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Keeping Track

Building a Wall

Saint Roch, patron saint of the Plague, by Saraceni

Near where I live in Provence, in 1721 they decided to build a wall to protect themselves from the bubonic plague. On my hike to see the vestiges of the 27 kilometers long plague wall, I couldn’t help but think about other walls that may be built with the hope to keep evil out. I don’t blame them for wanting to build it.

From the 14th to 18th centuries Europe was hit by a succession of devastating plagues. By many estimates over half of Europe’s population perished in these terrifying epidemics. This one arrived in May 1720 on a boat carrying silks into the Port of Marseille. Though there had been a few deaths of crew members before the vessel landed, the strength of the merchant lobby was such that the cargo was released from quarantine and allowed to be carried to markets. An example of how even the threat of plague cannot stop greed.

On a windy Sunday, I joined a lecture-walk with our village’s historical society along the wall, led by Jean-Marc Azorin, a historian with a passionate knowledge of the period and a shock of bushy hair and eyebrows that punctuated his enthusiasm. He began by reading a letter from a doctor in Marseille that opened with a description of a total solar eclipse. The message was clear: God was furious. Then the doctor described the carnage and panic. Within weeks of the boat’s release from quarantine, the hospitals were overwhelmed and the mass graves were full. The illness struck poor and wealthy alike and most died within one or two days. The bodies piled so high no one dared clear them away. Slaves on galley ships were given their freedom if they agreed to do this task. And of course after handling the putrid corpses, they too died. Before its end, the plague would kill over half the city’s population. By late September of the same year the plague had traveled north at an estimated speed of 8 miles a day to nearby Apt and Carpentra.

There are still questions about why the plagues of these centuries were so virulent and spread so fast. The cause has been traced using DNA evidence from mass graves to fleas on rodents carrying the Yersinia pestis bacteria, but many in the field of epidemiology believe the plague that started as bubonic, spread by fleas, quickly became pneumonic and thus spread in the air. Poor heath and sanitation, crowded conditions and the general malnutrition of the population in the Middle Ages contributed to the high mortality rates.

The true causes of the disease were unknown at that time, but there were basic notions of contamination. What was understood was that plague came from outside, from people who brought it with them. It could be carried in objects and fabrics. The fur of cats somehow contained the plague. Doctors found that if they dressed in a long coat coated in wax they would be somewhat protected. And they wore beaked masks where they placed sponges soaked in vinegar and aromatic plants to protect them from the smell. Most importantly, strangers were to be avoided and even killed.

A concoction called vinaigre de quatre voleurs (four thieves vinegar) was used as an antiseptic and preventative. The story goes that four thieves robbing the bodies of plague victims were caught and when asked how they were able to protect themselves they revealed their recipe: vinegar in which aromatic and medicinal plants had been steeped for several months. These plants: wormwood, rosemary, sage, mint, rue, lavender, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, garlic, and camphor do indeed have antiseptic properties. And I know from my own exasperating experience as a mother fighting head lice in my children, lavender oil is a pleasant flea repellant. During periods of plague, vinegar was essential in the work of containment, for example Azorin explained that in any trade before money changed hands, it was first dumped into a vat of vinegar to clean it. There are records that the pharmacist in our village of Menerbes made and sold large quantities to the neighboring villages.

Strangers brought the plague, but the other cause came from within the human soul: sin itself. It was God’s punishment. Such a fierce wrath refocused attention to spiritual health and ars moriendi: the importance of achieving a good death. Two saints emerge as central to the plague pantheon, Saint Sebastian and Saint Roch. Saint Sebastian is often portrayed tied to a tree or cross and punctured with many arrows. The use of arrows to symbolize pestilence dates back to classical mythology and the idea of the divine archer delivering punishment, for our sins, just as cupid stings us with love, for our foolishness. As early as the 7th century, Sebastian’s arrows were often seen as pointing or marking where on the body the buboes, or the bubonic plague’s signature puss boils (where the bacteria localized in inflamed lymph nodes) would appear. Along with being the patron saint of archers and pin makers, Sebastian was made the patron saint of plagues.

Saint Roch’s story emerges later in the 14th century when he himself fell ill with the plague. He retreated to a cave to save others from infection, was healed by an angel and by a dog who would bring him daily bread. Saint Roch is a survivor story and he’s portrayed with his loyal dog by his side as he lifts his robe to show the buboe scar on his upper thigh.

Saint Sebastian is often portrayed scantily clothed. A favorite subject of the Renaissance, he was no longer rendered as a brutish old soldier resisting the Roman General but as a lithesome youth transfixed by suffering as he gazes upwards in a kind of sexual spiritual ecstasy. Saint Sebastian is central in homoerotic iconography, a role that becomes even more charged with the AIDS/HIV epidemic. During the Reformation he was seen as too revealing, even perhaps hinting at the cause of the plague, the sinful sodomist, and images of him were removed from public view in many churches. The more modest Saint Roch, just showing his thigh, takes his place. And later, by the 1700’s the villagers in Menerbes turned to the ever-modest Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede on their behalf. If she would save them from the plague, they will build her a chapel.

But before they make promises to her, and before our pharmacist goes to work mixing his vinegar concoction, we learned from Azorin, our village was concerned with other things. In 1720 with the plague approaching at a pace of eight miles a day, the citizens of Menerbes spent a town meeting discussing how much a farmer should be paid for having killed a wolf who was menacing the local sheep. Gradually news of the threat grew and in concert with neighboring villages efforts were made to post soldiers along the mountain border to keep strangers out. People fleeing infected cities were bringing the illness with them.

In order to travel you had to carry a billet de santé, a clean bill of health, and you were not allowed to deviate from your prescribed route. If you visited your family in a contaminated village you could be subjected to the estrapade—hung from your hands tied behind your back until they completely dislocated and then dropped from a great height.

Despite the risks of being caught, it soon became clear that no amount of border guards could keep potentially contaminated people from sneaking in and out. So it was decided to build a wall. The politics of the wall are fascinating and the questions surprisingly familiar: who would build it, who would pay for it, and where exactly would it go? Our walk lasted four hours, so our guide treated us to the complicated political machinations of drawing boundary lines at that time when there was not a unified France as we know it. Menerbes and the valley of the Luberon were called the Comtat Venaisson and not part of the royal lands though highly dependent on the Pope and the king for trade. If your village did not fall within the protection of the proposed wall you would no longer be allowed to trade and your village would likely starve to death.

Villages clambered to be included, borders were pushed and adjusted. There volumes of letters that describe the feverish efforts for influence including lavish dinner parties, bribes and even offers of marriage. Villages were forced to provide free laborers to build the wall. Poor peasants who already had no spare time in their days from feeding their families balked at working for free. And of course there was the problem of who would guard the wall, and who would pay for the border guards? Special taxes and fines were threatened.

In the end, Menerbes was to be banished from the protected area, spelling doom for our village, except for one thing: before the wall was actually completed, the plague, ignoring man-made boundaries made its way through the southern border along the Durance River by boat into Avignon. The wall was a complete failure, a waste of money, and as would soon become clear to locals, a power grab by the king.

Since we know about antibiotics and germ theory, it sounds quaint to build a wall to keep the plague out. Perhaps some day it will seem equally quaint to think a wall, or taking off our shoes at the airport, or blocking refugees at our borders, can protect us from terrorism. I understand the fear and longing for the simplistic solution of a wall but one need only look at all the failed walls of history to know they don’t work. I remember as a young parent I wanted desperately to be able to protect my children when they went out into the world. But there came a moment when their protection, such as it was, could only come finally from what I may have taught them, from what they would carry within them.

Remember to wash your hands, look both ways, listen carefully, don’t pick a fight when you’re hungry or tired, be kind, cherish laughter and friendship, don’t be afraid to ask for help or to help the suffering, stay curious, generous, open-minded but use good judgment. And don’t forget to thank your lucky stars.

At the end of our walk we stood in the sun and mistral wind and listened to Azorin recount the final chapter. The lack of a reliable census of the population makes it hard to know exactly how many died in the Comtat, but most estimates put the number at 100,000, or a quarter of the population. Menerbes, perhaps thanks to our pharmacist’s vinegar, or the Virgin Mary, or just gook luck, was completely spared. And the plague of Marseille of 1720-22 was the last of Europe’s major plague epidemics. As promised, in Menerbes today sits our little Notre Dame de Grace chapel, with its low drive-through windows, practical for being blessed before you enter the village without having to go to the trouble of getting off your horse.

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