The Plague in Paris: Hedonism, Resignation, and the First Scientific Response


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

The outbreak of the plague in Paris occurred relatively late, especially considering its early arrival in Marseille and the rest of Southern France in 1347. It was sometime in August 1348 when the Black Death found its way into the city, and the effects were, as everywhere, utterly devastating. But, Paris was one of the first medieval cities to scientifically investigate the plague.

A vintage illustration of the courtyard of the Sorbonne, Paris.
The 46 masters of medicine at the University of Paris produced one of the most important scientific works concerning the Black Death. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

If Florence was the most densely populated city in the medieval world during the late Middle Ages, Paris was the largest metropolis, with about 200,000 inhabitants. It might seem logical to think of Paris as the capital of the medieval nation of France.

What is more important about Paris during the first wave of the Black Death is that it was the site of one of the first universities in the medieval world, and it had, by the standards of the day, an impressive medical faculty whom the French king called upon to figure out just what was going on.

Early Scientific Explanations

The 46 masters of medicine at the University of Paris produced one of the most important scientific works concerning the Black Death, the Compendium de Epidemia per Collegium Facultatis Medicorum Parisius, which is fascinating for the emphasis it places on how earthquakes, floods, unseasonable weather, planetary conjunctions, and bad air contributed to the plague outbreak.

The Compendium is a very lengthy tract, comprising multiple books, and while it provides a fascinating insight into medieval medical theory, it was basically useless for those who were suffering through the Great Mortality, a fact that becomes especially clear considering that almost all of the authorities who worked on the Compendium died of the plague themselves.

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

Public Toilets Come to the Rescue

It’s estimated that between 1348 and 1350 there were some 24 plague tracts written by a variety of people, and some of these were decidedly quirky by modern standards.

A painting depicting King Philip VI of France sitting on a throne.
To escape the plague, Philip VI departed Paris and moved around the countryside in a bizarre game of hide-and-seek with the Black Death. (Image: Bibliotheque Nationale de France/Public domain)

One medical treatise was even written in poetic verse. An English medical authority named John Colle, taking the Paris medical faculty’s statement about bad air as a starting point, theorized that the best way to counteract bad air that carried infection was with more bad air.

This led to the totally bizarre sight of people gathered around public latrines inhaling deeply, thinking that this bad smell would act as protection against whatever other bad smell was carrying the plague with it.

As noted, the majority of Paris’s population did not flee the city. But there’s an exception—the French king, Philip VI, took a page out of the Florentine playbook and hightailed it out of there, moving around the countryside in a sort of bizarre game of hide-and-seek with the Black Death. He escaped the plague, dying of natural causes in 1350, but his queen succumbed to the plague.

Learn more about Europe on the brink of the Black Death.

The Carnage Caused by the Plague in Paris

Those who remained in Paris chronicled the horrors of the epidemic. The chronicler Jean de Venette recounted how the hospital of the Hôtel-Dieu was particularly hard hit.

Seeing as its population was made up of those who were already ill or elderly, and the quarters were pretty close—multiple patients sometimes shared a single bed—and once the Black Death had a toehold there, there was no stopping it.

Learn more about the epidemiology of plague.

Hedonism and Resignation

But in a few places, a response is encountered that seems awfully like tempting fate. One of these episodes is recounted in the Grandes Chroniques de France, or Great Chronicle of France, kept by the monks of Saint-Denis, just outside Paris.

In this particular account, the chronicler talks about two monks from the abbey who were traveling through the countryside at the behest of their abbot when they encountered a village where all the people were dancing to the music of drums and bagpipes. This seemed an odd celebratory moment in the midst of so much grim death, so the monks inquired as to what was happening.

Painting depicting people dancing in the Middle Ages.
People reacted differently to the Great Mortality, some people turned to dance and celebration. (Image: Pieter Breughel the Younger/Public domain)

“We have seen our neighbors die, and are seeing them die daily,” the villagers explained, “but since the plague has not entered our town, we hope that our merrymaking will keep it away, and this is why we are dancing.”

On their way home, the monks passed through the same village, and everyone seemed very sad. “What happened?” they asked.

“Alas, good lords, the wrath of God came upon us in a hailstorm, for a great hailstorm came from the sky and fell on our town and all around, so suddenly, that some people were killed by it, and others died of fright, not knowing where to go or which way to turn.”

The merrymaking response to plague would show up throughout the medieval world as the Black Death made its way across the continent, as would a sort of intersection of that impulse and the resignation that everyone was going to die.

A few communities figured since they were going to die, they might as well enjoy an orgy of hedonism. On other occasions, people turned the opposite way and, in acts of religious devotion, sought to further punish and humiliate their flesh in the hope that this would appease the wrath of God.

Common Questions about the Plague in Paris

Q: Who wrote Compendium de Epidemia, and was it useful in halting the plague?

The Compendium de Epidemia was written by 46 masters of medicine at the University of Paris. It was not that helpful for those who were suffering from the plague.

Q:  What was an example of a peculiar solution to fight the plague?

Some people gathered around public toilets inhaling deeply, thinking that this bad smell would act as protection against whatever other bad smell was carrying the plague with it.

Q: What was the mortality rate in Paris in the early days of the Black Death?

The chronicler Jean de Venette recounted that, “The mortality was so great that, for a considerable period, more than 500 bodies a day were being taken in carts from the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris for burial in the cemetery of the Holy Innocents”.

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