The last great plagues in Europe

April 15, 2021 | Blog
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This blog is based on the author’s article forthcoming in the Economic History Review, now available in Early View at this link


by Paul Slack (Linacre College, Oxford)


The three outbreaks of bubonic plague which occurred in eighteenth-century Europe prompt historical investigation because they were the last of their kind.  In Baltic towns between 1709 and 1713, in Marseilles in 1720, and in Moscow between 1770 and 1771, they killed 30 per cent and sometimes more of urban populations.  They came at the end of a series of epidemics which began with the Black Death in the fourteenth century, and there was nothing like them in Europe ever again.  In recent research I have been revisiting the much-debated questions: why did epidemics disappear from Europe when they did?  And, what was the effect on epidemics of the measures — including quarantine precautions — taken by governments?


Figure 1. Marseille during the plague of 1720-21.

By the eighteenth century cities and states had a large armoury of defences available to them, from the isolation of infected houses, to the imposition of cordons sanitaires around entire towns and provinces to contain the disease.  These defences included a military cordon along Europe’s exposed frontier with the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, and a string of quarantine stations in ports like Marseilles, Genoa, and Malta, to isolate suspect ships, cargos and passengers crossing the Mediterranean.


Needless to say, none of these actions by governments were popular, either with taxpayers, or those infected and their families who suffered the consequences.  Official measures to contain epidemics involved total disruption of the normal rhythms of urban life. Many contemporaries, including some physicians, thought them counter-productive, arguing that plague was not contagious from person to person, but rather the product of particularly unhealthy localities and environments.  In London, where plague seemed likely to arrive from Marseilles in 1720, there was a public outcry against the Quarantine Act, which would have imposed isolation of the sick and the deployment of guards around the city if the threat had materialised.  By the end of the century, on the continent as well as in Britain, there were even critics of quarantine who thought that it might be better to leave the disease alone, to let it run its course without political interference.  That was the practice in countries in the East, in the Balkans, Egypt and the Ottoman Empire before 1840, where religion and culture prevented the imposition of quarantine. Often condemned by Europeans in the past as ‘Turkish fatalism’, such attitudes began to seem more civilized and less destructive of families and communities than the measures adopted in Europe.


It is not surprising that the net benefits  of quarantine have been debated in similar fashion by historians, who have asked whether expensive and unpopular interventions by governments  minimised or eradicated the impact of plague.  Recently, however, there has been an important new contribution to the debate from geneticists.  Using techniques of phylogenetic analysis applied to ancient DNA from probable plague sites, they have begun to track and trace particular strains of the bacillus across eighteenth-century Europe.  This research is in its infancy, but preliminary results suggest that while new strains of the bacillus were arriving into western Europe from the East, other strains had probably been present in the West for more than a century.  In one form or another, the bacillus had always been there.


Given those findings, it is no longer possible to argue with any confidence that quarantine in its various guises had totally banished plague from Europe.  What we can say is that it may well have worked on a local and more limited scale, in protecting much of the rest of France from the plague in Marseilles in 1720, for example, or parts of Germany from the disease around the Baltic a decade earlier; and while there was no guarantee that epidemics would never return, the cumulative effect of quarantines made its reappearance much less likely than it had once been.  As we are learning once again, in epidemic circumstances governments have to work by trial and error, testing various kinds of controls on movement and assembly which involve interference with private liberties without anyone being certain they will work. Parallels with COVID-19 are inescapable.  People fighting plague in the eighteenth century were much like us, fully aware of the costs of failure, aware at the same time that something had to be done to mitigate and if possible control a critical event, and convinced that doing something was better than doing nothing at all.


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