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France in 1720: The Confluence of Financial Crisis and Pandemic




21H: History

Faculty Supervisor:

Malick Ghachem

Faculty email:


Apply by:

May 7, 2020


Malick Ghachem: mghachem@mit.edu

Project Description

Three hundred years ago, in 1720, France was hit by a pair of overlapping disasters: the bursting of the Mississippi Bubble and the Plague of Marseilles/Provence. The first of these disasters was a work of a Scottish moneyman named John Law, who persuaded the Regency government of France to entrust him with the kingdom’s finances in the hope of eliminating the massive royal debt inherited from the wars of Louis XIV. That experiment, known as the System, ended in the crash of the Parisian stock market and the ruin of those who had invested in Law’s scheme for converting royal debt into equity stakes in the French Indies Company. As the bubble was expanding, a ship from the Levant arrived in Marseilles, in the south of France, bringing with it passengers carrying the bubonic plague. The ship’s arrival marked the start of a pandemic that spread throughout Provence and eventually killed some 126,000 individuals. The confluence of these disaster marks France in 1720 as a place and time that echo in our contemporary experience. The purpose of this summer 2020 UROP is to research and develop an article-length study that explores the relationship between financial/economic and public health catastrophes and compares the experiences of 1720 to those we are confronting today. Students will research primary and secondary sources related to the Mississippi Bubble and the Marseilles plague, as well as analyses of contemporary-era pandemics and economic/financial crises that seek to draw comparisons between past and present. The project will move through well-defined phases (research, outlining, drafting) with an eyes towards completing our work by the end of the summer. Students will meet weekly with the faculty supervisor by Zoom. Students should apply for UROP direct funding by May 7, 2020. Students who do not receive direct funding may elect to pursue this project on a for-credit or volunteer basis.


Reading proficiency in French.