The plight of the Jews in a time of Plague

Jacqui Winters, Dickson College ACT, 2006


The Great Pestilence ravaged medieval Europe in the 14th Century, claiming a mortality rate of perhaps one third of the population. The plague had a devastating effect on medieval Europe. Its impact left scars on society for many years after its outbreak. There is little doubt that the Jewish communities of medieval Europe suffered as a result of rumours and persecutions. History is largely silent concerning these communities during the 14th century except where the record testifies to their unpopularity, the suspicions towards them, and mass persecutions of them. A fear-ridden population turned on the Jews, who were a clearly recognizable minority group, to avenge the inexplicable high death rate by a fearful tidal wave of murder. There was a further motivation for turning against the Jews. Many people resented the Jewish money-lenders who held such financial power over them

As the plague picked up momentum so did the rumours regarding the foundation of this relentless pestilence. The Jewish communities were not the only minority group to fall under suspicion; other groups included lepers and pilgrims. However, unfortunately for the Jews, they were to be the perfect subject of persecution. The Jewish people were already unpopular as a result of to the carelessness of some Christian officials. According to "…irresponsible priests spread rumours that the Jews kidnapped and tortured Christian children and desecrated the host.” ('Germany, the Flagellants and the Persecution of the Jews', p. 74).

Many tales, including the purposeful contamination of Christian areas, began to multiply. One of the most common rumours was the one that entailed Jews poisoning wells over Europe with the intention of killing Christians.

Rabbi Peyret, a Jew of Chambory who was a teacher of their law, sent for this Agimet, for whom he had searched, and when he had come before him he said: "We have been informed that you are going to Venice to buy silk and other wares. Here I am giving you a little package of half a span in size which contains some prepared poison and venom in a thin, sewed leather-bag. Distribute it among the wells, cisterns, and springs about Venice and the other places to which you go, in order to poison the people who use the water of the aforesaid wells that will have been poisoned by you, namely, the wells in which the poison will have been placed. (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/jewish/1348-jewsblackdeath.html)

This extract is selected from a signed confession made by a Jew named Agimet, made after enduring continuous torture by Count of Savoy Amadeus VI. These tales varied only slightly but were believed with vigour by the frightened populace. The former rumour was “confirmed” by the fact Jewish people were hygienic people who preferred to wash and bathe in open streams rather the wells as they had always done, but due to these rumours the latter behaviour was noticed as it had not been before. People saw this as a confirmation that they had contaminated the wells. Other accused corruptions included “passing around clothes taken from the dead or smearing ointment made from the buboes of plague victims” (“ Germany the Flagellants and the Persecutions of the Jews” pg75).

These rumours ignored the fact that many Jewish people also died during the plague, perhaps even more than the Christian population, considering the tight proximity of the ghettos in which they resided. This was not perceived as proof of their innocence but was merely further evidence of their craftiness and the lengths they were willing to explore. There was another reason for the Jews to be hated and resented by the Christian populace – their financial affairs. It is quite clear that their role as money lenders could arouse hatred and envy by those in their debt, especially when usury was officially regarded as sinful. Whether people believed the stories of Jewish conspiracy against society was irrelevant when the personal gain was so great in a year of heavy personal loss. The council, however, took the cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working-men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burned.

Many people were no doubt glad to gain back some control over financial obligations and also for someone to blame. In these times of irrationality such actions offered a glimmer of hope, even if the rumours were extravagant and illogical. The result of these rumours, pre-seeded hatred and uncontrollable fear of impending death spurred forth a vigorous persecution of the Jews. The plague had already robbed many lives of both Jewish and non Jewish but the carnage was intensified as the Jewish Massacres began. During the Plague …. claims that 60 large and 150 small Jewish communities were wiped out. The mortality in Vienna was so high that another cemetery had to be erected to accommodate the corpses. Some leaders tried to protect the Jews but these campaigns were short lived. Pope Clement VI himself tried to stop the persecutions by saying (referring to the Flagellants) “most of them… beneath an appearance of piety set their hands to cruel and impious work, shedding the blood of Jews, whom Christian piety accepts and sustains” (Pope Clement VI, The Flagellants and the Persecution of the Jews page 73)

The Flagellants added fuel to this fire, whipping the populace of Christendom into frenzies of murder and violence wherever they went. Massacres were occurring all over Christendom as towns sent message to other towns to punish their Jews as well. Persecutions included being burnt alive or merely just being hunted down. In some places trail was allowed before extermination but was very rare. Baptism was an acceptable alternative to execution if accepted by the Jews. In the Strasbourg massacre of St Valentine’s day 1348 two thousand Jewish people were tied up and burnt alive, despite the fact that Strasbourg was one of the towns that permitted baptism as an alternative. Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared. [Some say that about a thousand accepted baptism.] Many small children were taken out of the fire and baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers. (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/jewish/1348-jewsblackdeath.html)

Some Jews locked themselves up in their houses and burnt themselves and their families rather then be subjected of the humiliation of having their lives snatched from them by the unbalanced Christians. If these Jews survived they were run out of house and home. In the case of Strasbourg they even went as far as to ban Jewish people from entering the city at all. It was decided in Strasbourg that no Jew should enter the city for a hundred years, but before twenty years had passed, the council and magistrates agreed that they ought to admit the Jews again into the city for twenty years.

As the Plague ebbed away the madness did also, and a more tolerant attitude was eventually restored for this period of time but at a high cost. The Jewish people of Christendom had not only suffered from the plague itself, like the rest of the populace, but had also suffered prejudice, suspicion, and violence. They also suffered double the fear and grief of the general population, being safe nowhere from the effects of the plague nor their persecutors. They were left out of house and home to try and recover all they had lost materially, physically and psychologically.