A Weakened Society? Plague, Economy and Social Resilience in Early 18th-Century Provence

Källarsalen Session 7: Health crises: plagues and strikes organized by Nicolas Maughan


Nicolas Maughan


Outbreaks of bubonic plague initiated by the flea-borne bacterium Yersinia pestis have repeatedly afflicted the Old World since the onset of the “Justinian Plague” in 541 AD. The second European pandemic, the “Black Death” rapidly killed around half of the population during 1347-1353 AD. Both pandemics then persisted with recurrent local outbreaks over several centuries. The threat from the plague bacillus, which still induces several thousand human cases annually, may well increase under projected climate change. The last major plague in France, the famous “plague of Marseilles”, started in this coastal city and occurred between 1720 and 1722 AD across the South East of France and the Massif Central. The epidemic lasted 31 months and killed about 120.000 people, 240 communities were contaminated. Deaths were not evenly distributed across regions, with some areas affected very little while others were all but entirely depopulated. This was the case for Marseilles with about 50.000 deaths which was frequently called “the dead city”. However, short and long-term global socio-economic impacts of this devastating historical plague outbreak as well as the specific resilience in both the urban and rural populations are not yet fully understood. Understanding how communities respond to abrupt population decline is a key element in both debates about collapse and the identification of putative drivers of social and environmental transformation. A number of quite different outcomes are possible. The plagues of the historical period provide effective case studies of sudden population reduction. Here, we explore the short-term and long-term effects of this epidemic on human populations across the Southeastern France. They include a series of various biological, social, economic, political and religious upheavals which could have profound effects on the course of regional, but also national, history throughout the 18th century. This analysis is a reflection of how the society responded to depopulation - thanks to an adaptive response - with a scaling back of their economy, agriculture, conservation of core functionality, and entrenchment of the established order.


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