Much like Italy, medieval France was less a nation or more a region ruled by powerful Dukes with powers to rival that of the king. Many of these Dukes, like the one in Burgandy, hardly even considered themselves part of France. At this time, France was divided in sensibilities between the north and south; South of France was more liberal and cosmopolitan while the north still clung to a narrow religious interpretation.
(Time period covered in this lecture: 1348-1350)
In theory, at this time, France is the greatest power on the continent. Politically and administratively, however, the territory is fragmented due to the high number of dukes holding power and the former Queen marrying into an English family. On top of this, there is the aforementioned cultural divide between North and South in addition to part of the land being English. Now, in 1309, the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon. Considering all of these scenarios, once the Black Death arrives, it causes deep divisions to become even deeper.
Per the norm, at this point, the cause of the Black Death in France can be attributed to the Genoese: though other ports had heard the stories of the sickness being spread by the Genoese, for whatever reason, the French port city of Marci did not hear and allowed the ship to dock (at least until people started to die suddenly and the ship was chased off with flaming arrows– yikes!).
Interestingly, the city of Marci didn’t see a large exodus of people despite a mortality rate of around 60%. The structure of the community, unlike in other places, did not break down; hospitals remained open and people stayed by their kinfolk. Outside of Marci, the plague spread to the other parts of France in what one scholar called “meta-static leaps.”
Following the destruction of the plague, what next happened was what happened usually in history– waves of anti-Semitic attacks. People were desperate for a scapegoat and Jews provided a fine opportunity for ignorance to lash out. However, the anti-Semitic violence did not reach Marci, despite the plague originating in that city.
In Marci, the death toll was around 15,000. High enough that the Pope purchased land near the town and donated it to said town for the singular purpose of burials. Unfortunately, the land was soon filled and the pope consecrated the river itself which the town then used to dump the bodies in and have them flow out to the ocean.
In 1347 King Edward had actively begun to campaign to retake French lands. This was the 100 Years War. Edward had launched an attack in 1346 and in the space of just days, had managed to win several major victories including capturing the city of Craxi (?). Edward, obviously, had ambition and intended on expanding English influence not only into France by the Mediterranean as well. To this end, his forces entered the city of Bourdeaux with the intent on marrying his 15 y/o daughter to a Prince (Pedro) who would have helped expand his influence. Obviously, bad things happened: Edward’s daughter and her entire entourage died in horrible pain. Her body was never recovered and Edward’s ambition dashed.
Likely sometime in August 1348 the plague made its way to Paris. It is estimated that around 200,000 people lived in Paris at this time, including one of the few fully-fledged universities in the medieval world that had a full medical faculty. Naturally, the people turned their attention to these great minds for answers. Unfortunately, these great minds lacked any real answers and could only give theories related to plague being spread by earthquakes and “bad air.” (Which led to one tract that suggested that people inhale more bad air so as to counteract the bad air from the plague; this led to the odd scene recounted by professor Armstrong where people would gather around public latrines and inhale deeply from the nauseous smell believing it would assist.) Ultimately, at the height of the deaths in Paris, over 500 people would die per day. The French king had long since fled.
Between 1348 and 1350, some 24 “plague tracts” were written by a variety of people in an effort to understand the nature of the plague.
Psychological Responses: some people became indifferent to the death while others tried to put on a gleeful face, reasoning that happiness might keep the plague away. Others still fell into hedonism or deeply religious convictions.