The Black Death in Europe came at a time when the Catholic Church was the cornerstone to every aspect of a commoner's life. From baptism to marriage, virtually every event in life was witnessed by the papacy. Fields were blessed by a priest in the spring before they were planted, and much of the land that the people worked was owned by a church or monastery (Williman 1982). It was this complete devotion to the Catholic Church that allowed people to believe that the plague was a curse from God, and heretics were the cause of the disease. Fear of the Black Death in Medieval Europe may have led to an increased persecution of non-Christians by the Spanish Inquisition. Although the Spanish Inquisition originated before the Black Death struck Europe, the fear that non-Christians were sources of the disease allowed rulers to take the Inquisition to levels that may not have been reached under other circumstances.

Although the plague, caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis, most likely was present in Europe as early as the 6th century A.D. (Wiechmann and Grupe 2005), it was not primarily pneumonic until the early 14th century. It was the fear of the pneumonic plague that allowed people to believe the church when they claimed the disease was caused by a dissention of faith, rather than by other natural sources (Cantor 2001). Because little was known about the origins of diseases in the Middle Ages, people were told that illnesses were a divine punishment from God for their sins. Religious groups, such as the Muslims and Jews were seen for centuries as scapegoats for these diseases because their beliefs and actions allowed them to be viewed as sinners against God. It then comes as no great surprise, that when philosophers of the early 1300’s predicted a "great plague" as an eschatological sign of the end of the world, and people started falling ill from the Black Death, the public believed that this disease was attributed to the sin and corruptions of the non Catholics within their community (Williman 1982).

The persecution of non Catholics was a reoccurring event throughout Europe’s Middle Ages. During this time, loyalty to Christianity had taken the place of loyalty to a political state. The Catholic Church was the only stable institution that provided leadership and order to the common man (Stalcup 2001). This totalitarian state allowed Catholic leaders to persecute and expel non Catholics for decades, including throughout the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition began in 1215 to remove the Cathers, who had invaded via the Crusades’ trade routes from the Middle East. Initially, the Inquisition was only to put heretics on trial, and if they were found to be guilty against God, they were to be banished from Spain. Inquisitionists, however, often took matters into their own hands by whipping, racking or removing the tongues of those on trial to gather confession of heresy (Stalcup 2001). The Inquisitionist’s goal was to save souls by obtaining confessions of heresy and “converting all those convicted to orthodox beliefs” (Roth 1964). They were very successful in the early years, and had started pursuing other religious groups that conflicted with Catholicism soon after the Cathars were expelled. By the time the Black Death struck Europe in 1347, the Catholics had fully established the Inquisition in Spain, and had actively been persecuting heresy for more than 100 years via fear, torture, and deceit.

The Jewish population of Europe was highly persecuted during the plague pandemic of 1347-1350. Although other religious groups were pursued, the Jews were accused of both planting and spreading the plague (Cantor 2001). In Spain, as well as Germany and Italy, Jewish families were marked with distinctive clothing, isolated, and killed. When the plague hit southern France in 1348, the hostility towards the Jewish people that had been building for years came to a climax. Four Jewish citizens were dragged from their houses, and burned at the stake on the accusation of poisoning the town’s water supply with plague (Tuchman 1978). The initial charges of plague spreading in southern France led to an outbreak of accusations, including the deaths of eleven Jews burned alive in Savoy, and more than 2,000 Jews burned on row stakes in Strasbourg, Germany (Tuchman 1978).

The Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella initially tried to protect the Jewish population from the Inquisition because of their economic importance throughout the country as moneylenders. However, as the plague spread, more and more families were forced to confess their alleged involvement in the pandemic or be killed (Roth 1995). To escape the accusations of the church, many Jews converted to Christianity and hid their true faith, or took their own lives rather than confess to the plague accusations. The Inquisitioners in Spain forbade practicing or converted Jews from leaving the cities during the height of the plague epidemic, believing that they would spread the disease further throughout the country (Roth 1995). Because the method of plague transmission was not known, and continued to spread despite the remedies proposed by medical and religious leaders, the King and Queen began to allow the removal of the accused Jews in the later plague years (Roth 1995). The approval of the Inquisition’s actions by the Spanish monarchy during the plague years may have opened the door for an increase in persecution of non Catholics by the Inquisition in the future.

By the time the Plague diminished around 1350, over 50,000 heretics were killed in the name of the Catholic Church, and many more had abandoned their faith and converted to Christianity to survive. As small bouts of plague continued to erupt across Europe, anti-Semitism grew, and by 1391 the Jewish people were expelled from Spain all together. Those who remained in hiding were persecuted and killed for their beliefs throughout the early 19th century when the Inquisition was finally dismantled by the French (Stalcup 2001). Although the Spanish Inquisition did not begin with the Black Death, the plague may have increased the Inquisition’s fury by spreading fear and prejudice against non- Christians throughout Europe.

References Cited

  1. Cantor, N. 2001. In the Wake of the Plague. Simon and Schuster, New York, NY.
  2. Roth, C. 1964. The Spanish Inquisition. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY.
  3. Roth, N. 1995. Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI.
  4. Stalcup, B. 2001. The Inquisition. Greenhaven Press, San Diego, CA.
  5. Tuchman, B. W. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Ballantine Books, New York, NY.
  6. Wiechmann, I., Grupe, G. 2005. Detection of Yersinia pestis DNA in two early medieval skeletal finds from Aschheim (Upper Bavaria, 6th century A.D.). American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 126:48-55.
  7. Williman, D. 1982. The Black Death: the Impact of the Fourteenth Century Plague. Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies. Binghamton, New York.

Clarification and Addendum by Gregory Bailey, SUNY-New Paltz (15 April 2010)

The Papal Bull "Exigit Sinceræ Eevotionis," issue by Pope Sixtus IV on 1 November 1478 is regarded as the official beginning of the Spanish Inquisition. Though this is the Papal Bull through which the Inquisition was established it should be noted that anti-Semitic persecution of the Jews by the Catholic Church was a phenomena dating centuries before this date. The term "Inquisition" refers to a "former tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church (1232-1820) created to discover and suppress heresy" (Princeton WordNet). The goal of the thesis in this paper is to present the Black Death and the sequential persecution of the Jews in the 1300's as an event that should be studied within the setting of the Roman Catholic Inquisition; to be more specific, the Catholic Spanish Inquisition.