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)] 

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)


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).

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.

Tuesday 13 January 2015

Marseilles plague: lesser clerical heroes

Clerical heroism was not of course the sole preserve of Monseigneur Belsunce. The following, taken from the 1911 history by Paul Gaffarel and Duranty, tells the story of some unsung clerical heroes of 1720. We are pleased, the authors write, to preserve the name of these victims of religious duty, for they too have the right to public recognition.

Marseilles and its many church towers (1696)

Saturday 10 January 2015

Heroes of the Marseilles plague: Bishop de Belsunce

I am still, by the grace of God, on my feet among the dead and dying.  Everyone at my side has been striken, and of the many ministers of the Lord  who have accompanied me, I have only one remaining.  My household itself has fallen victim; eleven have died and five are still ill, though out of danger....The plague had been in Marseilles for three months and still showed no sign of abating. What horrors have I not seen or heard? For eight whole days two hundred corpses rotted around my house and under my windows!  I was obliged to walk in streets flanked on both sides by half-rotten, dog-chewed bodies, with so much plague-ridden debris and filth underfoot that it was impossible to know where to tread. I was forced, with a vinegar-soaked sponge over my nose and my soutane hitched up, to clamber among the corpses to seek out, and offer confession and consolation to the dying who had been thrown out of their houses and abandoned on mattresses among the dead. The piles of dogs and cats that had been killed and left to rot added to the unbearable stench.  Ah! Monseigneur, what moments of bitterness and despair have I not suffered?; how terrible it is to be in such a situation!
From a letter of Mgr de Belsunce, bishop of Marseilles, to the bishop of Toulon, 1720

Sunday 4 January 2015

Marseilles 1720: burying the dead

At its height, in September 1720, the Marseilles plague claimed a thousand lives a day. According to Michel Signoli's statistics, 242 localities were affected, with the final verifiable death toll 119,811 out of a population of 394,369 before the epidemic. When the crypts of the churches were filled, huge pits were dug to receive the bodies. Most remain under the concrete and paving of the modern city, but in the last twenty years some sites have been uncovered and investigated.

Excavations in the Couvent de l'Observance (rue Leca)

In August-September 1994 the systematic excavation, led by Michel Signoli, took place of a communal grave in the former gardens of the Couvent de l'Observance which had functioned as a quarantine hospital. For the first time plague victims from 1720 were the subject of modern anthropological  and medical research. (Laboratoire Adaptabilité humaine: biologie et culture, UMR CNRS, Marseilles). The remains of 216 skeletons were identified. As well as written reports, the findings featured in a prize-winning documentary by the anthropological filmmaker Laurent Maget.
[Autour de la peste, Marseille 1720, 1722]

Here is a summary of some of the findings:

Thursday 1 January 2015

Marseilles, 1720: the arrival of a plague ship

I know the sufferings and death that thousands of people have gone through, but can it be directly my fault?  What am I reproached with? Didn't I merely carry out my mission in a proper manner?
Letter of Jean-Baptiste Chataud, Captain of the Grand-Saint-Antoine.

In 1720 the last outbreak of bubonic plague in Europe devastated the port of Marseilles and its hinterland; estimates of the death toll vary, but in probability at least 40,000 died in Marseilles itself and a further 90,000 in the rest of Provence out of a total population of 400,000.  In 1996 the wreck of the Grand-Saint-Antoine, the merchant ship which had brought plague to the city, was rediscovered in the sands off the rocky Île Jarre where it had been set fire to and sunk. Five seasons of underwater excavations took place on the charred and buried wreck, culminating in September 2012 in the raising of the ship's anchor, which is now restored and soon to form the centrepiece of an exhibition in the newly refurbished museum in Marseilles.

 Michel Goury, who led the excavations,  followed up his work with almost thirty years of research and in April 2013  published a biography of the ship's captain Jean-Baptiste Chataud, which contains many new details of the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of plague.  I don't have access to this book, but some of Michel Goury's findings can be gleaned from a TV documentary in which he appears,"The plague of 1720: was Marseilles sacrificed?", which was broadcast in December 2012 in the popular "Shadow of doubt" ("L'ombre d'un doute") series.  

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