Early Epidemics in France

Early Epidemics: the Plague — the Black Death

When people think about early epidemics in France, the plague — the Black Death — is the first that usually springs to mind. It arrived in Europe — Genoa to be precise — in 1348. By 1350 it has killed from ⅓ to ½ the population of Europe. It forever changed the economy as cheap peasant labour disappeared. A century later, the population of France had not yet returned to pre-epidemic levels. 

Death stalking a plague victim
Death stalking a plague victim

To the people of the time, the cause of its spread was a mystery. Most believed it was a punishment from God. Whole communities died. The disease was no respecter of social class. People believed that the best cure was to flee from any place where anyone showed symptoms and to refuse entry to newcomers. Those who could [primarily the rich who had more than one home and the means of transportation] fled areas struck with the contagion. [Self-isolation in other words.] 

But this was by no means the first or the last pandemic. And the plague was only one of the epidemic diseases. Syphilis —the Great Pox— entered Naples in 1493 or 1494 and spread through Europe as a result of the Italian Wars. Leprosy existed at epidemic levels and periodic outbreaks of smallpox decimated the population. During this age of faith, the Church started to provide limited public health services — some Lazar houses and hospitals for the poor, for example.

The Influenza Epidemic of 1510

Nor is Influenza new as an epidemic; in 1510 it swept Europe. France was badly hit during the summer. Here is how one observer of the time described its symptoms. 

It is an illness that lasts three days with a great fever, and headache and then they [sufferers] rise…but there remains a terrible cough that lasts maybe eight days, and then little by little, they recover and generally do not perish. It appears in the entire Kingdom of France, as much in the towns as in the countryside. 

Jean Bouchet, Les annales Daquitaine (1535)

The mortality rate has been calculated from various sources to have been in the neighbourhood of 1%.

Disease and the Theory of Humours

Renaissance medicine, although beginning to develop the concept of investigation, still operated on the theory of the four humours. They were: sanguinary, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic. A substance represented each humour: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. So did an element; air, fire, earth, or water. These Greco-Roman era concepts influenced treatment decisions that aimed at eliminating the excess humour believed to be causing the disease. Treatment was based on the principle of opposites. Thus, if the superabundance of the choleric humour caused the disease, the treatment was bloodletting. The specific type of choleric disease determined where on the body the bloodletting should occur.

Not everyone still agreed with this system. Ambrose Paré, physicians to four French kings in the mid-16th century, claimed that, “neither bleeding nor purgation was otherwise of assistance in the rheumatism, but that all who adopted such agents for use were placed in mortal danger.”

Causes of the 1510 Influenza Epidemic 

Pope Julius II (1443–1513) blasted the traditional thunder about the cause of the epidemic: God was venting His wrath upon the enemies of His Church. Since the notion of infection was still almost non-existent, and because the Pope was particularly incensed against King Louis XII over his role in the Italian Wars, the 1510 outbreak in France was well-timed to align with his views. 

Anne of Brittany and the 1510 Epidemic

It must have been a terrible time for Anne of Brittany, Queen of France. Pope Julius was threatening to place all France under interdict. Devout herself, she was terribly concerned about the risk her husband was taking for himself and for all Frenchmen as he defied the Pope. Moreover, she was heavily pregnant again [her daughter, Renée, was born in October 1510] and 10 of her 12 previous pregnancies had resulted in children who had died shortly after birth. She refused to allow the Breton Church to join her husband’s defiance of the Roman Church. Moreover, she sent Breton churchmen to Rome to negotiate a resolution between the French and the Papal positions.

She had good reasons for her fear. In 1494 when her then-husband, King Charles, invaded Italy, she went to live with his sister until he returned in November 1495, leaving her only child and son, the dauphin Charles Orland in Amboise. He was only 18 months old and she missed him sorely. In September 1495, smallpox broke out in the town of Amboise and the castle where Charles-Orland lived was sealed from all contact with the town. As the disease raged, Queen Anne lived in a state of anxiety. As soon as the king returned, she urged they journey immediately to Amboise but they tarried in Lyon.

In mid-December, a courier arrived with the news that Dauphin Charles-Orland had died on December 6.  He was just over three years old. The queen was devastated. His death changed the course of French history, for she did not have another living son with either Charles or Louis. 

Later Influenza Epidemics in 16th-Century France

Two more influenza epidemics in 1557 and 1580 followed. With the spread of the printing press, increasing numbers of physicians published their documented observations of the disease and their treatments of it. This resulted in an explosion of communication and knowledge. Before the end of the 16th-century, influenza was recognized as a specific disease. Endemic in the nation, it appeared from time to time in epidemic form. Indeed, 16th-century chroniclers recorded its moderate mortality rate in the very young, the elderly, in pregnant women, and in the infirm.

Further Reading

Eyewitness accounts of the 1510 influenza pandemic in Europe

Anne de Bretagne, Hervé le Boterf, [Editions France Empire, Paris, 1976]

The Fifteenth Century XII: Society in an Age of Plague, eds. Linda Clark and Carol Rawcliffe, 1st Edition. [BOYE6, August  2013]

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