Friday, 30 January 2015

A plague ex-voto from Senez

To finish what has become "plague January", here is splendidly pedestrian 18th-century ex-voto from the former Cathedral of Senez. 

According to its inscription it was given in thanks for miraculous deliverance from the Marseille plague,  granted to the faithful thanks to their invocation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Louis XV and his Queen Marie Leszczyńska, a prominent supporter of the cult of the Sacred Heart kneel to the right. To the left is a Pope, presumably Clement XI, an unidentified bishop - Belsunce? - and a nun, maybe Anne-Madeleine Rémuzat.

There is no clue as to how it fetched up at Senez, though it is slightly ironic since Monseigneur de Belsunce, champion of the Cult of the Sacred Heart, was a leading light in the notorious Council of Embrun which in 1727 sent into exile Jean Soanez, the unfortunate Appellant Bishop of Senez.

Notice of the ex-voto from L'inventaire Général du Patrimoine

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Marseilles plague - Men, rats and disease

The nature of the Marseilles plague and its relationships to other historical epidemics is controversial. In 2005 two University of Liverpool researchers, Christopher Duncan and Susan Scott, published a book called Biology of plagues which argued that there were two distinct historic diseases, a viral "haemorrhagic" plague which included the Black Death and the Great Plague of London, and a contemporary "bubonic" plague, of which the epidemic in  Marseilles was an example.

The plague bacillus

At least part of Duncan and Scott's thesis has now  been disproved since paleobiologists have found the bubonic plague bacillus Yersina pestis in remains from the Black Death and other European epidemics.

  The groundbreaking was done in Marseilles by Didier Raoult and his team who in 2000 recovered Yersina pestis DNA from tooth pulp from a number of Provençal burial sites, including a 14th-century graveyard in Montpellier and the 1720 Couvent de l'Observance site in Marseilles. "We believe we can end the controversy" concluded Raoult "medieval Black Death was [bubonic] plague".  In 2011 further corroboration was provided by Johannes Krause and Hendrik N. Poinar who successfully reconstructed the entire genome of Yersina pestis using samples from a 14th-century plague pit in East Smithfield in London [Nature (2011)]. In 2014 a team headed by Dave Wagner from Arizona University went one better, isolating Yersina pestis in 1,500-year-old victims from the Justinian plague. [Huffington Post 2014)] 

Although it now seems established that historical plagues all derived from same pathogen, the virulence of the infection and detailed symptoms have varied.  Some initial attempts have been made to map the genetic family tree of Yersina pestis - Krausse and Poinar situate the genome that they have isolated at the root of an evolutionary tree that comprises seventeen contemporary strains. Further work will no doubt illuminate the historical pattern further.


The symptoms of the plague in Marseilles can be readily paralleled from other epidemics.The first symptoms were headaches, inflammation of the eyes and throat, stomach cramps, vomiting and painful swelling of the lymph glands which erupted into suppurating "buboes".  Victims suffered from terrible thirst and a quasi-instinctive horror of clothing and covers; in contemporary pictures cadavers are  invariably almost naked.  Victims succumbed after several days to interior inflammation or, if they survived this phase,to intestinal ulcers and intense diarrhoea. General necrosis of the internal organs followed.  Gaffilet noted that the blackening and loss of extremities, reported by Thucydides in Ancient Athens, was not characteristic of the Marseilles plague ( La Peste de 1720 p.71)
Not all cases were uniform. The physician François Chicoyneau enumerated five different forms manifesting varying sequences of symptoms.  A minority, whether through immunity, or the stage of the epidemic, were only mildly afflicted.

Was the plague transmitted by rats?

It is a commonplace of popular history that the plague was carried by black rats and their fleas. Yet anyone who reads accounts accounts from Marseilles in 1720  - as London in 1665 - will soon BE convinced that this was a contagious disease which spread rapidly and directly from person to person. The whole machinery of quarantine and cordons sanitaires rested on that assumption. 

Biologically the situation is complicated. Bubonic plague as it exists today is a disease of rodents, spread by fleas, which infects human beings only occasionally. Epidemics occured in the 19th-century when a  substantial non-resistant rodent population - such as the black rat - was wiped out,  forcing the fleas to transfer en masse to human hosts. (In  contemporary accounts, the arrival of plague was often presaged by the appearance of dying rats in the streets). In its basic form, modern bubonic plague is not contagious, apart from comparatively rare "pneumonic" plague cases where the lungs are affected.  But was this the case in the past or did the Marseilles plague represent a human strain of the disease?

Duncan and Scott argued specifically that the 1720 Marseilles Plague was an isolated "genuine epidemic of bubonic plague" transmitted by rats. They do not have much evidence beyond the warm rat-friendly climate of the Midi and the failure of the cordon sanitaire to contain the disease. There is only one source given: a report of 1966 by Raymond Roberts to the Royal Society of Medicine which recounts that "the fishermen netted 10,000 dead rats in the harbour and dragged the corpses out to sea"[Biology of plagues,p.341].The relevant proceedings are on the internet, but I still can't find this reference. (I wonder whether it is just a garbled version of Chevalier Roze and his fishermen clearing the human corpses from the harbour?).
The best circumstantial evidence for transmission by rodents is the spread of disease via ports with their rat-infested warehouses and ships. Contemporaries were especially nervous about cargoes of cloth, but it is difficult to know with what justification. (Duncan and Scott carefully dissect the famous myth that plague arrived at Eyam in Derbyshire in 1665 via a consignment of cloth; in fact the culprit was the itinerant tailor himself). In the case of the Grand-Saint-Antoine, there is no real need to look beyond the fact that eight men on board died of plague en route to Marseilles.

Contagion - the contemporary debate 

Like modern biologists, contemporary doctors debated the mechanism for the spread of pestilence.  An "environmental" thesis associated with Pierre Chirac, doctor to the regent, and François Chicoyneau, of the Faculty of Medicine in Montpellier  blamed  the poverty  and "pestilential air" of the Midi.  Chicoyneau strongly opposed the imposition of draconian quarantine measures which he saw as an infringement of liberty.  The second school - which unsurprisingly included most doctors in Marseilles - supported direct contagion. Jean-Baptiste Bertrand noted that only those without first hand experience could assimilate the plague to fevers associated with malnutrition and poverty. The epidemic disproved the received wisdom that nothing is contagious of itself, for it spared no-one:  "Nothing has surprised us more about this illness, than the violence and speed of contagion" (Relation historique de la peste de Marseille en 1720 (1722) p.19) Bertrand observed that it originated in clothing, furnishings and other goods, beginning with a few persons then spreading out from house to house to infect entire neighbourhoods. 
Supporters of contagion speculated that there must be a a living agent whose multiplication allowed the illness to spread without itself being diminished. Jean-Baptiste Goiffon from Lyon, hypothesised the existence of invisible flying insects and even thought presciently that better microscopes might reveal them. Antoine Deidier broke with his colleagues from Montpellier to establish the contagious nature of the plague by experiment, successfully infecting dogs by injecting them with pus and bile from plague-victims. (See Dutour et al p.112-6)  

Patterns of contagion

Duncan and Scott maintain that the relatively short  incubation period they calculate for the Marseilles plague is characteristic of classic bubonic plague (Biology of plagues, p.339).  But the pattern of spread of the disease is wholly consistent with the epidemic contagion that they themselves anatomise.  The rate of infection began relatively slowly, then escalated exponentially  The first contact between sailors and the general population was probably in mid-June, but it was not until 9th July that the doctor Peyssonnel alerted the authorities. On 23 July fourteen cases were reported; by 1st August when the cordon was put in place, cases had already escalated out of control. By this time 10,000 inhabitants had already fled.  The death toll peaked rapidly, to a thousand a day by the 1st September. After this numbers began to tail off, with only a few dozen cases recorded between mid-April and mid-August 1721.  A recrudescence occurred in February 1722 when full quarantine measures were brought into play.  Only 194 deaths were reported in this final upswing.
Of the localities outside Marseilles the worse afflicted were those concentrations of population - like Apt and Martigues -  on main lines of communication outside the city. This is a pattern consistent with fleeing humans rather than rats or their fleas. Two-thirds of deaths outside Marseilles occurred within three months.


Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan, Return of the Black Death (2004) and Biology of plagues (CUP 2005) [Extracts on Google Books]

Ewen Callaway, "Plague genome: The Black Death decoded" Nature 478 p. 444-66 [Pubiished online October 2011].

Yersina pestis from the Plague of Justinian, Huffington Post  27.01.2014.

Infectious diseases at the Edward Worth Library: Case study: plague at Marseilles 1720

Olivier Dutour, Gilles Boëtsch, Dominique Chevé, Michel Signoli, " Du corps au cadavre pendant la Grande Peste de Marseille (1720-1722) : des données ostéo-archéologiques et historiques aux représentations sociales d'une épidémique"
Bulletins et Mémoires de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris 1998 10(1-2), p. 99-120

Jean-Noël Biraben, "Certain Demographic Characteristics of the Plague Epidemic in France, 1720-22"  Daedalus Vol. 97(2) (1968), pp. 536-545 [on JStor]

___________, L'épidémiologie de la peste en question in XIVe colloque national de démographie, « Démographie et santé », Bordeaux, 21-24 mai 2007

André J. Fabre, "La Grande Peste de Marseille: confrontation avec les autres épidémie en Europe occidentale" Histoire des sciences médicales, no.1 2011 - paper delivered May 2010.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Michel Serre: artist of the Marseilles plague

Michel Serre, Vue de la Cours pendant la peste de 1720 (317cm x 440cm),
Marseilles, Musée des Beaux-Art

Outstanding among the many representations of the 1720 plague, are the two large scale canvasses by Michel Serre, now in the Musée des Beaux-arts in Marseilles; they the more notable in that Serre was both a painter of the plague and an actor and eyewitness.  The pictures are strikingly modern: documentary, snapshots of events with no religious or moral message superimposed.

Vue de l'Hotel de Ville pendant la peste de 1720 (306cm x 277cm)

 The early career of Michel Serre 

Who was Michel Serre?  There isn't a huge amount of information about his life available on the internet. He was born in Tarragona in Spain in 1658 but by 1675, at the age of seventeen, had settled definitively in Marseilles; according to the plague column, though it is otherwise uncorroborated, he was a pupil of the famous Provençal Baroque artist Pierre Puget. In Marseilles, a "second Rome" bristling with religious foundations, Serre made his way rapidly as a religious painter and received many lucrative commissions.  In 1685 he married and was able to build a substantial house in what is now the rue Venture.  He obtained citizenship in 1690 and received the commission for a Christ on the Cross (now lost) to hang in the Hôtel de Ville. Also, in recognition of his reputation and talents, he was named "royal painter of galleys and drawing master to officers and pilots", painting several portraits of Marseilles naval officers, including one of Louis de Montolieu now in the Musée des Beaux-arts. In 1704 he moved to Paris, where, on 6th December, he was admitted to the Académie royale de peinture as a "history painter". He seems to have maintained an atelier in Paris for a while, since Jean-Baptiste Oudry is mentioned as among his pupils. In 1712, however, he was back in Provence, buying letters of nobility, offices and further properties.

Self portrait (detail from the Vue de l'Hotel de Ville)
The plague

Michel Serre was well set, then, on a comfortable and prosperous career when the plague struck. By universal assent he acquitted himself heroically, visiting the sick and giving freely of his personal wealth. He was named commissaire  for the Saint-Ferriol district where he was allocated carts and placed in charge of a brigade of convicts charged with the grim task of clearing bodies from the streets into communal graves; he is said to have provided the forçats with board and lodging at his own expense. (see Gaffarel, La peste de 1720 (1911) p.119)

Self portrait (detail from the Vue de la Cours)

The plague canvasses

It is known that it was the Jesuits who commissioned Serre to paint his two large canvasses of the plague for their House in Marseilles. When the Society was dissolved the paintings were bought by the town and subsequently displayed in the museum (Joconde has a date of acquisition of 1763, which fits.) A letter dated 24th May 1721 notes the artist already at work: "Yesterday I met le sieur Serre on the Plage de la Loge, with paper and pencil;  he was sketching the facade of the town hall and the view of the port, for his painting of the plague that he is working on at Saint-Giniez.". (quoted in Auguste Laforet, Souvenirs marseillais (1863) p.113)

What happened next is a little odd. In 1723 the completed paintings were carried off to Paris by Serre's son Jean-Baptiste who exhibited them for profit at the Foire-Saint-Germain (they were advertised in August in the Mercure de France). Modern historians find the episode significant, demonstrating as it does both the documentary worth of the pictures and the growth of a public audience; the pictures were rolled up and transported as a modern cameraman might transport his rolls of film. It may be surmised that Michel Serre himself was less gratified, especially when the Académie de peinture suspended his membership for contravening its rules on exhibiting for money and Monseigneur de Belsunce was forced to intervene to get him reinstated!

Here are the pictures in situ in Marseilles.  It is difficult to get much sense of them from small reproductions - the canvas showing the Cours - the central open space and thoroughfare of Marseilles (today the Cours Belsunce) -  is four-and-a-half metres wide and minutely detailed. Louis Maget's film  Autour de la peste has a nice opening sequence based on the picture, which not only shows some close-ups but highlights the startling contrast between the opulence of smart Marseilles and the horrors of the plague.  

There is a similar close-up panorama of the Hôtel de Ville picture, about 37 minutes through the film. [Laurent Maget  Autour de la peste, Marseille 1720, 1722]

Other plague pictures by Michel Serre

There is only one other painting by Michel Serre which rivals the two Marseilles pictures in scale and ambition, the "Scene of the plague of  1720 at la Tourette" which so memorably depicts the heroism of the Chevalier de Roze. This work belonged to the private collection of Xavier Atger, now in the  Musée Atger, Montpellier, but beyond this I have been unable to find any provenance.  

In addition, the Church of Notre-Dame in La Ciotat, along the coast from Marseilles, has a battered canvas, ascribed to Serre,showing three Franciscan friars arriving at Cassis during the plague.  There is also an ex-voto which, although dated 1710,  in all probability depicts the plague ship, the Grand-Saint-Antoine.   

Finally, some smaller works by Serre showing plague victims - a painting and a pen and ink sketch - turned up at auction in 2011:

Collection Thierry et Christine de Chirée, 29-20 March 2011.
Paintings originally from the Convent of the Visitation in Avignon, sold in 2011


Régis Bertrand "L'iconographie de la peste de Marseille", extract from
Images de la Provence: les représentations iconographiques de la fin du Moyen Age au milieu du XXe siècle  Publications de l'Université de Provence, 1992

Olivier Dutour, Gilles Boëtsch, Dominique Chevé, Michel Signoli, " Du corps au cadavre pendant la Grande Peste de Marseille (1720-1722) : des données ostéo-archéologiques et historiques aux représentations sociales d'une épidémique"
Bulletins et Mémoires de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris 1998 10(1-2), p. 99-120

"Michel Serre" [Wikipé]

Jean-Marie. et Marie-Claude. Homet,  "Michel Serre (1658 -1733) :  premier essai d'inventaire pictural" Provence historique (1976) vo.26 (1976)

"Vidéos et commentaires théologiques des tableaux de la peste de 1720, de l'église Notre Dame, (réalisation : Angèle-Thierry-Julien)" Parish of La Ciotat et de Ceyreste website [archived]

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Chevalier Roze

Michel Serre,  Scène de la peste de 1720 à la Tourette (Marseille), Musée Atger, Montpellier

The Chevalier Roze was the great secular hero of the Marseilles plague, more heavily represented in the iconography than any other figure (though his fame may be something of a 19th and 20th-century construction).
Original engraving by Lefèvre. 1836

Nicolas Roze is situated firmly within the merchant dynasties of Marseilles; like his father before him, he was baptised and buried in the Église Saint-Martin in Marseilles. But his story seems to belongs to the world of soldiers, adventurers and Barbary pirates rather than to that of international commerce.

Roze's father, who held a naval contract for building and equipping small vessels, had created outposts in the major ports in Spain under the control of his sons, Claude in Barcelona and in 1695 Nicolas, the younger brother, in Alicante.  The younger Roze soon found himself in the middle of the War of Spanish Succession;  When Alicante was beseiged by Imperial forces in 1706, Roze raised two companies of soldiers and  for a while personally held the castle against the beseigers. He returning to Marseilles in triumph, receiving a gratification of 10,000 livres and was accepted into the ancient chivalric order of Saint Lazare. Evidently he had acquired a taste for soldiering for he subsequently returned to Spain where he took part in the victorious battle of Almanza under the maréchal de Berwick and was present at the siege of Xativa. Back in commercial circles, he became involved in the Levant cloth trade and in 1717 was named French Consul for Modon (Methoni), the Venetian port in Southern Greece which had lately fallen to the Ottomon Empire. It was here that he encountered pestilence for the first time and  organised sanitary measures.  In 1720 a conflict over the repurchase of slaves forced his fateful return to Marseilles.

The Chevalier Roze landed in Marseilles in May 1720. Legend has it that he found himself in quarantine with the crew of the Grand Saint-Antoine.  As soon as the extent of the epidemic became apparent he offered his services to the échevins and was placed in charge of the Rive-Neuve, the rich commercial district separated from the old city by the port. Although prosperous, this was an area with a large unruly population of artisans and dockworkers. He was later also given responsibility for the poor district of Notre Dame de la Garde. 

He set about imposing stringent measures to clear the area and impose a quarantine. He was given permission to create two companies of thirty men, and to appoint officers under his command.  He commandeered the immense rope works as a hospital, furnished with mattresses and straw, and subsequently improvised a second hospital in Rive-Neuve to admit 80 orphans whom he maintained at his own expense. Under his orders, five ditches were dug to bury the dead of the area which soon numbered three-and-a-half thousand. He personally visited the sick in close proximity, among them large numbers of sailors from the nearby docks. Those who remained in their houses were forced into the hospitals and their homes cleared and the contents destroyed.

 Roze also tacked the acute food shortages, personally presiding each morning over the distribution of bread to the poor and imposing fixed prices on the butchers, who were said to be profiting from the shortages.  Thieves and looters were rounded up and summarily hanged. Every two or three days Roze reported to the Hôtel de Ville where he was the principal architect of the emergency measures for the city as a whole,  even commandeered goat's milk for the orphaned new-borns - a considerable problem, for on 1st September volunteers are said to have gathered between 12 and 13 000 infants.

Le Chevalier Roze à la Tourette.  Engraving by Thomassin, after a painting by 
Jean-François de Troy (1727)
The town was short of wheat and the ships were landing not at Estaque but at Frioul, where they found themselves short of ballast for the return journey.  Roze forced fishermen to put to sea laden with sand and stones.  Not only this, but, assisted by representatives of the fishermen themselves, he employed fishing vessels to trawl in the dead bodies floating in the port and tow them out to sea.

Detail from the painting by Michel Serre
The famous episode of the clearance of La Tourette took place on 16th September 1720. By August the mass of bodies in the streets had become the authorities' most pressing problem.  The military commander,  Langeron had communal graves dug  and began the systematic removal of corpses using convict labour.  At  La Tourette, the hillside area overlooking the sea, a thousand bodies had been piled for three weeks in the heat of the sun and were now in a state of advanced decomposition.  Merely to visit the site was an act of courage and Roze did not try to hide the dangers of the task.  On the place de Linche he distributed wine to his men (who are described as "volunteers" rather than pressed convicts).  He arrived on the scene first, dismounted, seized a cadaver by its leg and personally dragged it to the waiting ditch. Others followed his example,  blocking their noses with vinegar soaked rags against the stench.  Almost all fell ill, including Roze himself, though he subsequently recovered.

In the 19th century Roze became a popular hero largely because the "episode at La Tourette" became a well-known set piece for artists, with versions by Paulin Guérin  and François Gérard among others. The subject became widely known through an engraving of 1727 by Simon Thomassin, after a painting by Jean-François de Troy.  The original painting, which now belongs to the  Musée des Beaux-Arts in Marseilles, was originally commissioned by the Roze's brother Claude and was among the Chevalier's own possessions according to the inventory at the time of his death.   A second contemporary picture, by Michel Serre, is now widely reproduced on the internet, but seems to have been only recently rediscovered in the  Musée Atger in Montpellier.

It was not until 1887 that a statue to the Chevalier was erected by public subscription in Marseilles - a project which, by all accounts, was subject to much difficulty and delay.

Details of the Chevalier's biography:
Entry on "Geneanet":;pz=michel;nz=amayenc;ocz=7;p=nicolas;n=roze;oc=1
 Hospitalier de St-Lazare de Jérusalem website:
Anne Mézin, Les consuls de France au siècle des lumières (1715-1792)  (1998) p.533-355

For his conduct during the plague:
Paul Gaffarel and Duranty, La peste de 1720 à Marseille et en France, d'après des documents inédits  (Paris 1911), p.98-107; 206-7.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

The not-so-sacred heart of Anne-Madeleine Rémuzat

In 2014 the procedure for the beatification and canonisation was set in motion in Marseilles for Anne-Madeleine Rémuzat (1696-1730), Visitandine nun, visionary and propagatrice of the Cult of the Sacred Heart.  On the face of it, it is hard to see why this has taken so long; it would seem Anne-Madeleine has  all the prerequisites for a Catholic saint - miraculous visions, asceticism, determined prosecution of her mission.

In fact, of course,it is far from that easy!  There is a very specific and labyrinthine set of rules, with clearly laid down stages and a number of hoops to jump through before anyone becomes a saint!  Unless an individual is "fast-tracked" like JPII, it can be a very prolonged process indeed.

The "Cause" of Anne-Madeline Rémuzat has begun, and stalled, on two previous occasions, one in the 1890s, and one in the 1920s. However, procedures were radically overhauled in 1983 which means that, although Anne-Madeleine was declared a Venerated Servant of God by Leo XIII in December 1891, the whole process must be restarted.  You can see the exact stages involved in her entry from the Hagiography Circle database: 

1) 15 February in Marseilles, Bouches-du-Rhône (France)
        professed religious, Visitation Nuns
        born: 29 November 1696 in Marseilles, Bouches-du-Rhône (France)
        competent forum: Marseilles
        CCS protocol number: 2995
        type of cause: heroic virtues
        opening of informative process:
        closing of informative process:
        decree on writings:
        introduction of cause: 24 December 1891
        decree « non cultu »:
        opening of apostolic process:
        closing of apostolic process:
        decree on validity of informative and apostolic processes: 14 January 1906
        antepreparatory congregation:  08 March 1921
        nihil obstat: 18 February 2013
        opening of diocesan inquiry: 15 February 2014
        closing of diocesan inquiry:
        decree on validity of diocesan inquiry:
        submission of Positio to CCS:
        session of historical consultants:
        particular meeting of theological consultors:
        session of cardinal and bishop members of the CCS: 
        postulatorMons. Jean-Pierre Ellul
        petitionerAssociation Anne-Madeleine Rémuzat, 2bis, rue St Adrien, 13008 Marseille, FRANCE

The Cause has so far passed through only the preliminaries.

A postulator to oversee the proceedings was appointed in 2009, Monseigneur Jean-Pierre Ellul, Rector of the Basilica of the Sacred-Heart in Marseilles.  In February 2014 the Roman Dicasteries gave their formal permission to proceed (nihil obstat - "nothing stands in the way").  On 15 February 2014 the diocesan inquiry opened in order to begin assembling the relevant documentation and testimony.  If all goes well, the Cause will in due course be referred to the Roman Congregation for the Causes of Saints for further investigation and adjudication.  To achieve Beatification, the first stage on the way to Sainthood, there must be an approved miracle, which is evidence of the intercessionary powers of the individual and thus of their union after death with God. In practice this is almost always a miracle of healing.  A second miracle is necessary for subsequent canonisation.

Like so many aspects of Catholicism, the proceedings are a weird combination of medieval mindset and bright modernity; as part of the appeal for evidence Anne-Madeleine now has an officially recognised blog and a Facebook page.  However, the task facing Mgr Ellul is daunting.  Anne-Madeleine's life is not well documented. A Vie was published in 1760, only thirty years after her death, but the sources on which it was based have largely been destroyed during the Revolution.  The blog maintains that posthumously  "many miracles have been attributed to her" but is ominously short on specifics.

The only published fruit of the diocesan inquiry so far has been a report on the biomedical examination, begun in December 2011, of the heart of Anne-Madeleine, preserved in a reliquary in the Basilica.  After Anne-Madeleine's death, the customary autopsy had revealed various marks of sanctity, including a small raised and inflamed area on her chest corresponding to the pain she had felt when Jesus mystically placed her heart within his. Sadly, this new investigation has yielded nothing so mysterious, nor has it corroborated the idea that the heart had been miraculously preserved. The report concludes that the heart had not been naturally (that is to say "miraculously") conserved but merely embalmed according to the practices of the time, using myrtle honey and lime.

"Anne-Madeleine Rémuzat" on Hagiography Circle

Soeur Anne-Madeleine REMUZAT  (Official blog)
(See particularly the comments of Mgr Ellul:

Facebook page (now abandoned?, but interesting photo albums):

Philippe Charlier et al., "The heart of Blessed Anne-Madeleine R
émuzat: a biomedical approach of “miraculous” heart conservation", Cardiovascular Pathology, 21 July 2014

Life of Anne-Madeleine Rémuzat: 

The most accurate account is now the Blog biography:

See also
" Anne-Madeleine Rémuzat", La dévotion au Sacré-Cœur

A less reverential assessment can be found in: Raymond Anthony Jonas, France and the Cult of the Sacred Heart: An epic tale for modern times (Univ. of Washington Press; 2001) [Relevant extracts on Google Books]

Friday, 16 January 2015

The Marseilles plague and the Jesuit mystic

Claude François Milley, 1668-1720
  Alfred Hamy's Jesuit Portrait Gallery
Maquette University
The Jesuit Father Milley is one of the few ecclesiastics of the Marseilles plague apart from Monseigneur de Belsunce, who is more than a name to us.  He features prominently on the  memorial column erected in 1802 as "commissaire of the rue de l'Escale, principal foyer of contagion"

Engraving by Domique Magaud (1817-1899) Chevalier Roze
and the echevins during the plague of 1720
.  Milley
is depicted in the background with the painter Michel Serre.
(Wikimedia image)

Claude François Milley was born on 20th January 1668 in Montigny-les-Charlieu in Franche-Comté and attended the Jesuit College of the Trinity in Lyons. He entered the Society of Jesus in September 1685 at the age of seventeen and was ordained a priest in 1696. Having completed his novitiate in Avignon, he made his final profession as a Jesuit in February 1702. Milley obviously demonstrated talent both as a preacher and administrator for in the early part of his career he was placed in charge of the Jesuit "mission des Cévennes", preaching among the Protestants of Provence.  Having resided in Alès, Apt and Aix-en-Province, he finally settled in Marseilles in 1710, where he consolidated his reputation as a spiritual director and was closely associated with Bishop Belsunce in the promotion of the cult of the Sacred Heart.

When plague struck, Milley asked to be put officially in charge of the rue de l'Escale (rue de l'Échelle) one of the most  impoverished and cruelly affected area of the city. For several weeks, he could be seen among the houses of the sick, bringing not only spiritual consolation but practical help. With the assistance of two saintly women, the Jourdain sisters, he distributed broth to the hungry, and did not fear himself to eat with the plague victims. He often accompanied Belsunce on his missions to distribute the sacraments and unfailingly sought to rally his fellow clergy. On 23rd August he held confession for more than an hour surrounded by piles of dead bodies, and was even seen to lose his footing among them. He was finally laid low by the odour and by exhaustion and contracted the plague himself.  He was taken ill on the 27th August.  On the 28th he was still strong enough to write on 28th to the Bishop apologising because he was no longer being able to accompany him.  He received the last rites on 30th and died an edifying death on 2nd September, still exhorting his fellow Jesuits to have courage. His loss was bitterly regretted by Belsunce who wrote to the Archbishop of Arles, Forbin-Janson,informing him of the death of "poor P.Millay, whose zeal was without parallel."

Nowadays, however, Father Milley is better remembered not for his conduct during the plague, but as a spiritual teacher and prominent adherent of the mystic tradition of "abandonment to Divine Love". Pope Francis, himself a Jesuit, has recently mentioned the tradition of Jesuit mystics, Milley among them, from whom he takes inspiration. Likewise the Dictionnaire de spiritualité identifies Milley as an important figure in the "courant mystique" which flourished in Provence in semi-clandestine fashion following the papal condemnation of Fénelon's Maximes of the saints in 1699.  Milley himself pursued his goals mainly in his capacity as spiritual director to members of the religious orders.  Like Fénelon with Mme de Guyon, he formed a close spiritual relationship with a female mystic, Madeleine-Joseph de Siry, a superior of the Visitandines, whom he first encountered during his time in Apt in 1707.  He was also associated with the prominent laywoman Therèse de Galliffet in Aix, and with the mystic pastor Joseph Arnaud from Le Tholonet.  Above all he was spiritual director to Madeleine-Anne Rémuzat,the Marseilles visionary of the Sacred Heart.  Although he published nothing in his lifetime, his correspondance with a number of Ursuline and Vistandine nuns was edited by Jean Brémond in 1942.

Milley styled himself semi-ironically "Provincial of the Order of the Surrendered" and took his inspiration particularly from St Francis de Sales, from the 17th-century Jesuits Jean-Joseph Surin and Jean Rigoleuc and from Fénelon. I do not pretend to fully understand his teaching, but it should be emphasised that the way of self-abandonment  was not a spiritual path for the masses; it was  reserved for those few contemplatives especially called by God, and was achieved only through a long discipline of prayer and meditation. In a state of heightened awareness, the individual, by complete surrender of self, received momentary intimation of the divine:  "What more could a small nothingness do except to make itself nothing before God?"  (How many light years we are away here from the  rationalism of the 18th century secular Enlightenment!)

Ex-voto of the Marseilles nuns of the Visitation, in thanks for deliverance from the plague
This picture was recently restored and hung in the Cathedral


Some commentators have seen a direct relationship between Malley’s spiritual position and his conduct during the plague. In a 1995 book the French historian Georges Minois characterised self-abandonment as a "substitute for suicide" and strongly implied that Milley had a death wish. [See Minois, History of suicide: voluntary death in Western culture, p.205; extract on Google Books] This is a dubious piece of pop-psychology. There is a world of difference between mystic self-annihilation and a miserable death from bubonic plague!  Although sometimes criticised for their lack of precaution, there is no evidence that any of the Marseilles clergy deliberately courted martyrdom. The most we can say is that Milley's understanding of mystic experience reinforced his absolute trust in divine Providence. Abandonment to divine Will entailed liberation from "anxious self-examination" but it still entailed obligation to the discipline of vocation, that is the monastic routine of communal life and prayer, or, for lay priests, their professional tasks.  Milley was a strong personality and capable organiser who fully espoused the Jesuit active mission, and sought, until his own life was cut short, to provide practical and spiritual succour to the victims of plague.


Details of Milley's actions during the plague:

Paul Gaffarel and Duranty, La peste de 1720 à Marseille et en France, d'après des documents inédits  (Paris 1911), p.156-7

Paul Autran, Eloge historique du Père Milley (1868)

On Milley's spiritual teaching:

 "Ces jésuites mystiques qui inspirent le Pape " Post of March 2014 on the website of the French Jesuits (with link to the Dictionnaire de spiritualité entry on Milley) ,

"Mysticism" in Michel Delon (ed) Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment (2002)

Jean Deprun, La philosophie de l'inquiétude en France au XVIIIe siècle (1979) [Extract on Google Books]

Milley's published letters are not available to read on the internet:
see Claude François Milley, ed. Jean Brémond, Le courant mystique au XVIIIe siècle: l'abandon dans les lettres du p. Milley (1943)  Google Books [snippet view only]

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