The history of mankind is, basically, a set of borders moving back and forth, the moving lines of dying empires and republics being born. Hence the importance of walls — concrete barriers that embody power, dissuade invasions, and regulate trade. But could a wall stop the deadly course of an epidemic?
Walls are watchful sentinels. They mark out a shelter, the size of a home or a whole nation. The Great Wall of China (7th century B.C.) was erected to prevent the invasion of Nomadic tribes and regulate Silk Road trade. Hadrian’s Wall (122 A.D.) was set up as a frontier between the expanding Roman Empire and the Caledonians. The Berlin Wall (1961) was simply the border between Allied and Soviet occupation zones being bricked up.
More than protective, the wall is also highly symbolic — it’s always easier to hide a problem behind closed walls than actually try to solve it. Take Jewish ghettos or floating prisons. But when it comes to devastating epidemics, it may be a little presumptuous to hope bacteria and diseases will stop there and remain at bay.
May 25, 1720. A ship anchors at Marseille harbor, in the south of France. The city has become, over the years, one of the most important hubs of Mediterranean trade; it is populated by French, Italian, English, Maltese, Greek sailors and merchants, among others. Unnoticed by this cosmopolitan mix of people — after all, the hustle-and-bustle is a daily feature of the Vieux Port — the ship unloads a cargo of Syrian cloth. Quality merchandise that was worth the 10-month back-and-forth journey, the captain thinks, for it will soon be sold for a good sum of money.
What he doesn’t know, however, is that it is covered with plague-infected fleas.
Sanitary examiners are required to have a look around, but they don’t bat an eyelid. Eight seamen have died during the journey back from Syria — including the ship’s surgeon — and their bodies have been thrown overboard for good measure; still, the papers are en règle, so the captain and his relatively diminished crew are allowed inside the walls. Does the tragedy of the Black Death, which swept across Europe in 1348, claiming millions of lives, still linger in the Mediterranean summer heat?
Lightning does strike twice
Less than a month later, on June 20, a woman passed away. She was the first reported victim, although nobody was willing to cry wolf; death is, after all, a natural stage of life. But when other bubon-covered cadavers followed suit, it became clear that they, too, were infected by a curious evil. In early July, dozens of shrouds lined up the streets. What next?
Every time a plague-infected person was signaled, he or she was taken away to the local infirmeries while somebody bricked up his/her house, usually burning sulfur inside to ‘decontaminate’ it. People started to panic as the scale of the epidemic grew, the city slowly but surely turning into an open-air graveyard. “People are mere shadows already,” testimonated a witness. Beak-masked doctors (‘crows’) showed up, again, but the treatments they prescribed proved inefficient, if not surreal (violin tunes, rhino horn powder). When infected people fled the city, they soon spread the epidemic to nearby Arles and Aix.
Local authorities have been slow to react; only a band of brave and dedicated civil servants — aldermen Estelle and Moustier, knight Roze — volunteered to oversee the decontamination of ruined districts and the transfer of bodies piling up in the narrow streets. Mass graves were dug up and filled with thousands of cadavers, along with spadefuls of quicklime.
Building the wall
By the end of the year, the plague epidemic had come to a halt. Pious crowds gathered at masstime to sing Te Deum, and the locals jumped for joy when a traditional hearse, driving a deceased person to his resting place, crossed the city! Death had become natural again, with life finally taking over. Marseille may feel relieved, but the plague had not stopped yet. Neighboring cities (like Toulon) came to experience it — sudden deaths, widespread panic. Quarantine was maintained and reinforced; an official decree ordered the building of a wall in order to contain plague within the Provence area.
Built with dry masonry over the spring of 1721, the ‘plague wall’ stretched for 36 kilometers (22 miles) across the Provence region. It was supposedly guarded by armed soldiers night and day, and people wishing to cross it had to present a ‘health bill’ that guaranteed they wouldn’t spread the epidemic further.
Despite the efforts, time and money invested in the wall, it did not prevent further episodes of plague. In August, the city of Avignon was contaminated, too. Marseille itself experienced a sudden (and unexpected) strike of plague in 1722. This time, local authorities were prepared: they hardly needed too. Less than a couple hundred people were swept away by the epidemic. The Ultimate Plague of the Western World claimed the lives of 40,000 Marseillais — half the city’s population — and, as a remainder of its power of devastation, left behind a stone scar guarding the land of Provence.
- Claude Quétel, Murs : une autre histoire des hommes (2012), Perrin.
- David Frye, Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick (2018), Simon & Schuster.
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