In the year 588, the city of Marseilles experienced an outbreak of a deadly and highly infectious pestilence that caused painful swellings on humans—a symptom of the feared plague that ravaged humanity several times during the Middle Ages. The disease was reportedly brought to Marseilles by a trade ship that came to the city on a route from Visigothic Spain. The ship was suspected because the first of Marseilles’ ill townsfolk had all seemingly bought goods from that particular merchant vessel. Contact tracing soon became much more difficult as time went on, however, for the incubation period of the disease allowed the sickness to spread widely throughout the city before the next wave of infected people began to show symptoms. A contemporaneous bishop, Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), dramatically described the outbreak, writing, “The infection did not spread through the residential quarter immediately. Some time passed and then, like a cornfield set alight, the entire town was suddenly ablaze with pestilence” (History of the Franks, IX.22). As the epidemic grew, people fled Marseilles, which consequently spread the plague to more villages and towns. Others in Marseilles, instead of fleeing, decided to barricade themselves in a safe spot—Bishop Theodore of Marseilles took this route, spending the duration of the epidemic locked away in Saint Victor’s Church with a small group of friends. Such was the way things were in Marseilles for around two months, until the epidemic seemed to be in the course of petering out.
When the refugees who had fled from Marseilles heard the news that the epidemic appeared to be nearing its end, they reportedly rushed back to the city to restart their former lives. Yet, the disease had not run its course, and the return of fresh bodies to the city only caused the plague to dramatically erupt once more. Gregory of Tours described this second wave of the epidemic in Marseilles, writing, “At the end of two months the plague burned itself out. The population returned to Marseilles, thinking themselves safe. Then the disease started again and all who had come back died” (History of the Franks, IX.22). The second phase of the epidemic, it seems, was worse than the first, killing more people and persisting longer in the city than before.
King Guntram of Burgundy (r. 561-593) was greatly concerned about the outbreak. In his distress, the king apparently concocted a plan in hopes of gaining supernatural aid for his people. As told by the aforementioned Gregory of Tours, “King Guntram ordered the entire people to assemble in church and Rogations to be celebrated there with great devotion. He then commanded that they should eat and drink nothing else but barley and pure water, and that all should be regular in keeping the vigils. His orders were obeyed” (History of the Franks, IX.21). These directives came to naught, however, for the plague persisted in Marseilles and new hotspots emerged in villages near the city of Lyon. It is unclear how long the epidemic persisted after the initial outbreak in 588, but it was known to have flared up anew several more times in the next few years.
Written by C. Keith Hansely
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of plagues from a 14th century manuscript of Haggadah for Passover (the ‘Golden Haggadah”), f. 12v, from The British Library, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.