Hi, weary traveller. Loving the virus, ha? Well, here is something to calm your senses while social distancing. A fresh take on Europe’s history. Cool, right? In this particular entry (fifth in a row of scrumptiously delightful Chapters IV, III, II and I (click on each for pure joy)), we will be discussing the Black Death, a phenomenon that led to Europe’s current obsession with pandemics.

CHAPTER V: 1720

The death of Louis

It’s springtime. The air is heavy with the reek of flowers, the skies are clear, and democracy is just a concept brewing in the minds of a few paid trolls in Paris. The enlightenment is underway, but you, God forbid, are delightfully and fully clear of reason. You still believe in heaven and hell, and your whole life is spun between those two like a pair of culottes on the perspiring buttocks of a sinner.

But one day your neighbour Louis starts coughing hard and vomits like a dragon who has swollen a Texan. You can hear the violent bouts even in your cellar, where you sometimes hide to burn frankincense at the altar of your libido.

On the next day, you go down to his house to see what the hassle was all about and see poor Louis taken away on a stretcher by figures in black.

Kiss of death | Photo: id-iom, CC BY-NC 2.0 (Flickr)

What’s slightly concerning is that Louis looks a bit rotten. He of course had always been rotten inside, questioning the authorities like God and his namesake, the King of France. But now it seems that his bad temper has caught up with him in a most horrific way.

Hell, Louis is going to be fine. He is a grown up. What you don’t see, however, is how Louis is dumped in a sewer a couple of blocks away, where he is left to sink with the city’s excrement.

The same evening you feel slightly under the weather, but it’s probably your wife Heloise’s awful undercooked horse meat. And a few days after you yourself take a plunge in the faeces.

This story is actually real. It depicts the last days in the short and unpleasant life of Louis CK, a citizen of one of Marseille’s bidonvilles who experienced the onslaught of the Black Death in 1720.

Divine retribution

Marseille before the plague | Photo: Jean-Marc Bilquez , CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

You may ask yourself how the hullabaloo started. Well, multiple reasons. But mostly divine retribution. High society had become too licentious, indulging in assorted ungodly activities, such as attending theatre, reading poetry or otherwise engaging in the arts.

While such unspeakable acts had been mainly reported in Paris, the poison had already trickled down to Marseille’s merchant circles, where many decent folks, hitherto devoutly incestuous, had succumbed to knowledge and rational thought.

Such sentiments had even infiltrated the local clergy, who had started resenting, rather than enjoying the paganism and bestiality of their parishioners. They did not like the upper clergy either, whom they considered hoity-toity dunces, having developed similar forward-looking attitudes towards the nobility.

While such unspeakable acts had been mainly reported in Paris, the poison had already trickled down to Marseille’s merchant circles, where many decent folks, hitherto devoutly incestuous, had succumbed to knowledge and rational thought.


The latter also did not have many fans among the bourgeoisie, who grew increasingly disgruntled with paying the bill for a rapidly swelling list of excesses. Golden members, virgins’ blood, private torture chambers, every time the bourgeois received the bill they cried like babies. On their end, the nobility did not like anybody that did not believe in total freedom from the daily trivialities of the commoners, income generation in particular.

All in all, nobody seemed to like anybody at the time. This eventually infuriated God to the point where he decided to take a vacation and leave the rudder to Luci, his demented cousin. Luci, a benign idiot afflicted with constant bad luck, mixed up something and instead of making sure that the citizens of Marseille get together, killed them.

Corpses

In a matter of days after the ship Saint Claire docked at the port of Marseille in 1720, hundreds of the city’s residents died of stupidity. About six hundred attended a pagan ritual featuring jumping over an open fire. Needless to say, many turned quite susceptible to the devil’s designs and burned like stacks of hay.

They are giving away salami in the bidonville | Photo: torbakhopper, CC BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

Another hundred drunk a liquid sold by a passing merchant, presented as ambrosia. In retrospect, nobody knew who the vile creature was, and they could have probably figured something was odd by the way his flesh was dropping in huge chunks. Most certainly a charlatan, magician or a vaudeville artist. A third batch followed a fairy in the forest and got eaten by ghouls, as the local medicine man said.

But this is not an account of those misfortunes. It is a diary of the events that led do the fast and relentless advance of the Black Death in the city, levelling it in less than two years.

However, Marseille’s plague control program, featuring a Sanitation Board and three-tiered quarantine system, was no match for the sweet smell of money coming from the precious cargo of her ship…

The story is more or less the following: a vampire descended on Marseille, attracted by the weather and the lawlessness. She was quarantined, as the fashion was in those days.

However, Marseille’s plague control program, featuring a Sanitation Board and three-tiered quarantine system, was no match for the sweet smell of money coming from the precious cargo of her ship (pieces of cloth and other trinkets from foreign lands). Enchanted, the local merchants pushed for her to be released.

Mere days after the vampire landed, she spread pestilence in the form of crabs among the pious and the lascivious alike. We are not exactly sure how it happened with the former.

Regardless, soon those that had been in close contact started rotting like pears. Within a month the corpses piled up. This was quite something for a city, the name of which signifies fever.

Solution

While local authorities in Marseille were busy confirming the disease was only a slight malaise, the provincial parliament got slightly itchy over its spread. The savants of the day gathered and mused over how to stop the plague.

Healthcare authorities | Photo: Al Case, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

“Plague” pondered the wise, ‘is something associated with living organisms”. “If those don’t move the plague does not move”. “In fact,” they thought, “it is not entirely certain whether the plague and the pheasants are not one and the same”.

The solution was therefore extremely easy – build a wall, set troops of heavily armed men to guard it and shoot on meat if somebody even looks in this direction. An efficient tactic that has withstood the test of time. That was not the only social consequence of the Black Death. Many achievements of humanity, including biological warfare and neoliberalism, were based on Europe’s early experiences with the disease.

The solution was therefore extremely easy – build a wall, set troops of heavily armed men to guard it and shoot on meat if somebody even looks in this direction. An efficient tactic that has withstood the test of time. 

Marshmallow man

The last word, however, always goes to the heroes. In this case, this is someone named Aix. Aix, a provincial aristocrat, was famous for his hedonism. When the disease broke, he swiftly sought gateway to his out-of-town mansion in the Provence, sending multiple carriages full of the finest food, drinks, jewellery, and sex slaves ahead of him.

Unbeknownst to Aix, the goons had set up a fence overnight, blocking his way to freedom. When he arrived at the border there was no sign of his convoy. Moreover, all his efforts to bribe the guards proved futile. Disillusioned and low on cash, Aix tried to commit suicide by throwing himself into the sea, which he survived, and into the arms of another man, which he barely survived.

Eventually, Aix came to the painful conclusion that he might just as well do something worse than death, like helping the peasants or the poor. He used his connections to set up a food distribution chain, organised checkpoints in the city’s neighbourhoods and helped dig mass graves for the decomposing. All of this had its effects on the aristocrat’s mind, which snapped right after he got the disease and survived.

Aix started drinking heavily, his face gradually swelling like a bloodshot marshmallow. At some point, he travelled to the New World, where he survived several waves of the plague, all types of fever, snake bites and taxation. That’s the kind of man Aix is.

Marshmallow man | Photo: David Goehring, CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Cover photo: Ashley Van Haeften, CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

  • retro

    Alex is Bulgarian and is currently stationed in Poland. He did Politics & Security at University College London and specialised at Charles University in Prague for a year. He is an analyst with interests in the region of Central and Eastern Europe.

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