Credit: DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images

Historical Insights The Black Death in Marseilles

By the summer of 1720, Marseilles couldn’t keep up with the death count and bodies began piling up in the streets, prompting city officials to hire beggars and convicts to cart the dead to mass graves. About 1721, Marseilles, France. Credit: DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images

The Black Death in Marseilles

In the spring of 1720, the bubonic plague arrived in the southern port city of Marseilles, France.

When on May 25, 1720, boil-covered bodies arrived aboard a Syrian ship in the French port of Marseilles, a quarantine was immediately put into effect. Surviving crewmembers and their wares remained aboard for 15 days before they were allowed to go free. But that effort was not enough—within two months a bubonic plague outbreak mushroomed into a full-fledged epidemic that left locals reeling. “Violent Pains in the Head…Vomit,” one witness recorded, “And in 6 or 8 Hours time Bubo’s and Plague Sores began to rise.” Government leaders desperately searched for a solution as the death toll rose. Thousands fled Marseilles, prompting officials to barricade the city. Despite the cordon, the plague spread to surrounding areas, and conditions continued to deteriorate in Marseilles when residents ran out of food, inciting riots. By the year’s end, the epidemic had subsided, but not before killing nearly half of the city’s population and an additional 50,000 across the South of France.