Don’t worry; it happened several hundred years ago. But for people at the time it must have seemed like the end of the world. I thought about this recently while wandering around Villefranche-de-Rouergue with time to kill between a routine medical appointment and my yoga class. For the first time, I started reading those information panels they put up for tourists.
There’s one by the central Place Notre-Dame, over which the monumental Collégiale – cathedral – towers. In 1348, I read, the town built a special plague Hôpital Saint-Martial next to the Collégiale, which was still under construction. Around 3,000 inhabitants are said to have died in that epidemic, which spread across France from the port of Marseille. Considering that in 1341 the town’s population was just over 10,000, losing 30% of it at short order was catastrophic. It brought to a halt the completion of the Collégiale and the town’s ramparts for some time.
It’s hardly surprising that Villefranche was severely affected by the plague. Not only was it on the main road between Cahors and Rodez but it was also a stop on the pilgrimage route to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. In addition, it was an important regional market place. Epidemiologists argue about whether the illness spread itself through flea bites, direct personal contact or goods such as bolts of cloth; and whether the pandemic was bubonic or pneumonic plague or both, aggravated by other medical conditions. Whatever its cause or exact nature, it reduced the population of 14th-century Europe by an estimated 33-50% over a four-year period.
Looking down on the market square, which is a riot of noise and colour every Thursday, I tried to imagine the effect the disease must have had on commerce and daily life. In the mid-14th century, Villefranche boasted several weekly markets, which were no doubt severely curtailed. People would have been afraid to go out in case they caught the disease, while peasants from outlying villages would have kept away, even if that meant not selling their produce.
The stark, empty shell of the half-completed Collégiale would have stood silent: no more ringing of masons’ hammers against stone or workmen’s banter. The bustle and hum of the market would have given way to the tolling of funeral bells echoing around the empty square. And what did they do with the 3,000 corpses? Flung them into mass graves, I suppose.
This wasn’t the only time in its history that the plague cut swathes through the town’s population. Between the 14th and the 17th centuries, the plague never left Western Europe and was always breaking out somewhere. After a particularly damp and humid early summer, which probably helped its incubation, a serious epidemic hit Villefranche again in 1628, continuing until 1630.
While researching this topic, I came across a book written by Alain Combes. He wrote the history of his Aveyronnais family from the 16th century to the present. They lived further north-east on the River Lot at Saint-Eulalie d’Olt. He describes a day in summer 1628 when a pedlar came to town (my translation):
He thought he was doing a useful job, this pedlar who arrived from Réquista, proposing handkerchiefs, hand mirrors and other beauty aids. He announced that at Villefranche the plague had killed 8,000 inhabitants. After a deathly silence, a shiver of terror went through the crowd and everyone backed away from him, shouting and throwing stones at him. Bearing bad news, they suspected him of also carrying the disease. He only just got away in time, pursued along the streets to the last house in the town.
The pedlar inflated the numbers, possibly out of a deluded sense of his own importance. The population of Villefranche was probably around 9-10,000 in 1628 and it lost about one third of that. His reception shows how terrified people were of this usually fatal illness. Every stranger was a potential harbinger of death. Combes describes how people who wanted to travel had to get a ‘billet de santé’ or certificate of good health from the local authorities, attesting that the town from which they came was plague-free.
The 1628 plague epidemic was one of a series of factors contributing to the outbreak of a peasants’ revolt in the Rouergue in 1643 – the revolt of the ‘Croquants’. This is a story worth telling separately another time.
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