The plague first made an appearance in 1347-48, when a catastrophic and unstoppable pandemic swept through Western Europe. In four years, the population of 14th-century Europe plunged by an estimated 33-50% and its civilisation changed forever. The figures are debated, but as many as 150 million people may have died worldwide. The disease spread across France from the Port of Marseille and few places were unaffected.
The plague in southwest France
The epidemic quickly reached Villefranche-de-Rouergue, a town near us in southwest France. The town was not only on a major trade route but also on the pilgrimage route of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. The disease struck down 3,000 of the 10,000 inhabitants and halted work on the cathedral and the town’s fortifications.
Historians and epidemiologists have debated the exact nature of the illness (pneumonic or bubonic) and whether it was spread by fleas, in goods such as cloth or by human contact. Regardless, in societies where hygiene and the spread of disease were poorly understood, the effect was disastrous. Nothing seemed to contain it, but quacks and charlatans were quick to profit from it – when they didn’t succumb themselves, that is.
For the next three hundred years, the plague barely left Western Europe. It came back to Villefranche with a vengeance in 1628, following a particularly damp summer. The town again lost one-third of its population of 9,000-10,000.
A grave miscalculation
I came across a true story in an Aveyronnais family history, which demonstrates how terrified people were of catching the disease. It describes what happened when a pedlar arrived in Saint-Eulalie-d’Olt, north-east of Villefranche, during the summer of 1628. The translation is mine:
The pedlar arrived from Réquista, selling handkerchiefs, hand mirrors and other beauty aids. He thought he was doing a useful job when he announced that at Villefranche the plague had killed 8,000 inhabitants. A deathly silence followed, and then a shiver of terror went through the crowd and everyone backed away, shouting and throwing stones at him. Since he bore bad news, they suspected him of also carrying the disease. He only just got away, chased along the streets to the last house in the town.
The pedlar clearly vastly overstated the numbers of dead, maybe because he wanted to look important. He made a huge miscalculation, since every stranger could be carrying the disease. People who wanted to travel had to carry a billet de santé (certificate of good health), confirming that their town was free of the disease.
This was the starting point for my short story, ‘The Visitation’, which appears in my anthology, French Collection: Twelve Short Stories. The story is told from the point of view of the pedlar, a self-deluding and ignorant man, but not without a certain charm. We don’t know what happened to him in real life, but there is an outcome in my story…
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