Black Death to Spanish Flu – how diseases have shaped French history

France has enacted strict measures to halt the spread of coronavirus, possibly stirred by folk memory of earlier diseases, argues historian Mike Stuchberry.

Black Death to Spanish Flu - how diseases have shaped French history
Soldiers suffering from Spanish Flu in 1918. Photo: WikiCommons

The latest developments in coronavirus are dominating the headlines, but the territory that now constitutes the French nation has been hit time and again by both epidemics and pandemics.

Today, we’re taking a look at the effect of these outbreaks on French history. 

Antonine and Justinian Plagues

Gaul was one of Rome’s most treasured provinces, and significant in acting as a bulwark against incursions from tribal groups arriving from the East.

A complex system of roads, and a number of heavily-fortified military forts were an essential investment in the region. However, they could also have played an important role in its eventual fall.

The Antonine Plague, brought back by troops returning from Parthia in 165CE, quickly made its way along Gaul’s road systems and seriously impacted troop numbers.

The disease, thought to be a strain of smallpox, meant that all available new troops, often raised from subjugated tribal groups, had to be used to replenish diminished numbers, and not to reinforce or expand Rome’s borders. 

In many ways, the Roman presence in Gaul never truly recovered from this first hit to their power. While corruption, shortages of new slaves and political turmoil were leading the Western Rome Empire towards decline, it was the Plague of Justinian that really hammered the nail in its coffin.

Arriving in 541CE, it ravaged France, Italy and much of the Mediterranean world.

Thought to be a strain of Bubonic Plague, some historians and epidemiologists think that it killed up to 50 million over two centuries of recurring outbreaks. With troop numbers further depleted, it was only a matter of time before Gaul’s borders fell to the Germanic peoples, Goth and Vandals arriving from the East. 

Peste Noire

Located in the heart of the medieval European world, France was also severely hit by the Bubonic Plague, or ‘Black Death’, arriving in 1348CE.

Rumours had spread of the disease for a while, and in Paris, one of the great centres of learning at the time, scholars at the university issued dire prognostications: “We say that the distant and first cause of this pestilence was and is the configuration of the heavens. In 1345, at one hour after noon on 20 March, there was a major conjunction of three planets in Aquarius. This conjunction, along with other earlier conjunctions and eclipses, by causing a deadly corruption of the air around us, signifies mortality and famine.”

In Avignon, the seat of the papacy at the time, Clement VI held audiences between bonfires, on which aromatic herbs and flowers were thrown. This speaks to the medieval belief that foul-smelling vapours, or ‘miasma’ carried disease.

The Pope survived the pandemic, but this was probably due to the fact that the fleas carrying the bacteria yersinia pestis could not survive in such heat. 

The ‘Black Death’ subsided around 1351, having killed fifty million – almost sixty percent of all Europeans. However, France would continue to be hit by outbreaks of the disease until the 18th century, when an outbreak in Marseille killed 100,000 people in the surrounding area. 

One can still see the scars of these outbreaks across France, in the plague chapels and churches dedicated to St Roche, the mass graves, or ‘plague pits’ that are unearthed during construction, and the deserted medieval villages that advances in aerial photography are increasingly uncovering. 

White Plague

While France was susceptible to the same diseases in the 19th century that ravaged most European nations – malaria, cholera, diphtheria and the like – one disease actually became a fashion sensation.

Tuberculosis, also known as the ‘White Plague’, killed hundreds of thousands in Paris and other French cities over the century, transmitted by coughs and sneezing. 

The lingering, drawn-out course of the disease in people, leading to pale, drawn features, led to some considered Tuberculosis, also known as ‘consumption’, something to 

It was seen as a romantic illness, appearing in the popular consciousness through works such as Puccini’s La Bohème. The image of the sick young woman putting her life to rights before experiencing a ‘beautiful death’ has resonated to this day.

This perception even persisted into the 20th century, even after the bacteria responsible for Tuberculosis was identified. To this day, 5,000 people in France continue to contract the disease although it is fully treatable if caught early. 

Pandemic flu

While the ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1918-19 was first tracked in soldiers based at Fort Riley, Kansas, and thought to originate somewhere in Asia, the horrific, unhygienic conditions of France’s Western Front during World War I are thought to have greatly contributed to incubating and bringing the disease to millions.

Weakened immune systems, mass movement of troops and little disease controls meant that soldiers shipped home from battle took the disease with them. 

France was severely hit by the Influenza outbreak. It is thought that 400,000 of the 17 million that died came from France, despite the best efforts of public health officials to contain the virus and introduce precautionary measures.

It is interesting to note that a not insignificant portion of these people may have died of rapid-onset secondary bacterial infections, or from untested medications alongside those whom the virus claimed. 

History repeating 

While it’s easy to fall into doomsday prognostication, in the 21st century advances in microbiology and virology, as well as an understanding of how disease spreads, means that it would be extremely difficult for a plague to rage as widely and wildly as the Black Death – at least at the same level of lethality. 

READ ALSO Garlic and urine – these are the things that won't protect you from coronavirus (plus a few that will)

Measures such as self-quarantine, banning of large-scale events and school closures will have an impact in slowing the spread of COVID-19 cronavirus. 

Small changes to routine, such as more frequent hand-washing and coughing into your elbow, also mean that diseases will not be able to spread as quickly. As French authorities have maintained thus far – with a few simple precautions, we improve everyone’s chances for a long and healthy life. 

In fact, the government has even created a little video to help you remember their health advice – not an option during the Black Death, unfortunately.

Apprenons les gestes barrières (60 secondes)

Apprenons les gestes barrières (60 secondes)



Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.