Pandemic Lessons From the Era of ‘Les Miserables’

Historians in the News
tags: Paris, French history, urban history, pandemics, medical history

(This is the second of three stories that look at how cities and their economies recovered from historic epidemics. You can read the first one on Amsterdam here.)

When cholera first arrived in Paris in March 1832, some refused to let it affect their social lives.

The German poet Heinrich Heine, then living in the city, describes a masked ball held just as the first cases were announced, at which revelers danced the chahut, the high-kicking dance that later evolved into the Can-Can. Suddenly hit by shivering cold, one dancer dressed as a harlequin removed his mask, and struck horror into the crowd: his face had turned violet. This was a sign of the so-called “blue death,” caused by extreme dehydration as cholera bacteria spread in the small intestine. Some laughed and assumed it was face paint, but soon other dancers fell ill around him and were rushed to hospital. They died so quickly that some were buried still wearing the costumes they were dancing in just hours before.

Heine’s description, written for a German newspaper, may have been embroidered hearsay, but the terror that cholera struck in Parisians — and the speed at which it spread — were nonetheless real enough. The disease had arrived in Europe, says Ed Cohen, author of “A Body Worth Defending : Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body” as a form of “colonial blowback” from India. It was part of a global pandemic spread along trade routes between European states and the growing network of colonial possessions they were seizing in South Asia, where cholera was endemic.

It likely came via Britain to Paris, where during 169 days of public health crisis, it killed 18,500 people, or roughly 2% of the city’s population, including French Prime Minister Casimir Pierre Périer. Delivering a swift, grisly death to around half of those who contracted it, cholera also brought Paris’ economy to a standstill. Anyone who could, fled, while those who remained sometimes adopted elaborate (and, it turned out, futile) protective costumes to stave off infection. The strain of the epidemic even catalyzed a small insurrection against France’s new constitutional monarchy, where a small band of rebels clashed with troops in Paris’ most cholera-stricken districts, an event later remembered in the climactic scene of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

This acute shock has uncomfortable echoes of today’s pandemic, much like Amsterdam’s experience of bubonic plague in the 17th century. It is what happened afterwards, however, that might be most relevant today. Paris’ cholera epidemic may have hit hard, but, as a new study exploring the city’s post-pandemic housing market shows, it was followed by a swift economic recovery. Housing prices did drop sharply during the pandemic itself, the study by Marc Francke of Amsterdam Business School and Matthijs Korevaar of Rotterdam’s Erasmus School of Economics notes. But by 1836, four years after the pandemic hit, property price growth in cholera-hit areas regained parity with areas that had been largely spared.

As in 17th century Amsterdam, one reason for this recovery was the metropolis’ magnetic draw, which saw migrants fleeing penury in the French countryside prepared to take health risks to access Paris’ economic opportunities. The study also highlights another vital factor in the recovery. The pandemic sparked a major rethink of how Paris should be planned and built.

Read entire article at Bloomberg CityLab