- Two archives dated 1720 and 1721, exhumed by genealogists, testify to the way in which France managed the last great epidemic of plague.
- The historian Patrice Bourdelais, specialist in epidemics, explains the differences and the similarities of the methods, 300 years apart.
These are two archival documents dating back 300 years. And yet, they surprisingly echo the situation of containment and the fight against
coronavirus currently living in France.
The first is a « health passport » dated 1720 (see photo below), during the plague. The second, published a year later in 1721, brings together the general instructions sent from Paris to curb the spread of this scourge in « places attacked by the contagious disease ». Three centuries apart, we realize that some methods have evolved, but others have not. Questioned by 20 minutes, the epidemic historian, Patrice Bourdelais, helps us to see more clearly.
The plague of 1720-1722, known as “from Marseille”
In May 1720, a merchant ship carrying cotton fabrics from the Middle East docked in Marseille. For a long time, this ship was accused of having imported the plague into the south of France. In 2016, genetic studies on the infectious bacillus put forward another hypothesis: a resurgence of the « black plague » which had decimated half of Europe in the 14th century.
Anyway, this epidemic lasted more than two years. It has killed nearly half of the 85,000 inhabitants of Marseille and left between 90,000 and 120,000 dead in Provence and Languedoc, according to estimates. « This is the last great plague in Western Europe, » said Patrice Bourdelais. At the time, the population had great experience with these epidemic episodes which occurred every 5 to 10 years. The alert was strong. Which is no longer the case today. «
The effectiveness of the sanitary cordon
Exhumed from the archives of the National Library of France (BNF) by a group of genealogists, a note of « instructions on precautions » to take, dated 1721, explains in particular the way in which a militarized sanitary cordon must be organized to blockade around a contaminated area.
« The system was very good with a sanitary cordon that could quickly retract its control lines as the disease progressed, » explains Patrice Bourdelais. We were able to effectively isolate part of the territory in 1720, that’s a big difference with today. ”
And the historian specifies the device: « Rigor of the blocking thanks to the flawless vigilance of the soldiers, organization of posts in order to feed the place, rigor in the hunt for possible haunts of the epidemic like the straw mattresses, the clothes or the fabrics. Because the plague develops first in a population of small rodents which transmit the disease to the flea which stings the man and contaminates it. «
For the historian, the most striking similarity between the methods of today and those of 300 years ago, it is especially the three levels of distinction of the patients. “The organization of the placement of patients into three strata is clearly expressed in this document: the infirmaries for the sick, places for convalescents and other different places – where we carry out the classic quarantine – for those who have been in contact with the sick and are therefore suspect. This is reminiscent of current debates on general confinement where we have all become suspects. «
Another resemblance is the « health passport » mentioned today to speed up deconfinement. In 1720, it was a pass, different from the « derogatory displacement authorization » of 2020. « It is a kind of collective screening certificate. Residents of a town which was not affected by the epidemic could obtain permission to move. «
The document shows the example of an Alexander, of « mediocre » stature and with « brown » hair, living in Remoulins in the Gard. “The plague raging in Avignon, not far from there, which made the inhabitants of the sector a priori suspect. The magistrate therefore had to issue an authorization so that the person could go to a territory which was not affected. Obviously the Tarn, in this case. «
Other times, other customs
On the other hand, certain instructions of the time can shock. Illustration with two passages from the document: « If someone who has been consigned escapes, they will make him break his head » or « We must have all dogs and cats killed, both inside and outside. ‘outside the blockade, at least a league away (…). Although these animals do not take evil, they communicate it very often ”.
« The rigor of the treatment reserved for those who try to cross the cords, as well as for our domestic animals, is explained by the absolute will to limit movement, and the repeated observation that these animals also seem to transmit the plague, because their fleas are responsible for their misfortune, ”observes Patrice Bourdelais.
Aid to the needy
But solidarity already existed at the time. Thus, the « general instructions » end with this paragraph: « The fines that must be ordered often for tickets that do not deserve death will be applied to the poor of the place. And the best use we can make of it is to use them to buy clothes for them, instead of those that have been burned. «
“Indeed, all those who had to let their clothes burn, even their house, are rescued by the community, charity and alms. The Christian works were very numerous, recalls the historian. And the amount of fines imposed for violating certain rules can also be mobilized for this purpose. « Today, we would call it a subsidy or state aid.