The Plague (La Peste) arrived in Gaul for the first time in the year 543, probably via Marseilles. This first visitation was only a preview of the famous "black death" that was to follow.
In 1346 The Plague arrived in Marseilles, on a boat from the Middle East. The plague devastated Europe, killing 25 million people. The survivors fled the villages, defenseless against this agressor, and left them abandoned for a century and a half. (The word quarantine came from the Italian, to describe the 40-day period boats arriving at Venice had to wait before passengers could disembark.
Between 1451 and 1503, seven epidemics of The Plague wiped out two-thirds of the population of Sisteron.
During the middle of the 16th century, the cause of the plague was still completely unknown. One common "method" used was blood letting. This, however, tended to weaken the patients even more, and had the added effect of infecting the doctors and medical staff with the desease. It was during this time that Nostradamus was having a renowned success treating plague victims, using such controversial methods as cleanliness.
An epidemic of The Plague in 1588-1589 and 1629 caused widespread death in a number of Provencal villages, including Mazan in the Vaucluse. In Cairanne, another Vaucluse village, a chapel was built outside the protective village walls expressly to house the plague victims and protect the rest of the population.
The Great Plague, 1720 occured in the early 18th century. A ship from Syria landed at Marseilles, with several known cases of the plague on board. At that time, Marseilles was a very important port. It had a huge stock of imported goods in its warehouses, partly from its trade monopoly with the Levant, and was preparing to begin trading with the New World and the West Indies.
Upon arrival, the ship's captain informed the port authorities of the onboard sickness. Powerful city merchants, who wanted the silk and [cotton] to trade at the great medieval fair at Beaucaire (beside Tarascon, above Arles) influenced the authorities to lift the quarantine.
The epidemic broke out in the city in just a few days. The hospitals were quickly overwhelmed, and people panicked, with families driving the sick from their homes. Mass graves were dug, but when the number of dying overcame the number of galley slaves available to carry the bodies, they lay where they fell, until thousands of corpses lay scattered and in piles around the city.
Walling off Provence
One great, and ultimately futile, project to protect part of Provence from the plague was to wall it off. To this end, dry-stone walls (called murs de la peste) were built across the Provencal countryside. Vestiges of the mur de la peste can be seen in the garrigue near the village of Murs, but the remaining walls are now very low, not like the restored wall in the photo at the top of this page.