Voltaire’s Letters on the English and the story of smallpox

‘It is inadvertently affirmed in the Christian countries of Europe, that the English are fools and madmen. Fools, because they give their children the small-pox to prevent their catching it; and madmen, because they wantonly communicate a certain and dreadful distemper to their children, merely to prevent an uncertain evil.’

Letters concerning the English nation

Title page of Letters concerning the English nation, London, 1733.

Here is Voltaire explaining inoculation to the French, quoted here in the translation Letters concerning the English nation, first printed in London in 1733 (published in French as the Lettres philosophiques). Voltaire lived in London between 1726 and 1728, and it is then that he learned at first hand about the English practice of inoculation. He decided, perhaps surprisingly, to include a letter on the subject in his Letters on the English, a work begun in London and published a few years later when he was back in France.

Letter 11, ‘On Inoculation’, is on the surface a description of how the English have embraced a modern medical technique then regarded with huge suspicion in France. But at its heart, this is a morality tale about the tension between empirical evidence and superstition, and that makes the letter seem a whole lot more topical. In her recent blog post, Leadership matters in the first days and weeks of an outbreak: lessons from the Great Plague of Marseille, 300 years later, Cindy Ermus wrote graphically about the outbreak of plague in Marseille in 1720, drawing uncomfortable parallels between the management of the crisis then and now. Voltaire’s letter on inoculation similarly acquires unexpected resonance in the context of the present crisis.

Le célèbre docteur Ane voulant introduire la mode de l'inoculation

Le célèbre docteur Ane voulant introduire la mode de l’inoculation, à Paris (c. 1784-1785). (BnF/Gallica)

The practice that Voltaire is describing is now strictly called variolation, and involves inoculating with the smallpox virus; inoculation with cowpox, that is vaccination, was a safer method introduced by Edward Jenner and others from the 1760s. Variolation was practiced widely in China, from where it spread to the Ottoman Empire and then to Europe. The first European country to take up variolation was England, where the practice became common from the 1720s, precisely the time when Voltaire was living in London.

Voltaire would have seen at first hand that even in England, inoculation was still mistrusted, and he uses what we would now call evidence-based argument to show the brute statistics of death. Modern journalists are currently talking a lot about the economic damage caused by the present pandemic, and the challenge of weighing human life against the health of the economy. Voltaire is in his time perhaps unusual in understanding that there is a link between a health crisis and a country’s commercial interests: ‘A trading nation is always watchful over its own interests, and grasps at every discovery that may be of advantage to its commerce.’

Lady Montagu in Turkish dress, by Jean-Etienne Liotard

Lady Montagu in Turkish dress, by Jean-Etienne Liotard (c.1756).

The most human note in Voltaire’s letter on inoculation is when he talks of the courage of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘a woman of as fine a genius, and endued with as great a strength of mind, as any of her sex in the British kingdoms’, who learned of inoculation in Constantinople (where her husband was British ambassador), and introduced the practice in England, with the active support of the Princess of Wales, Caroline of Anspach – ‘this Princess’, writes Voltaire, ‘born to encourage the whole circle of arts, and to do good to mankind’. The Letters on the English present a world of politics, science and literature that is predictably male-centred, and the letter on inoculation is a refreshing exception in presenting two remarkable female protagonists. And there have been journalists recently suggesting that many of the countries having most success in the fight against Covid-19 are those led by women…

Voltaire mentions in his letter the particularly severe epidemic that had swept Paris just a few years before he came to England: ‘Twenty thousand persons whom the small-pox swept away at Paris in 1723, would have been alive at this time’, he writes – no exaggeration, since modern historians put the figure at closer to 40,000 deaths. But what Voltaire does not say is that he experienced this epidemic at first hand. His close friend Génonville died of smallpox in September 1723, and in late October he went to stay with the président de Maisons at his house outside Paris, known nowadays as the château de Maisons-Laffitte (a beautiful baroque house designed by Mansart). From there he wrote to his friend the marquise de Bernières saying that ‘Paris is ravaged by this illness’ (30 October 1723), and listing their common friends who had died. Then Voltaire himself was diagnosed with smallpox, and he became dangerously ill, too ill to be moved. His friends feared for his life, a doctor was summoned from Paris (who apparently bled him copiously), and several weeks passed before he was out of danger. Finally, Voltaire was fit enough to leave the château de Maisons, and just as he left, a huge fire broke out, destroying a large part of the house: Voltaire’s visit to Maisons was not one his hosts quickly forgot.

Château de Maisons-Laffitte, by Jacques Rigaud

Château de Maisons-Laffitte, by Jacques Rigaud (1681-1754).

No sooner was Voltaire back in Paris than he got down to work. On the principle that you should never waste a good crisis, he wrote a poem addressed to Gervasi, the doctor who had, as he thought, saved him, and another poem to Mlle Lecouvreur, the great actress who had been present at Maisons when he was taken ill. He also wrote a letter to the baron de Breteuil (c. 5 December 1723), describing in fulsome detail the course of his illness; and then another anonymous letter appeared (c. 10 December 1723), apparently written to Voltaire by a fervent admirer, lauding the heroism of the poet, ‘truly the only poet’ in France, for having worked even during his illness. Voltaire could not have written a more glowing eulogy himself, and in fact that does seem to be what he did – forge a fan letter. These four pieces have long been known, but separately, and it was only when they were edited in the Oxford Complete Works of Voltaire (volume 3A, 2004, p.256-76) that we were able to understand for the first time that this amalgam of two prose letters and two poems was constructed deliberately as one single literary work, an epistle in prose and verse that Voltaire published in the Mercure de France in December 1723. The young ambitious poet had been out of the limelight for too long, and he was anxious to remind the literary world of the capital that he was back in Paris and in business – and his recovery from smallpox was a good story to tell.

What is interesting, to return to the Letters on the English, is that Voltaire does not tell that story here. This is a book written directly out of his experience of English life, but Voltaire never, ever, tells us everything. The Complete Works of Voltaire were begun in 1968, and the Voltaire Foundation plans to celebrate the completion of the 203 volumes at the end of 2020. When we chose the Letters on the English as the last major text to appear in the collection, we could not have known it would have this contemporary resonance. But Voltaire’s Enlightenment voice continues to resonate, powerfully, and often in ways we don’t expect.

– Nicholas Cronk

Leadership matters in the first days and weeks of an outbreak: lessons from the Great Plague of Marseille, 300 years later

It seems as though American society has all but ground to a halt: all sporting events postponed or canceled, Broadway shuttered, entire states closing schools and businesses, and issuing stay-at-home orders. While these tactics may seem extreme, the goal is to “flatten the curve”, or prevent local outbreaks of the COVID-19 from overwhelming our medical system and exacerbating a once localized crisis.

This year, we mark the tricentennial of an important event in the history of infectious disease, one that carries many lessons for us today as we assess the threat of the novel coronavirus in the United States, and debate the extent to which we must impose such social distancing and interrupt the daily routines of millions of Americans.

On May 25, 1720, a ship named the Grand Saint-Antoine, which had journeyed for nearly a year in the eastern Mediterranean, arrived back at the port of Marseille, France carrying bales of cotton, imported fine silks and other valuable goods destined for the foire de Beaucaire, one of the most important trade fairs in the Mediterranean. Unbeknownst to those on board and on land, it also carried the bacteria that causes plague. Within two years, as much as half the population of the port city had succumbed to the infection.

Eighteenth-century engraving of the Foire de Beaucaire. Musée de Nîmes.

Eighteenth-century engraving of the Foire de Beaucaire. Musée de Nîmes.

The Great Plague of Provence, or Great Plague of Marseille, brought southern France to its knees, and led much of the rest of the world to impose strict measures to prevent its spread. Understanding how the outbreak was mismanaged in its earliest days reveals that human actions and inactions can turn what begins as a local outbreak into a rampant pandemic. The key lesson for us today: we must demand more from our leaders than we have received to date, and they must prioritize containing the pandemic over everything, including economic well-being.

About two months prior to the arrival of the Grand Saint-Antoine in Marseille, a passenger died of what appeared to be bubonic plague days after boarding the vessel at Tripoli. Soon thereafter, another seven or eight men, including the ship’s surgeon, are said to have died on the route from Tripoli to Livorno, where Captain Jean-Baptiste Chataud made an emergency stop before heading back to Marseille. In this time, another three likely perished from plague.

Even so, local Italian doctors inspected the ship and declared the illness a case of pestilential fever rather than plague. As a result, authorities in Livorno allowed the ship to depart for Marseille with a patente nette, or certificate of health, that declared it free from infection, and the ship’s captain – who was reportedly in a hurry to get back to Provence in time for the trade fair – was more than happy to depart.

Upon the vessel’s arrival in Marseille, the ship endured an unusually short quarantine – only a few days, rather than the full term of about six weeks – despite the deaths that took place on board. Jean-Baptiste Estelle, the city’s premier échevin, or municipal magistrate, who owned part of the ship and a large portion of its cargo, had used his influence to arrange for the premature unloading of his shipment into the city’s warehouses – already infected with the bacteria, Yersinia pestis – so that they could be sold soon thereafter at the trade fair.

Dramatic scenes of suffering along Marseille’s Cours Belsunce during the Great Plague of Provence.

Dramatic scenes of suffering along Marseille’s Cours Belsunce during the Great Plague of Provence. Vue du Cours pendant la peste de 1720, by Michel Serre (1721). Musée des Beaux-Arts de Marseille.

Meanwhile, however, the signs of plague were becoming unmistakable as it claimed more victims. Several porters who had reportedly handled the ship’s merchandise fell ill and perished within two to three days. At this time, a local surgeon was called to inspect the bodies and determine the cause of death. Only then was the ship redirected to the quarantine station on the island of Jarre. But it was too late – plague had arrived in Marseille.

And yet, despite people purportedly “dropping like flies” according to one local eyewitness, rather than undertaking emergency measures to contain the plague, officials instead launched a major and elaborate campaign of misinformation. Local authorities hired doctors (for a large sum of money) to diagnose the local distemper as merely a malignant, pestilential fever, and thus, not plague. The reason? Money and feckless leadership. At stake was both the reputation of the city’s leaders, and more importantly, the livelihood of this ancient port city, which by the 18th century had become a major commercial capital.

Another representation of the plague in Marseille by Michel Serre. It depicts the city’s hôtel de ville with scenes of death and dying in the foreground.

Another representation of the plague in Marseille by Michel Serre. It depicts the city’s hôtel de ville with scenes of death and dying in the foreground. Vue de l’hôtel de Ville de Marseille pendant la peste (1721). Musée des Beaux-Arts de Marseille.

Amidst rumors throughout Europe, and fearing the consequences that a plague epidemic could have on Marseillais commerce, the city’s leaders and the Bureau of Health sent letters in July 1720 to the Regent in Paris, as well as to health officers in ports all over Europe, stating that local authorities had managed to contain the contagion. But they hadn’t. A full two months after the beginning of the outbreak, when plague in Provence could no longer be refuted, French authorities finally suspended all commerce out of Marseille, quarantined the city (and later the entire region), and put a number of measures in place to prevent the spread of the epidemic.

Unfortunately, however, thanks in part to the lies of local officials, it was too late. The epidemic had already begun to spread throughout the region of Provence, where it ultimately took as many as 126,000 lives.

In those first crucial weeks after the start of the outbreak, Marseillais authorities prioritized economic interests over public health. As a result, what began as a few dead aboard a ship became a virulent epidemic that raged in southeastern France for two years.

Such negligent misdeeds are all too familiar to us today. The first several weeks of the current health crisis saw the President of the United States, and his backers in the conservative media, refer to the novel coronavirus as a hoax, part of a conspiracy to destroy his presidency. Much like Marseille’s officials in 1720, the current administration claimed, incorrectly, that the virus has been contained. The president has also wrongly insisted that sick people should go to work, and that “anyone who needs a test gets a test.”

In an effort to downplay the pandemic, he ignored the advice of the CDC that the elderly avoid large crowds and long trips. And on March 11, his Oval Office speech – key parts of which his administration later scrambled to clarify – all but proved to the American people, and the world, that the president cannot be trusted to sensibly and effectively manage the current crisis.

Much as in 1720, the administration’s failure to act prudently in the earliest days of the coronavirus outbreak has resulted in an emergency that is now more difficult to predict, to track, and to contain.

Not for the first time, we are witnessing a breakdown of institutions that we would otherwise trust in times of crisis. Inept leadership and a campaign of misinformation helped turn yet another disease outbreak into a full-blown emergency.

In times of public health crises, and especially in those crucial early days of a new outbreak when concentrated, steadfast measures are essential, the quality of leadership matters.

– Cindy Ermus

Cindy Ermus is assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and executive editor for the online journal, Age of Revolutions. She is currently completing a book on the Great Plague of Provence. Follow her on Twitter @CindyErmus.

A version of this article first appeared in The Washington Post under the title, “The danger of prioritizing politics and economics during the coronavirus outbreak: Three hundred years later, the lessons of the Great Plague of Provence are sounding an alarm.”