History fact, August 28 in Paris: the Black Death epidemic

Published by Manon C. · Published on 30 August 2021 at 11h18
In August 1348, Paris is faced with a terrible bad sparing no women, no children, no nobles, no indigents. Within 4 years, the Black Death epidemic will slaughter a third of the Paris people.

In the 14th century, Paris experiences the worst black death epidemic in its history. This is not the first nor the last the French capital city has had to overcome, but this one, because of its speed and death rate in Europe, Asia, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa, is the only one called the Black Death or the Great Plague by historians.

Bubonic plague has been hitting central Asia since 1334 and although European have heard about this “Pestilence” slaughtering populations in the middle and Far East, it seems far away. And yet, the deadly disease is already raving China, India, Persia, Syria and Egypt and is about to hit France by the sea.

In November 1347, the Black Death – traveling through the silk road aboard ships loaded with goods – arrives in several ports in the Mediterranean basin – in Messina, Sicilia, then in Marseille – on black rats. Clandestinely settled in the ships’ holds, the rodents carry in their fur many fleas carrying the pathogen that originated the plague: bacillus Yersinia pestis.

Le Triomphe de la Mort Le Triomphe de la Mort Le Triomphe de la Mort Le Triomphe de la Mort

Aboard the boats, the few sailors still alive are found covered in black pustules oozing blood and pus. Scared, the authorities order to send the ships back on the sea, but it is already too late: this is the beginning of the epidemic in the West and in France. A few months later, in the summer 1348, the Black Death hits Paris.

The symptoms – making men, women, children, bourgeois, nobles, ecclesiastics, and indigents suffer without distinction – are horrible. After contamination, victims are annihilated with severe headaches and high fever, scattered with hallucinations and blood vomiting.

As a matter of fact, there is not one plague hitting France, but three: the bubonic plague, the septicemic plague, and the pneumonic plague infecting lungs and causing severe coughing, easily moving from one human to the other through droplets.

Sick infected by the septicemic plague see their bodies covered in dark spots, a sign of subcutaneous hemorrhages, while those infected by the bubonic plague develop oozing buboes in the neck, inner thigh, and armpit, swelling until they explode, causing excruciating pain. Death generally strikes within three to five days.

Éphéméride du 28 août à Paris : L'épidémie de peste noireÉphéméride du 28 août à Paris : L'épidémie de peste noireÉphéméride du 28 août à Paris : L'épidémie de peste noireÉphéméride du 28 août à Paris : L'épidémie de peste noire

Helpless facing such symptoms and dressed with Doctor Schabel’s attire, which beak is filled with aromatic herbs and plants to soften the pestilential smell of the sick, doctors rely on their limited knowledge and practice basic care based on bloodletting, vinegar and rose water baths, and aromatic plants decoctions. But nothing seems to come to the end of this disease.

Sick relatives flee Paris, hopping to escape from the epidemic in the countryside. But as they do not know they are infected themselves, they actually spread the disease to the entire country. The people and the Church think about a retribution from God to punish the men because of their sins. To gain His forgiveness, processions of flagellants are held in many cities in France, so are macabre dance for days and nights until the dancers are worn out.

Distraught, the people starts looking for a scapegoat. Very quickly, Jews are held responsible for it and accused of poisoning water from fountains and wells. Europe then attend a series of pogroms. Between 1348 and 1349, thousands of “heretics”, Jews, beggars, lepers, witches are killed, burnt on pyres and stripped from their goods.

Rue des Archives/© Mary Evans/Rue des ArchivesRue des Archives/© Mary Evans/Rue des ArchivesRue des Archives/© Mary Evans/Rue des ArchivesRue des Archives/© Mary Evans/Rue des Archives

While the Hôtel-Dieu on the Île de la Cité is quickly overwhelmed, the Church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois – the biggest parish in Paris – reports 3,116 deaths between April 1349 and June 1350. Faced with the profusion of dead bodies infected by the universal plague, and pile up in carts in the streets, the Cemetery of the Innocents – the main cemetery in Paris set Place Joachin du Bellay in the Halles area and now gone – cannot keep up: over 500 burials per day are reported.

So cannot the cemetery of the Hôpital de la Trinité, then limited by rue Saint-Martin, rue Saint-Denis, rue Greneta and rue Guérin-Boisseau. Fun fact: renovations started in 2014 by Monoprix set at the corner of rue Réaumur and Boulevard de Sébastopol – where used to stand the Trinité cemetery destroyed in 1790 – enabled to exhume many skeletons.

Bodies are then piled up in mass graves, without religious service. Corbeil boats usually carrying bread to the capital city are requisitioned to evacuate the bodies out of Paris. renamed “corbillat” and then “corbillard” [hearse in English] – from the city of Corbeil in Essonne – they carry hundreds of bodies on the Seine for days, under the eyes of Parisians.

1352 eventually marks the end of the Black Death epidemic. Within 4 years, the Great Plague killed between 50,000 and 80,000 Parisians – about a third of the population – and 25 million people in 75 million in Europe.

The Cemetery of the Innocents and the Cemetery of the Trinité are gone, but there are still plenty of lovely cemeteries to visit in Paris. Let us pay them a visit, shall we?

Practical information


75 Paris

More informations
Iconographies :
Le Triomphe de la Mort, Pieter Brueghel l'Ancien, Musée du Prado
Docteur Schnabel
© Mary Evans/Rue des Archives

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