively free of the plague after 1722, portions of eastern Europe continued to suffer the ravages of that disease. In 1770, some 300,000 persons reportedly died from the plague in portions of the Ukraine and Transylvania. The epidemic apparently died out from lack of any further susceptible population.

Further Reading

  • Benedictow, Ole. The Black Death, 1346-1353: The Complete History. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2004. Draws upon both modern and contemporary accounts of the plague during its most devastating period, with analysis of its effects upon modern history.
  • Bertrand, Jean Baptiste, Jean Biraben, and Anne Plumptre. A Historical Relation of the Plague at Marseilles in the Year 1720. Whitby, Ont.: McGraw-Hill, 1973. In-depth observation of the origins and movement of the last major outbreak of plague in Europe.
  • Biraben, Jean-Noel. “Certain Demographic Characteristics of the Plague Epidemic in France, 1720-1722.” Daedalus 97 (1968): 536-545. Statistical description of the Marseilles plague, with emphasis on demographics in the city and countryside.
  • McNeill, William. Plagues and Peoples. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1976. Sociological and epidemiological approach to the origin and spread of disease through human history.
  • Orent, Wendy. The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future. Riverside, N.J.: Free Press, 2004. Historical account of the plague, with descriptions of events that could result in its reappearance.

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