I was asked a post about the plague in France. I’m not a medievalist or a specialist about the epidemy, so if anyone has remarks or wants to add something, feel free to do so.
The plague arrived in France in November 1347, in Marseilles. The Kingdom was already dealing with some hardships at that period: the harvests around 1310-15 were disastrous because of a large amount of rain, and since 1337, France was at war with England.
The epidemy spread following the rivers : between February and May 1348, Narbonne, Montpellier, and Carcassone were touched, Toulouse in April 1348, Agen a month later; between June and August, the plague reached Bordeaux, Lyon, and Paris, then Burgundy, Normandy… Close to France, some region were spared : Navarre, and some in the actual Belgium.
Touching indistictely children and adults, it is estimated that the epidemy caused the death of around half of the European population. But that number varies, depending of the regions. In Normandy, Dauphiné, or Provence, the estimation is around 60% of the population. In Burgundy, in the town of Givry, the priest noticed that instead of burying around 30 people per year as he was used to, he registered 649 deaths in 1348. In the parish of Saint Germain l’Auxerrois, the biggest in Paris, 3116 deaths were registered between the 25th of April 1349 and the 20th of June 1350. The epidemy also touched any social class : for exemple Bonne de Luxembourg, wife of the future King Jean II le Bon died in 1349.
The epidemy came back later in the century (1360-62; 1366-69; 1374-75; 1400; 1407…)
Doctors were unable to find the cause of disease. Some blamed it on the corrumption of air, provoqued by a conjonction of the planets (according to the Paris Consilium, a comittee from the University of Paris, when asked by King Philippe VI). The will to find culprits aroused attacks against foreigners, clerics, or even beggars. The image of beggars changed : from the ones living as Jesus commanded, they became responsible from spreading the disease and were evicted. Jews suffered persecutions. I know Strasbourg wasn’t French at the period, but for exemple, around 900 Jews were burnt in the city on the 14th of February 1349. 40 Jews were burnt in Toulon in April 1348.
Technics to prevent the spread of the diseased appeared (quarantine, desinfection) but since rats were the vector of the plague, it wasn’t enough. Some people fled their home to avoid the epidemy; complete desertion of villages/towns occured for 2000 villages in France.
To protect themselves, people increased their devotion to protective figures of the Saints, such as Saint Sebastian, Saint Louis or, after the 15th century, Saint Roch, but also of the Virgin Mary. Prayers, processions, or supplications increased. In Rouen, gaming, alcohol, and swearing were forbidden. The fear of death increased, and this preoccupation was reflected through art. For exemple, the Danse Macabre embodies equality of men in front of death as well as the anxiety it caused. The relationship with death changes : before the Plague, the dead would be mourned by their family; now they could be buried in common graves without any one to accompagny them.
The epidemy transformed the society. The death of farmers enabled some lords to increase the size of their own lands. Livestock farming also increased. The population in towns didn’t lower as much as in the countryside as they welcomed refugees; and the death of workers increased the salary. The moving of population provoked a rise of violence and delinquency.