Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIV, 14

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XXXIV, 13 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXIV, 15

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIV, chapter 14
Incidents of Plague

At the time of the plague in Athens, in the year 431BC, twenty-two great plagues had already swept the world. The Athenians thought their wells had been poisoned; a common idea resurrected during all epidemics. Thucydides has left us a description of the Attic scourge, re-worked among ancient writers by Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, and Lucan, and among the moderns by Boccaccio and Manzoni. It is remarkable that regarding the plague at Athens, Thucydides says nothing of Hippocrates, just as he fails to name Socrates when talking about Alcibiades. His plague first attacked the head then descended into the stomach, from there it passed into the gut, and finally into the legs; if it emerged in the feet having traversed the whole body like a long serpent, the victim recovered. Hippocrates called it the divine sickness, and Thucydides the sacred fire; they regarded both as the flame of celestial wrath.

One of the most dreadful plagues was that which struck Constantinople in the sixth century, in Justinian’s reign: Christianity had already modified people’s imaginations and given a new character to disaster, just as it altered poetry; the victims thought they saw ghosts wandering round them and heard threatening voices.

The Black Death, of the fourteenth century, commonly known by that name, originated in China: it was thought to travel in the form of a fiery vapour while spreading an odour of infection. It carried off four fifths of the inhabitants of Europe.

In 1575 that contagion descended on Milan which rendered immortal Carlo Borromeo’s charity. Fifty-four years later, in 1629, that unhappy city was again exposed to the miseries of which Manzoni paints a picture superior to that celebrated description of Boccaccio’s.

In 1660 the scourge appeared again in Europe, and in those two plague years of 1629 and 1660 produced the same symptoms of delirium as the plague in Constantinople.

‘Marseilles’, says Monsieur Lemontey, ‘was emerging in 1720 from festivities to mark the visit of Mademoiselle de Valois, married to the Duke of Modena. Beside the galleys still decorated with garlands and filled with musicians floated various vessels carrying the most dreadful of diseases from the harbours of Syria.’

The fatal ship of which Monsieur Lemontey speaks, having shown a clean bill of health, was allowed communication with the shore for a while, long enough to contaminate the air; a storm compounded the problem and the plague spread to the sound of thunder.

The gates of the city and the windows of the houses were closed. Amidst a universal silence a window was heard to open, now and then, and a corpse was thrown out; the walls would be streaked with its gangrenous blood, and master-less dogs waited beneath to devour it. In one quarter where all the inhabitants perished, they were walled up in their houses, as if to prevent death from emerging. From these great avenues of family tombs, the crossroads were reached whose paving stones were covered with the sick and dying, lying on pallets and abandoned without aid. Half-rotted cadavers lay in the mud, wound in old rags; other bodies were left leaning upright against the walls, in the attitude in which they had died.

All fled, except the doctors; the Bishop, Monsieur de Belzunce, wrote: ‘Doctors should be abolished, or at least those they provide should be more skilful or less fearful. I have had a great deal of trouble persuading them to remove around a hundred and fifty half-rotting corpses from the neighbourhood of my house.’

On one occasion, the galley-slaves refused to carry out their undertaking functions: the apostle climbed onto one of the carts, seated himself on a pile of corpses, and ordered the convicts to proceed: death and virtue travelled towards the cemetery together drawn by crime and vice, terrified but admiring.

For three weeks corpses had been carried to the esplanade of La Tourette, neighbouring the sea. Exposed there to the sun and swollen by its rays, they made a stinking lake. On the surface of that liquefied flesh, only the maggots moved on those crushed and shapeless forms, which might once have been human beings.

When the contagion began to relent, Monsieur de Belzunce, at the head of his clergy, took himself to the Église des Accoules: mounting a platform from which could be seen Marseille, the countryside, harbours and the sea, he gave the benediction, like the Pope, at Rome, blessing the city and the world; what more courageous or purer hand could have brought down the blessings of Heaven on so much misery?

Thus it was that the plague devastated Marseilles, and five years after these calamities, the following inscription was placed on the façade of the city-hall, like those funeral epitaphs one sees on tombs:

Massilia Phocensium filia, Romae soror, Carthaginis terror, Athenarum aemula: Marseilles, daughter of Phocea, sister of Rome, terror of Carthage, emulator of Athens.