Why Were Jews Blamed for the Black Death?
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Bubonic plague—the “Black Death”—killed 25 million in 14 century Europe, roughly 40 percent of the population. Long-distance merchant ships bearing flea-infested rats likely spread the deadly disease-causing bacilli throughout Western Europe. But the scientific understanding of communicable disease was more than five centuries away.
So when the populace searched for answers, the ecclesiastical hierarchy lectured them on how the Black Death was God’s retribution for their wicked ways. In Spain, tolerance of the “killers of Christ” was among them. Soon tales of Jews pouring poisonous powder into wells circulated throughout what is now Germany and France. What followed was a massacre of Jews unparalleled in its magnitude and ferocity.
With an uptick of anti-Semitism worldwide coinciding with the Coronavirus pandemic, it is all too easy to wonder if a comparable attack on Jews is brewing. And stories of insults of Asian-Americans on public streets are an unsettling reminder of what a hateful response to a public health crisis might yield. Jews, who in recent decades have mostly stood against bigotry, may again have to reacquaint themselves with this tragic chapter in their history.
Before the widespread outbreak of the Black Death in 1348, Jews in Western Europe had been subjected to episodes of violence. The first crusade of 1096 began with attacks on Jews, who were seen as enemies of Christ as much as the Turkish Seljuks, who controlled the Holy Land. In the 12th and 13th centuries, authorities ordered the destruction of books of the Talmud because they were thought to contain secret instructions.
But although it may not have been the first time, the thoroughness of Jewish slaughter in Germany, France and Switzerland and the preferred method of elimination— burning—now seem like portents of the Holocaust some 600 years later.
“Within one year…all the Jews between Cologne and Austria were burnt,” wrote one contemporary observer, Heinrich Truchess von Diessenhoven, as recounted in the 1994 book, The Black Death, a compendium of documents translated and edited by Rosemary Horrox. “And in Austria they await the same fate, for they are accursed of God.”
Another chronicle by a Franciscan friar, Herman Gigas, states: “In a number of regions many people, noble and humble alike, have laid plans against them and their defenders which they will never abandon until the whole Jewish race has been destroyed.”
Stories circulated of a plot against Christianity originating in the Jewish community of Toledo in Spain, and carried forward by a Rabbi Peyret in Chambery, the capital of what was then Savoy (southeastern France). Local authorities and mobs depended on forced confessions as justification for attacks on Jewish populations. Typically Jews were “put on the wheel and tortured” until they confessed to elaborate plots, often involving rabbis from far-away places instructing them by letter to poison wells in an effort to decimate Christianity. One such confessor said the poison had been formulated from frogs, lizards, spiders and “Christians’ hearts,” according to the Jewish Encyclopedia’s account. The poison was wrapped in cloth until it was about “the size of a large nut” and then deposited in wells or springs, the confessors declared.
Jews were herded into pits, fields or houses for the purpose of burning them alive. Escape was virtually impossible. Those who survived the flames were greeted by men wielding “cudgels and stones” who “dashed out the brains of those trying to creep out of the fire,” according to the account of Von Diessenhoven, a canon of the city of Konstanz.
In that city, Jews herded into a house specially constructed for their torching were “dancing, others singing and the rest weeping” as the flames engulfed them, Von Diessenhoven wrote. Immediate conversion to Christianity provided an escape for some. Babies were wrested away and baptized as their parents burned.
Christian persecutors had ceased to view Jews as a separate subculture, protected but despised, a population that must be endured if not fully tolerated. By the time of the plague, Jews were perceived as enemies.
“It’s a radical shift in the notion of Jews not as outcasts but as dangerous,” says Paul Freedman, professor of medieval history at Yale. “You see this all the time: ‘Mexicans are lazy, or dirty, or unintelligent.’ But when suddenly it’s ‘they are rapists, murderers, a danger to public order,’ this elevates contempt to a different order of magnitude; they are an immediate danger.”
Some Jewish communities attempted resistance. In Mainz, Jews succeeded in staving off the mob for a time, killing 200 of the attackers. When the inevitable counterattack began, according to a story in Haaretz, Jews barricaded themselves in their homes and set fire to them rather than starving or surrendering to the mob. More than 6,000 died, one of the largest totals of the plague years.
The church and some monarchs tried to intervene on behalf of besieged Jewish communities. They did so for practical reasons, chief among them the fear that widespread mob violence against Jews could lead to contempt for all forms of authority and that their various bases of power would be next in line. In several decrees—papal bulls—Pope Clement VI attempted to put a halt to anti-Jewish violence, noting the illogic of Jews spreading disease through poisoning of wells. “Throughout many parts of the world the same plague, by the hidden judgment of God, has afflicted and afflicts the Jews themselves and many other races who have never lived alongside them,” he wrote.
Some officials gave way to the mobs. Others found ways to profit. The Holy Roman Empire, facing tax losses if Jews were annihilated, acquiesced to the destruction of Jews in Nuremberg and elsewhere in return for a cut of the wealth derived from the seizure of Jewish possessions.
According to The Jewish Encyclopedia, the emperor, Charles I, assessed a fine of 20,000 Marks in silver against the city of Frankfurt for loss of tax income from Jews. The empire also took control of the debt obligations owed to slaughtered Jews. It was likely a disappointment to those in the mobs who had hoped the killing of Jews would relieve their debt burdens.
Some commentators have argued that Jews who were not killed actually stood a better chance of surviving the plague because of greater cleanliness, sanitation and observance of the laws of Kashrut. “I don’t know of any credible evidence for that,”says David Nirenberg, dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School and a specialist in medieval Jewish history.
Eventually persecution ceased as the waves of infections and deaths dissipated. But Jews in Spain suffered a renewed round of attacks in 1391 and were expelled in 1492. Subsequent rounds of the plague meant that the population of Europe would not recover its lost population for another century or more.
Jews remained in Germany and France. But even as one generation yielded to the next, the horrors of the 14th century became a mile marker in the historic memory of Jewish persecution. So when Polish nobles offered incentives for Jewish migration to their country to boost the mid-16th century economy, Jews responded in massive numbers.
The massacre of Jews during the Black Death “marks a stage in the overall deterioration of Jews in Christian Europe, but it is itself not a turning point,” says Yale’s Freedman. “The killing of Jews between 1347 and 1349 was neither the first nor the last frightful incident of persecution of Jews.”