Published by EH.Net (May 2024).

Cindy Ermus. The Great Plague Scare of 1720: Disaster and Diplomacy in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023. xii + 253 pp. $39.99 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1108784733.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Michael P. Hensley, Purdue University Northwest.


The role of global trade and commerce in spreading novel diseases and pathogens is all too easy to understand after the Covid-19 pandemic. However, there are many instances of diseases having far reaching impacts on the world. In The Great Plague Scare of 1720, Cindy Ermus presents the impact of the plague starting in the port city of Marseille in 1720, and its impacts throughout France and four other regions of the world from 1720 to 1722. The book is divided into five chapters, each focused on a different area of the world affected by the disaster: France, Italy, Spain, England, and French/Spanish colonies. As many as 126,000 deaths were attributed to the plague, either directly through infection, or indirectly through societal impacts (quarantines increased food shortages, and lawlessness increased).

Cindy Ermus is an associate professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio where she is currently the Director of Medical Humanities. Ermus is currently the Editor of the France Overseas Series of the University of Nebraska Press, and Co-Executive Editor of the journal Age of Revolutions. Although this is Ermus’s first full book publication, she has conducted extensive research investigating various disasters throughout history. Prior works have focused on the impact of plagues and disasters in France and its colonies.

Although each of the chapters focuses on a different geographic region, common themes do prevail throughout the book. Throughout the book, Ermus makes the argument that governments’ reaction to the Plague of the Provence pushed policy makers to move to more centralized government and health policies. King George I implemented a tougher national quarantine act (p. 109). Travel documents were required for travel within Spain (p. 159). Central policies were not always effective or implemented in the distant French and Spanish colonies (Chapter 5). The role of information, and at times misinformation, is a key theme as well. Even the idea that there might be a plague caused disastrous effects in some communities, just as pervasive as downplaying the seriousness of the disease.

In the first chapter, Ermus starts off by presenting the initial historical records and how they account for the origins of the Plague of Marseille. (Ermus makes it a point to refer to the “Plague of the Provence” so as not to diminish its impact outside of Marseille; p. 1). Historical accounts attribute the cause of the plague to the ship Grand Saint-Antoine. Ermus presents various paleogenetic studies which have examined ancient DNA (aDNA) to explain the origin of the plague. While genetic studies are not able to agree on the origin of the initial outbreak, there might be consensus indicating “plague reservoirs” responsible for continued outbreaks throughout 1720 to 1722. Ermus details the impact on the people of France as the plague spread across the country. Ermus explains the role the church played in potentially spreading the plague. Large processions were held throughout the years of the plague in hopes of showing “contrition” and thus alleviating the plague.

In the second chapter, Ermus shifts focus to the port city of Genoa and Italy. Prior to the Plague of the Provence, Italy had been developing a robust central public health system (p. 75). Chapter Two presents interesting historical examples of the effect of misinformation on the implementation of health policy in times of a pandemic. Early reports were often conflicted in the detailing the nature and severity of the plague with local officials more likely to attribute the disease to other maladies (due to economic pressures), and central authorities more likely to quickly recognize the severity of the plague.

In the third chapter, the perspective shifts to London, England. Ermus explains the rhetoric regarding the Plague of the Provence and how people differed on what steps should be taken, if at all, fighting the potential threat of the plague. While a quarantine had the benefit of keeping the welfare of the city and its people secured, it did have the downside of causing shortages of food and products required for a healthy economy. Countries routinely used tit-for-tat diplomacy in retaliation for strict trade guidelines enforced due to the plague (this topic is covered in other chapters as well).

In the fourth chapter, we visit Cadiz and Spain. A version of this chapter was published in article form as “The Spanish Plague That Never Was: Crisis and Exploitation in Cádiz During the Peste of Provence” (Eighteenth-Century Studies, 2016). The chapter explains the state of the Spanish economy and trade leading up to the Plague of the Provence. King Philip V was quick to enact measures under the auspices of protecting the health of the country to help secure a better economic standing against the British and French (“…forced into ninety-day quarantines, or required to surrender their goods to be destroyed under the pretext of public health…”; p. 157). The plague is cited as being the impetus to creating the Junta de Sanidad (p. 174). Ermus argues and describes highly centralized health policies that had not been seen in prior disasters or epidemics.

In the fifth chapter, the focus is placed on French and Spanish colonies. The chapter goes into detail explaining the difficulties experienced by the colonies before and during the Plague of the Provence. The metropole often did not understand the current situations faced by the various colonies, especially when colonial life varied vastly from life in France or Spain. Ermus explains the complexity of colonial governance, especially detailing when de jure governance differed from de facto governance. Colonial powers were often against allowing trade with foreign countries, but sometimes they made exceptions when the needs of the colonies could not otherwise be met. Spanish colonies in South America often had to rely on French traders to meet that needs not being satisfied by the Spanish (Peru had not seen Spanish galleons for over a decade; p. 208). As mentioned in earlier chapters, the economic interests of the colonies often battled the need for strict health policies, with economic interests winning out in many cases. Case in point: Rules and regulations allowed for slave ships to bypass normal quarantine policies, as slaves were believed to be only affected by diseases of West Africa (p. 193).

I felt that the book could have been expanded upon in some areas. I found the passages that moved away from writing with broad strokes toward more specific examples to be far more engaging. Case in point: Ermus briefly explains that the impact of the plague caused harsher punishments for crime. Jacque Amy might have received a harsher punishment due to the plague. “In the times of health, his subsequent promise to marry the young woman may have spared him, but in August 1721, he was condemned and delivered…” More vignettes like that would have been welcome. Another issue is the book’s overreliance on foreign words, especially ones with an English equivalent that could have sufficed. Not all readers, even educated ones, will have such a firm grasp of French and Spanish to allow for easy reading of some passages. While most if not all words are defined, I would have preferred limiting their usage, or including an appendix of frequently used terms and their translations. Although the book is well written, this tendency reduces its readability somewhat.

Overall, I found the book enjoyable, intriguing, and timely. It was interesting to encounter historical accounts mirroring some of the issues experienced during Covid-19: misinformation (p. 33), denial of the pandemic (p. 31), and quarantines and other public responses (Chapter 3).


Michael P. Hensley is a lecturer at Purdue University Northwest. His research interests span Health, Labor, and Public Economics.

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