The Black Death was an epidemic of various contagious diseases, bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic, all caused by the same bacillus, pasteurella pestis, a combination of which raged throughout Europe between 1348 and 1350. It was the worst plague experienced since the sixth century. Between one-quarter and one-half of the total population perished. In centers with denser populations, such as the monasteries, the proportion of victims was much higher. As the bacteria of this disease live in certain temperatures only, the peak periods of sickness and mortality usually occurred at certain months in the year, according to the local climate.
The impact of this unprecedented catastrophe had a profound effect on the behavior of the population. People reacted by extremes, either seeking recourse to religion through repentance and supplication to God, or reverting to licentiousness, lawbreaking, and savagery. These two types of reaction often combined, in particular where they concerned the attitude of the non-Jewish population to the Jews. Toward the end of 1348, and in early 1349, countless numbers of Jews lost their lives in a wave of massacres which spread throughout Europe because of the accusation that the Jews had caused the death of Christians by poisoning the wells and other water sources.
According to L.F. Hirst, a leading authority in this field, the Black Death “in all probability… originated somewhere in the central Asiatic hinterland, where a permanent reservoir of infection is maintained among the wild rodents of the steppes. Rumors of a great mortality among Asiatics, especially Chinese, reached Europe in 1346, and by the spring of that year bubonic plague had reached the shores of the Black Sea…. From ports on the shores of the Crimea besieged by Tatars, who perished in vast numbers from the epidemic… the infection was carried on shipboard to Constantinople, Genoa, Venice, and other European ports. The disease spread as rapidly as the transport of those days permitted… to the Mainland.”
At the time of the Black Death no one was aware of this connection and the existence of contagion was only vaguely perceived. Some people ascribed the catastrophe to astrological conjunctions; others regarded it as a divine visitation. Pope Clement VI, in his bull defending the Jews from these accusations, saw it as “the pestilence with which God is afflicting the Christian people.” The vast majority of the population, however, was inclined to view it as a pestis manufacta (an artificially induced malady), the simplest explanation to the unsophisticated mind, and therefore sought the human agents thought to be spreading the disease.
Initially, the Jews were not the only persons accused; strangers of every type were suspected. An Avignonese physician relates: “Many hesitated, in some countries people believed that the Jews intended to poison the whole world and therefore killed them. In other countries they expelled paupers suffering from deformity; and in yet others, the nobles.” Sometimes itinerant monks were suspected of placing the poison and spreading the disease, and they were attacked instead.
Well Poisoning Libel
Soon, however, the feelings of helplessness to stem the plague, and the fierce urge to react against the death and destruction it caused, concentrated the force of the populace on the age-old target of popular Christian hostility, the Jews. Anti-Jewish violence was particularly rabid in Germany, where it had been preceded by a dark half century of anti-Jewish persecution in conjunction with a succession of blood libels and accusations of host desecration. This had added to the sinister traits already attributed to the hateful image of the Jew. In France, the way had been paved for this accusation by a similar charge leveled during the Pastoureaux persecutions of 1321.
Amid the general atmosphere of hostility, and the cruelty of the persecutions to which the Jews had been subjected, it was almost logical that Christians could imagine that the Jews might seek revenge. Thus, a Jew who was tortured in Freiburg im Breisgau in 1349 “was then asked… ‘why did they do it…?’ Then he answered: ‘because you Christians have destroyed so many Jews; because of what king Armleder did; and also because we too want to be lords; for you have lorded long enough.’” (“… wan umb das, das ir cristen so menigen ju den verdarpten, do kuenig Armleder was, und ouch um das, das wir ouch herren wolten gewesen sin, wan ir genug lang herren gewesen sint;” Urkundenbuch der Stadt Freiburg im Breisgau (1828), nos. 193, 382).
The first occasion on which Jews were tortured to confess complicity in spreading the Black Death was in September 1348, in the Castle of Chillon on Lake Geneva. The “confessions” thus extracted indicate that their accusers wished to prove that the Jews had set out to poison the wells and food “so as to kill and destroy the whole of Christianity” (“ad interficiendam et destruendam totam legem Christianam”). The disease was allegedly spread by a Jew of Savoy on the instructions of a rabbi who told him: “See, I give you a little package, half a span in size, which contains a preparation of poison and venom in a narrow, stitched leathern bag. This you are to distribute among the wells, the cisterns, and the springs about Venice and the other places where you go, in order to poison the people who use the water….”
This indictment, therefore, shows that his accusers recognized that the plague had spread from the south northward. As the case dragged on, details were extracted telling of further consultations held among the Jews, about messengers from Toledo, and other wild allegations.
On October 3, 1348, during the summing up, an allegation providing a motive for the total destruction of Jewry was made; it was asserted that “before their end they said on their Law that it is true that all Jews, from the age of seven, cannot excuse themselves of this [crime], since all of them in their totality were cognizant and are guilty of the above actions” (“asseruerunt praefati Judaei ante eorum ultimum supplicium per legem suam esse vera dicentes quod omnes Judaei a septem annis circum non possint super hoc se excusare, quoniam universaliter sciant omnes, et sint culpabiles in dicto facto”).
Outbreak of Persecutions
These “confessions” were sent to various cities in Germany. The accusation that the Jews had poisoned the wells spread there like wildfire, fanned by the general atmosphere of terror. The patricians of Strasbourg attempted to defend the Jews at a meeting of representatives of the Alsatian towns at Benfeld, but the majority rejected their plea, arguing: “If you are not afraid of poisoning, why have you yourselves covered and guarded your wells?”
Correspondence on the subject between the authorities in the various cities has been preserved. In general, it reveals a decision to expel the Jews from the locality concerned for good, and to launch an immediate attack to kill them while they still remained. At Basle the patricians also unsuccessfully attempted to protect the Jews.
In various cities Jews were tortured to confess their part in the conspiracy. The defamation, killings, and expulsions spread through the kingdoms of Christian Spain, France, and Germany, to Poland-Lithuania, affecting about 300 Jewish communities. On September 26, 1348, Pope Clement VI issued a bull in Avignon denouncing this allegation, stating that “certain Christians, seduced by that liar, the devil, are imputing the pestilence to poisoning by Jews.” This imputation and the massacre of Jews in consequence were defined by the pope as “a horrible thing.” He tried to convince Christians that “since this pestilence is all but universal everywhere, and by a mysterious decree of God has afflicted, and continues to afflict, both Jews and many other nations throughout the diverse regions of the earth to whom a common existence with Jews is unknown [the charge] that the Jews have provided the cause or the occasion for such a crime is without plausibility.”
Both the emperors Charles IV and Peter IV of Aragon also tried to protect the Jews from the results of the accusation. The arguments generally put forward by the rulers were expressed by the physician Konrad of Megenberg in his Buch der Natur arrived at in the light of his own experience: “But I know that there were more Jews in Vienna than in any other German city familiar to me, and so many of them died of the plague that they were obliged to enlarge their cemetery. To have brought this on themselves would have been folly on their part.”
All these appeals to reason were ineffective. The massacres of the Jews continued, and Jewish property was confiscated. Despite his policy of protecting the Jews, in 1350 the emperor Charles IV formally absolved the burghers of Cheb (Eger) in Bohemia for the killings and robbery they had committed among the Jewish population. In doing so, he stated: “Forgiveness is [granted] for every transgression involving the slaying and destruction of Jews which has been committed without the positive knowledge of the leading citizens, or in their ignorance, or in any other fashion whatsoever.”
By this time, it was well-known that the accusation that Jews had spread the plague was false. In many places Jews were killed even before the plague had visited the locality. Further outbreaks of plague continued later in the 14th century, but Jews were no longer accused of being the cause.
It was recognized by the Jews that the Christians “have opened wide their mouths about me: they have put and spread poison on the water, so they say, in order to libel and attack us,” to quote a contemporary dirge. Faced with this overwhelming antagonism, the Jews tried to defend themselves wherever possible and in whatever way they could. In many localities fierce conflicts took place between the Jewish population and their attackers.
At Mainz the Jews set fire to their homes and to the Jewish street: according to some sources, 6,000 Jews perished in the flames. This also occurred at Frankfurt on the Main. In Strasbourg, 2,000 Jews were burnt on a wooden scaffold in the Jewish cemetery. The way the martyrs met their deaths is described in a contemporary Hebrew source concerning “the holy community of Nordhausen…. They asked the burghers to permit them to prepare themselves for martyrdom: permission having been given…they joyfully arrayed themselves in their prayer shawls and shrouds, both men and women. They [the Christians] dug a grave at the cemetery and covered it with wooden scaffolding…The pious ones [among the Jews] asked that a musician be hired to play dancing tunes so that they should enter the presence of God with singing. They took each other by the hand, both men and women, and danced and leapt with their whole strength before God. Their teacher, R. Jacob, went before them; his son, R. Meir, brought up the rear to see that none should lag behind. Singing and dancing they entered the grave, and when all had entered, R. Meir jumped out and walked around to make certain that none had stayed outside. When the burghers saw him, they asked him to save his life [by apostasy]. He answered: ‘This now is the end of our troubles, you see me only for a while, and then I shall be no more.’ He returned to the grave; they set fire to the scaffolding; they died all of them together and not a cry was heard” (Sefer Minhagim of Worms).
This was the spirit that enabled European Jewry to emerge spiritually unscathed from the avalanche of hatred and cruelty released on the Jews by the Christians in Europe.
The Black Death not only resulted in the immediate destruction of thousands of Jewish lives and the loss of Jewish homes and property in hundreds of communities, but had more far-reaching consequences. Popular imagination invested the already odious image of the Jew with even more horrible characteristics. It was this image that helped to shape the stereotype of the Jew represented by anti-Semitism and racism in modern times.
After the Black Death, the legal status of the Jews deteriorated almost everywhere in Europe. Although Jews were frequently received back into the cities where many had been killed or driven out, sometimes within a year of the decision to expel them for good, they usually only gained permission to resettle on worse terms and in greater isolation than before. The position of the Jews in Aragon and Castile (Spain) deteriorated sharply after 1348–49.
The only countries in Europe where the events of the Black Death did not leave a permanent scar on the Jewish communities were Poland-Lithuania. The reconstruction of the Jewish communities and of Jewish life and cultural activity in the second half of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century clearly evidence the social and spiritual vitality of the Jewish people in Europe in the period.
P. Ziegler, Black Death (1969); R. Hoeniger, Der schwarze Tod in Deutschland (1882); J. Nohl, Der schwarze Tod (1924), 239–73; L.F. Hirst, Conquest of Plague (1953); E. Carpentier, in: Annales, 17 (1962), 1062–92; E. Littmann, in: MGWJ, 72 (1928), 576–600; J. Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews (1943, repr. paperback 1961), 97–108; S. Guerchberg, in: S.L. Thrupp (ed.), Change in Medieval Society (1964), 208–24; Baron, Social 2, 9–12 (1965–67).
[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.