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The Black Death Massacres And Persecutions Against Jews

Medieval History | March 21, 2021

Burning of Jews during the Black Death epidemic, 1349. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The 14th century was a dangerous time to be Jewish in Europe. Well, it almost always is, but that was the time of the Black Death, so in addition to avoiding the Plague, Jews in Europe had to contend with crazed and paranoid neighbors who blamed them for the state of affairs. A lucky few managed to escape to the safe havens of Poland and Lithuania, but many more were burned at the stake or otherwise killed en masse, thanks to the senseless prejudice that spread alongside the disease.

Poisoning The Well

Struggling to understand, in the time before germ theory, why their loved ones were dropping like flies, many Christians in Europe decided—like most things, as far as they were concerned—it was all the Jews' fault. Jews were already seen as enemies of Christianity, with attacks on them dating back to the Crusades of 1096, so unfortunately, violent antisemitism was old hat to many Christians. It didn't help that, in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Talmud was destroyed for containing what was believed to be secret messages, so this particular faction of Christians was already primed to believe in a Jewish conspiracy.

Specifically, they came to believe in a network of Jewish communities plotting to literally poison their wells. Their only evidence of the theory was that Jews rarely used the common wells that were said to have been poisoned and didn't seem to catch the disease as often as others, though this is probably because Jewish communities were largely segregated and their religious laws were strict about cleanliness. Jews who were detained and tortured also confessed to poisoning the wells with frogs, lizards, spiders, and "Christians' hearts," but those confessions can be confidently dismissed. Pope Clement VI saw the writing on the wall and issued a statement that the Plague affected people of all races and religions, but not even he could stop the antisemitic train that was about to roll through Europe.

Pope Clement VI. (Mario Giovanetti/Wikimedia Commons)

The Black Death Massacres

The persecution of the Jewish people during the Black Death was as horrifying as it was prolific. Jewish people were rounded up by the hundreds and forced into pits, houses, and even fields that were then set aflame, and anyone who escaped was beaten to death with rocks and clubs. On Valentine's Day 1349, 2,000 Jews were murdered in the French city of Strasbourg. Shortly thereafter, a forced mass suicide was carried out in Frankfurt. Before long, entire villages were wiped out.

King Casimir III urged Jews to flee to Poland and Lithuania, but few made it out. Sometimes, victims escaped death by promising to convert, but it rarely worked unless children were involved. In many cases, babies were ripped away from their families and baptized as their parents burned. That doesn't mean, however, that the Jewish people just sat back and took the abuse of Christians. When the people of Mainz, Germany fought the mobs that came for them, they killed 200 of their attackers. During a counterattack, 6,000 Jews barricaded themselves in their homes, which were tragically set on fire moments later, roasting entire families alive.

We'll never know exactly how many Jews were murdered in Europe as a result of a prejudiced people's desperation for a scapegoat, but it numbers in the thousands. Thankfully, as the severity of the Plague waned, so did persecution of the Jewish community ... until 1492, when they were expelled from Spain completely. And then, you know, everything after.

Tags: massacre | medieval europe | plague

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.