Plague in France: Horror Comes to Marseille


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

By the end of 1348, almost all of Italy and vast portions of what is today France, Spain, and Germany were suffering from the effects of an unprecedented pandemic. As the Black Death continued its deadly progress in Europe, various communities started to deal with the Great Mortality in different ways. One of the countries most devastated by the 14th century plague was France.

Painting depicting the city of Marseille during the plague.
The plague entered Marseille at the end of 1347 and burned through the city with horrible ferocity. (Image: Rvalett/Michel Serre/Public domain)

France: A Historical Background

In the 14th century, France was not a unified country. There were an array of powerful dukes whose power and wealth rivaled that of the actual king of France, and many of them considered themselves and their realms barely part of France, if at all.

Also, the cultures of the north and the south of France were dramatically different. The south was more liberal and cosmopolitan, while the north, including Paris, was known for its restrictive religious sensibilities.

To illustrate this difference, consider the famous, or rather infamous, relationship between Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Louis VII of France. Eleanor was heiress to the vast southern duchy of Aquitaine, and when she was married to Louis in 1137, her lands almost doubled the size of France overnight. But she was a southern girl, used to more freedom, equality, and liberty than was deemed proper in the north; this led to a turbulent marriage.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

A Divorce that Changed History

Eleanor had two daughters, and she and the king hoped for a son in the future. But still, the breakdown of the marriage came when Eleanor accompanied Louis to Jerusalem on the Crusade, and on this trip, it became clear that, while he was deeply pious and religious, she was not.

Painting of Conrad III of Germany, Louis VII of France and Baldwin III of Jerusalem at the 2nd Crusade Council at Jerusalem.
The divorce of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Louis VII of France was to have long-lasting effects on the structure of European political power during the plague. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Their constant fighting caused the marriage to be annulled in 1152. A heartbeat after the annulment was confirmed, Eleanor was married to Prince Henry of England, who became Henry II, and thus her lands went from France to England—an event that had strong historical resonance during the Great Mortality. Although English holdings on the continent had diminished by 1348, part of what is thought of today as France was, in fact, England in the middle of the 14th century.

And complicating the matter of the Black Death’s presence on the continent is the fact that France, starting in 1337, was already dealing with another kind of attack—what had come to be called the Hundred Years’ War, when King Edward III of England began to aggressively try and recover many of the territories on the continent that England had lost to France.

Learn more about communities that survived the first wave.

The 14th-Century Plague Enters Marseille

Port cities were centers of trade and were hit earliest and hardest by the plague. The plague made its way to Marseille quite early.

According to contemporary accounts, a ship from Genoa appeared at the harbor at the very end of 1347. Since there weren’t any means of remote communication in the Middle Ages, the message had not made it to Marseille that Genoese galleys were carriers of the disease from the East and that many ports were forbidding them to dock.

Indeed, contemporary accounts state that this particular infected ship had been turned away from port after port, but somehow, while other medieval port authorities had heard the rumor about this ship, it hadn’t yet made it to Marseille, or perhaps whoever was on duty just didn’t fully believe it. And so, the ship docked. Louis Heyligen, who was attached to the papal court at Avignon, recorded the event in a letter:

Three galleys loaded with spices and other goods put into the port of Genoa after being storm-driven from the East. They were horribly infected, and when the Genoese realized this, and that other men were dying suddenly without remedy, the ships were driven from the port with burning arrows and other engines of war, and thus, driven from port to port, one of the galleys at last put in at Marseille, and at its arrival the same thing happened: men were infected without realizing it, and died suddenly, and the inhabitants thereupon drove the galley away.

Even though the plague burned through the city with horrible ferocity, the response of the populace of Marseille differed so markedly from Italian cities such as Florence. There doesn’t seem to have been the sort of mass exodus and flight out of the city that took place in Florence, and while Florence’s political infrastructure was temporarily threatened by the ravages of the plague, the same thing doesn’t seem to have happened in Marseille, even though that community saw a mortality rate of around 60 percent.

Learn more about cultural reactions from flagellation to hedonism.

Metastatic Leaps

A painting depicting Dance of the Death.
According to Heyligen, during the plague, four out of every five people in Marseille died. (Image: ErreCh/Shutterstock)

Heyligen actually described the situation as being one in which four out of every five people in Marseille died, but this figure may be an exaggeration.

Daniel Lord Smail commented on an interesting fact about Marseille in his study:

City residents accommodated the effects of the plague. Municipal institutions did not fold up. People stayed by their kinfolk, friends, and neighbors.

From Marseille, the plague spread overland throughout France and then south into Spain through a series of what the great plague scholar Ole Benedictow called metastatic leaps, later turning back northwest. It hit Avignon, Arles, Bordeaux, Carcassonne, and Lyon hard, but somehow Carpentras, which was so close to Avignon, managed to get through the pandemic pretty much unscathed.

Common Questions about Plague in France

Q: How did the plague come to Marseille?

According to contemporary accounts, a ship from Genoa appeared at the harbor at the very end of 1347, and when passengers disembarked, the plague entered Marseille.

Q:  Compared to the citizens of Florence, how did the population of Marseille react to the plague?

They reacted very differently to the plague. Even though, by some accounts, about 60 percent of the population succumbed to the disease, they did not embark on a mass exodus out of the city. Also, the political infrastructure of the city continued to function.

Q: How did the Hundred Years’ War affect France’s condition during the plague?

In the middle of the 14th century, part of what is known today as France was England. During the plague, the French were dealing with what had come to be called the Hundred Years’ War, when King Edward III of England began to aggressively recapture many of the territories England had lost to France.

Keep Reading
The Medieval European Society in the Early 14th Century
Black Death and its Impact: The Catastrophe that Ravaged Europe
The Transmission of Plague: Identification of the Cause