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The Black Death in Brittany

Unprecedented is a word that we have all heard many times since the scale of the current coronavirus disease pandemic became apparent. The authorities and the media talk of an “exceptional situation” a “unique threat” that is “unheard of in our country”. However, throughout our recorded history, contagions, epidemics and pandemics have been a regular feature of all human societies and often a source of instability and catalyst for change therein. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves of the magnitude of some earlier disease events and the resilience of societies when confronted with biological catastrophe.

Pandemics, such as the one we are currently enduring, have always been part of humanity’s lot; it is simply that it has, mercifully, been some time since we last experienced such a deadly outbreak. Perhaps the most infamous pandemic event and one that still holds a place in the popular imagination is the Black Death of the Middle Ages; a pandemic of bubonic plague that swept across the Near East, North Africa and Europe between 1347 and 1352. This was the first of a number of recurring plague epidemics between the 14th and 18th centuries known as the Second Plague Pandemic; the First Plague Pandemic having occurred in the 6th through to the 8th centuries.

Bubonic plague

Bubonic plague is a devastating disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that circulates among wild rodents. Plague among humans arises when rodents, such as black rats, become infected. Once infected, it can take up to a fortnight before plague has stricken off an entire infected rat colony, making it difficult for the large number of fleas gathered on the remaining dying rats to find new hosts. After three days without blood, the hungry fleas turn to whatever hosts they can find and the infection is transmitted after a flea that has fed from an infected rat then bites a human.

From the bite site, the contagion spreads through the bloodstream to the lymph nodes, where the bacteria replicate, causing the nodes to swell to form buboes or painful tumours as big as an egg in the armpits, groin, neck or thighs. Victims initially manifested symptoms similar to influenza but the appearance of these buboes, which often suppurated and haemorrhaged, would typically have been quickly followed by gastro-intestinal problems, continuous vomiting of blood, gangrene of the extremities and the severe pain brought on by necrosis. The plague delivered a truly terrible way to die; delirium and death finally overtaking the victim within another three to five days. Estimates vary as to the mortality rates of those that caught the plague in the Middle Ages but even a figure of 75 per cent might be an understatement.

The Black Death

The plague was a very virulent and fast moving disease; from the introduction of plague contagion among rats in a human community, it could take just over three weeks before the first human death. The infected fleas travelled great distances, relatively swiftly, on rats aboard ships that plied the trade routes of the Mediterranean littoral and northern Europe. Once ashore, the fleas could find a host travelling inland and so the disease quickly spread exponentially. Even once the initial host had died, the fleas could live for up to a year, transmitting the disease from one generation of fleas to the next and laying up to fifty eggs per day, every day. Additionally, plague bacteria can sometimes spread to the lungs and cause a variant of plague (pneumonic plague) that is spread by infected droplets inhaled from the cough and sneezes of victims.

The plague first reached France, via the southern port of Marseilles, towards the end of September 1347 and quickly spread from this important commercial hub; northwards up the Rhône valley to Lyons and westwards along the coast to Spain. Ships from Bordeaux likely carried infected rats to Normandy where the plague arrived in April 1348 before reaching Brittany towards the end of that year.

Medieval plague

At the time of the arrival of the Black Death in Europe, it is believed that some 90 per cent of the continent’s population were rural dwellers, powerless to act in the face of the deadly onslaught of the plague. Accounts regarding the impact of the Black Death in Brittany are very scarce as its arrival coincided with the Breton War of Succession (1341–1364) but historians have discovered a remarkable consistency in mortality levels across Europe during the plague years. Recent estimates suggest that between 50 to 60 per cent of the population of Europe died as a result of the Black Death – a staggering 50 million people. After centuries of land clearance and population growth, hundreds of villages suddenly became virtual ghost towns and were abandoned to be reclaimed by nature.

The plague seems to have gradually diminished after 1353, spreading east of the Volga river and towards the Caspian Sea where it likely originated seven years earlier. However, the plague did not extinguish itself completely, the causal bacteria continued to leap across to humans and strike the people of Europe and beyond once or twice a generation for centuries. Few of the later outbreaks in this Second Plague Pandemic were as devastating as the Black Death but nonetheless are thought to have killed between ten to twenty per cent of the population with each deadly revisit.

The plague (vossen in Breton) returned to Brittany in 1404 and every decade of that century saw periodic outbreaks across the country with over a hundred outbreaks recorded between the years 1478-84 alone. In 1485, the last undisputed ruler of independent Brittany, Duke François II, created the post of Médecin des Épidémies (Doctor of Epidemics) based on the earlier models of specialist doctors created by the Pope and the King of France; the disease was still poorly understood and the medical establishment of the day struggled hard with how best to prevent its arrival and spread in their communities.

Cholera epidemics

In time, the people became accustomed to living with the menace of the plague; it was now the new reality, the new norm. Prayers were widely offered to the 3rd century martyr Saint Sebastian who was held to possess the power to intercede to protect people from plague and special processions seeking his favour are recorded in several Breton towns particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries. The 14th century Saint Roch was also popularly prayed to here in times of plague.

Periodic epidemics of the plague remained a constant feature of life in Brittany throughout the 16th century; in 1501-02 over 4000 people fell mortal victims in the city of Nantes alone and there were further outbreaks recorded in 1514-19, 1522-23, 1529-30, 1563-65 and 1567-70. In 1582-84, the plague made a deadly appearance in both the northern and southern parts of the region with the areas around the towns of Dinan, Dol-de-Bretagne, Nantes, Rennes and Saint-Malo being particularly hard hit. Towards the end of 1583, the authorities closed the busy port of Saint-Malo to shipping and banned foreigners from the city.

At the same time, in the southern city of Nantes, the authorities ordered, under penalty of a fine, that inhabitants clear the pavement outside their dwellings daily. The city authorities also ordered the establishment of new latrines and a more systematic clearing of the old cess pits. Other public heath ordnances were also issued: regular fires were lit at crossroads to purify the air; plague-stricken houses would be cleaned; the sick were instructed to always carry a white stick to mark their presence and their clothes marked, front and back, with a white cross.

Doctors and surgeons were also required to carry a white stick warning of their presence while out in the streets visiting the sick. Initially, the sick were taken to the lazarette or quarantine station, established outside the city walls during the previous epidemic in 1569, but this became too over-crowded even by 16th century standards. The white cross was also used in the city of Saint-Malo in 1584 and was daubed on the doors of contaminated houses as a sign prohibiting anyone from leaving or entering in order to limit the contagion.

Dead lying in streets

The plague continued to spread through Brittany in the early 17th century; in June 1598, the north coast town of Morlaix was struck; in July and August over 300 people died in the central Brittany town of Pontivy. In September 1598 the people of the city of Saint-Brieuc were prohibited from trading with the nearby (just 7 miles/10km) town of Châtelaudren in an effort to stop the disease reaching their city. However, the city’s attempts at self-isolation ultimately failed and the city was ravaged in 1601-02, as was Lannion. At the time, many people thought that the plague was caused and spread by a miasma or bad air thus many people left their homes once the plague struck their city. Such a movement of people, of course, accelerated the spread of the disease and with the benefit of hindsight we should not be surprised to note the plague’s return in less than five years.

The south of the region was also hit by small localised outbreaks of the plague in the same year; the town of Quimper, still recovering from the loss of 1,700 people to an epidemic in 1594, was struck again in 1598 when about a third of the population were thought to have perished.  There followed a relative respite for some twenty years before the plague re-appeared with an increased intensity.

the plague doctor
17th century Plague Doctor

In 1622, the Parlement of Brittany imposed a state of quarantine on Saint-Malo and three weeks of isolation were imposed on all people suspected of contracting the plague; it also ordered a ban on children from Saint-Malo, Saint-Brieuc, Dinan and Dol from entering the Breton capital Rennes (itself ravaged by plague from 1624 to 1632). An outbreak of plague in the south coast town of Port Louis in 1623 resulted in the nearby and more populous town of Auray imposing a state of quarantine; fishermen were banned from visiting or trading and people arriving by land were firstly held in isolation for three weeks. The authorities ordered the destruction of all stray animals; pigs and pigeons being specifically subject to strict confinement (previously pigs had been free to roam the streets foraging for scraps). Citizens were also ordered to keep the pavement outside their dwellings clean with harsh punishments for the lackadaisical.

Despite these efforts, records show that the plague struck two of the communes surrounding the town in 1630 before later breaking into the town and striking into all surrounding communes. As in other towns hit by the plague, large bonfires were regularly lit in the streets in an attempt to purify the air. This was also done in nearby Vannes where, in the same year, the authorities levied a small tax to pay for the removal of the city’s rubbish and transport it to offshore mudflats. In Auray, a lazarette was established outside the town and a rudimentary medical service organised by the local Capuchin community. Records indicate that the sanitary cordon around Auray was still in force in 1633.

Plague in Brittany

Further along the east coast, the people of the city of Vannes also suffered significantly during the plague epidemics of this time, particularly in 1625, 1634 and 1638. To the west, the town of Quimper recorded scores of deaths in 1639; while, still further along the east coast, Nantes was hard hit by the disease in 1625-26 and 1631 and by this time, plague victims were no longer allowed to be buried within the precincts of the city.

One of the last appearances of the plague in Brittany was in Pontivy in 1696. Attesting to the importance of river traffic at the time, it is possible to track the spread of the disease down the course of the river Blavet to its mouth at Hennebont. Here in the summer of 1699, the plague claimed half a dozen people every day. With no medical solution to halt the spread of the disease, the townsfolk sought divine intervention and prayed to the Virgin to end the epidemic; committing to create a silver statue and undertake an annual procession in her honour (they had similarly promised to build a chapel in honour of Saint Roch during the epidemic of the early 1630s but this was never realised!).

The Wish of Hennebont
Henri-François Mulard : The Wish of Hennebont

It has been noted that instances of the disease in the town decreased rapidly after the town’s wish was announced, disappearing entirely by September 1700. To honour their pledge, the people of Hennebont commissioned the statue and inaugurated the public procession of thanks. Unfortunately, the statue was melted-down during the Revolution but it is today possible to see a substitute statue and participate in the procession held on the last Sunday in September.  

The plague of Marseilles in 1720-1721, which resulted in some 87,000 deaths, is considered to be the last major plague outbreak in Western Europe but cases are still regularly reported in other parts of the world even today. The impact of almost four hundred years of intermittent but deadly plague outbreaks changed Europe forever; demographically, politically and economically. Equally profound were the changed mentalities brought about by the plague and other infectious diseases; governments and the governed appreciated the importance of public health and hygiene programmes, particularly effective sanitary measures.  

While the plague and its dreadful death toll might have been consigned to history, other diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, smallpox, measles and influenza, were responsible for extraordinary devastation in Brittany. In the 18th and 19th centuries, increases in population density, transport infrastructure and mercantile links were all key factors in giving diseases spread by cross-infection between humans powers of spread far greater than those seen in previous centuries.

It is too early to see where the current coronavirus disease pandemic will sit amongst the long history of pandemics but it is clear that the social and economic impact will be profound.


Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

94 thoughts on “The Black Death in Brittany

  1. Exceptional research!
    “Yet, despite the massive leaps in medicine, infectious diseases have been controlled rather than conquered; they remain a threat that can never be truly extinguished.” I agree; we have yet to imagine the far-reaching effects of the current plague. Humanity cannot indulge in complacency.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you very much! Agreed, we have become to think of ourselves as the dominant force on the planet but there are about 400 human pathogens and new ones added all the time as we encroach ever further into the wilds.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank You!!! I’m glad you enjoyed it. As for the images, I tried to use ones that were contemporary to the events described. Photos of these diseases can be found online but I deliberately steered clear.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Now I know something about bubonic plague and cholera. Although reading this post has made me do some reflections, it’s hard not to mention some interesting facts like the name of the first person to identify waterborne microbes as the culprit of cholera (John Snow) and the mythical being (Red Woman) because both of them resemble the names of two characters of the Game of Thrones.

    Thanks for sharing this thing. It encourages me to learn more about the history of plagues and diseases. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This was utterly fascinating – I had no idea that Brittany had so many pestilences over the centuries. This pandemic seems much less bad than Bubonic plague but we all grieve the recent deaths, nonetheless. Keep well and safe.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I think my great grandparents died in England from the Spanish Flu in 1918. My grandmother would never talk about their deaths and looked after her younger siblings. Au revoir!

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Wow! The research that went into this is quite extensive and brilliantly put together into this amazing piece. It is eye opening and proves just how little we are truly aware of when it comes to ‘the unseen’ What is profound is that for a majority or all of these ‘plagues’ we see a common control measure, proper hygiene. Honestly coming from Africa this is one of the critical areas that we take for granted. I hope this changes! Thank you for this piece!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for such kind words!! I am really pleased that you found it interesting! Agreed, we now know that effective and systematic public hygiene and sanitation. A painful lesson and the world is still learning it 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Well researched! I found it quite informative and eye opening in the sense that people have always have been fighting different pandemics. Gives hope that though it might be tough, with current research and technology we might overcome this current one

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, what a well written and fascinating read. I have never really studied the history of all these diseases and their paths throughout history. This was truly fascinating and I appreciate the education. I think we can see that although we live in better conditions and many of us have access to great health care, none of us are ever completely safe. Thank you so much for taking the time to put this incredibly interesting timeline of infectious diseases together. Stay safe and blessed. Love 💕 Joni

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many, many thanks for such feedback – it’s really appreciated! I am glad that you found it interesting. You are right, we have become kinda complacent about infectious diseases as it’s been, thankfully, so long since the last real global pandemic. Hopefully, there’s light at the end of this particular tunnel soon! Stay Safe!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you for this excellent outline and for personal finding contemporary images: a generous choice. I’m left thinking how lucky we are to have the science to understand this new coronavirus– one day. And that rats and fleas are not involved: try ordering them to maintain social distancing!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s a really kind thing to say! Thank you – it’s much appreciated and I’m glad you enjoyed the read. Yes, despite today’s challenges, we live in a world that has defeated so many diseases that, just a few generations ago, were so deadly.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Absolutely fascinating and such a good read augmented by the great library of illustrations. I’m now going to have to read it all again and take more in! Incidentally just after we were trekking in Kyrgyzstan (2013) (My blog “Tuz Ashuu to Tash Rabat”) someone in the area where we had been, died of Bubonic Plague thought to have been caught from a marmot he had barbecued!
    Thank you so much…. now back to the beginning!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much! I am pleased that you enjoyed the read! Yes, it’s surprising that a disease we seem to associate with the Middle Ages continues to take lives even today! Stay Well.


  8. Such an interesting and timely post. Your research is incredible. This modern day plague may be new to us but certainly not to humankind. My background is German and I have visited the country many times. One of my strongest memories from childhood is visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber and learning about the Black Plague. Many years later, I took my young son there and we went on an amazing “night tour” led by a man dressed in night watchman period attire. He regaled us with all sorts of fascinating and horrifying tales of the plague. I’ve thought back to those visits over the last few months. Thankfully our knowledge about these diseases and medicine have improved since then.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am pleased that you found it of interest. Agreed, while we learn of past epidemics we don’t seem to really grasp the massive and ongoing impact they had. Some of the numbers of fatalities involved are just mind-numbing 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Love love love this works so well written to see the other historical epidemics this is also a reminder that the hardships of the past are nothing to what our ancestors endured thank you

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I try and imagine what living in those times was like and feel so blessed that we at least have shelter sustenance water and life so much more than they did so blessed and your piece reminds me of these blessings in such adverse times thanks again the universe it always answers 🧚‍♀️☮️💫

        Liked by 1 person

  10. It’s interesting to see the evolution of enforcement particularly in the 17th century with quarantine and self-isolation measures. Perhaps we could have learned from the city that didn’t self-isolate. Though I do think that, more recently, it was to curb population growth. Interesting read, thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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