Persecution of the Jews during the Great Plagues of the 14th Century
Courtney Pariera Dinkins
If it were not for fear, would abhorrence continue itself? Man fears what he does not know or understand; he is easily molded by these fears to trust those who know the “truth” and those with power. In the 14th century, life in Europe was structured around Christianity; it was not only the common religion, but also the foundation for governing the people. Because Christianity had become immersed into the culture, Jews had become a minority. Jewish customs separated Jews from their Christian neighbors. Intolerance and suspicion of these unfamiliar customs in addition to the unwillingness of Jews to convert to Christianity often led to fear and hatred from their neighbors. Hostility towards Jews became the policy of states and churches and the practice of many people (Julius et al., 2004).
When the great plagues of the 14th century rolled through Europe, humanity was fragile and answers were sought to how such a destructive force could so quickly ravage the population. Jews, already dissenters in the eyes of the Christian populations, were an easy scapegoat. Religious differences between Jews and Christians established a foundation of misunderstanding and eventual hatred that would later fuel the accusations that Jews were the cause of the great plagues in the 14th century, perpetuating the perennial persecution of Jews in the centuries to come.
During the early establishment of Christianity, in the Biblical reference from The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15, there was discussion as to whether Christians were expected to observe Jewish customs. Church leaders at that time decided that only certain Jewish customs would have to be followed, allowing Christians to remain non-Jewish. In addition to the decision made by the church leaders, the Apostle Paul performed extensive missionary work with non-Jewish populations. For the first time “the ethnic composition of the first century church began to change rapidly from a Jewish majority to a Gentile majority” (Grobman, 1990). In 132 C.E., Jews suffered another devastating blow. Simon Bar Kochba “was endorsed by the leading Jewish intellectual of the time, Rabbi Akiba, to be the promised Messiah” (Grobman, 1990). In 135 C.E., Simon Bar Kochba initiated a revolt against Rome; however, the Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah refused to revolt and a number of them were killed. Outraged by this behavior, believers in Jesus as the Messiah harbored bitterness towards the Jewish people and dissented into a separate sect. It was this dissention that evolved into Christianity and from that point “all things Jewish were suspect;” Christianity separated itself from Jewish customs through bitterness and resentment. This resentment kindled the embers of opposition toward Jewish customs that would later be used to start the fire of anti-Semitism in later centuries.
Jewish persecution dates back to as early as the fifth century B.C.E. in Persia. In the Biblical account of the Purim story (the Book of Esther) “all Jews in the kingdom were targeted for annihilation because one Jewish official, Mordecai, refused to bow down to the top aide of the king, Haman. Only as a result of the intervention of the queen, a Jew, who pleaded for saving her people, were the Jews saved from mass murder” (Grobman, 1990). Unknown to non-Jewish populations, the Jewish religion does not allow any Jews to bow down to any other individual or idol other than God. This was the first account of conflict between the observance of Jewish religious practices and the local customs and expectations of the ruling class.
Many other Judaic religious customs caused misunderstanding and hatred from their neighbors. Strict dietary laws forbid Jews to share a meal with their neighbor. In many communities uninformed of Jewish customs, declining an offer to share a meal with a neighbor may have provoked the notion that Jews felt they were superior to their non-Jewish neighbors. Jews observed a different Sabbath day than both Christians and Muslims and unlike other religions, many Jews were unwilling to worship the gods of the ruling people. In a time period where Jews were no longer the majority, these cultural differences, the clash between religious customs of the Jews, and the cultural expectations of the majority gave rise to social discord against Jews. Increasing the isolation and lack of understanding of Jewish customs, Jews were not allowed to marry outside of their faith. This kept the religion from being exposed to non-Jewish communities, and outsiders continued to think that Judaism was exclusionary. Even as time progressed, the traditional dress of long beards and earlocks remained an active practice (Grobman, 1990). The minority Jewish populations easily stood out, making it even easier for the general populous to persecute those different from themselves.
In October of 1347, Genoese trading ships arrived at the coast of Messina, Sicily where men had died at the oars. The characteristic egg sized black swellings that oozed blood and pungent pus in the armpits and groin were found on the sailors, but as the disease trekked through the population, fierce fevers and spitting of blood replaced the characteristic buboes. This pestilence was so virulent it rapidly spread from one person to another; its “malignity …appeared more terrible because its victims knew no prevention and no remedy” (Tuchman, 1978). This pestilence would eventually be called plague, masquerading through populations in three forms: septecemic, bubonic, and pneumonic. By the mid 1350’s, plague consumed one in three lives from India to Iceland (Tuchman, 1978; Ziegler, 1969). Populations were so ravaged and in such a state of despair, that a notion such as Jews poisoning the wells from which the populous drank, spread a virulent strain of anti-Semitism across Europe.
The notion that Jews were responsible for plague originated in southern France and Spain. In the 14th century, approximately 2.5 million Jews resided in Europe, a third of the Jewish population residing in southern France and Spain. Many of these Jewish communities had lived in harmony with their Christian neighbors since the Roman Empire and were quite literate and affluent. However, religious and economic discord began to be rekindled with their Christian neighbors as the rabbinical and affluent members of the Jewish communities began to practice Kabbalah. The practice of Kabbalah was restricted to “…rabbinical families intermarried with the mercantile and banking elite…” (Cantor, 2001) and was thought to involve a great deal of mysticism and magic. Because Kabbalah began to rise at the time of the plague and Jewish Christian relations were already tense, Christians feared that Jews had poisoned their wells with their black magic. Jews were tortured into confessing and in May of 1348, after 20 Jews were killed, King Peter of Aragon attempted to reduce the violence against them. Riots against the Jews began all over Europe and out of fear of retribution, many rulers ordered the arrest of Jews (Cantor, 2001).
In time, accusations that Jews were poisoning wells preceded the arrival of plague in untouched communities. Jews were attacked in Chillon, near Geneva, four months before the appearance of plague. The affluent indebted to the Jews aided in the conspiracy by opening gates to the “Jew killers,” and thus absolving their debts (Cantor, 2001). In Esslingen, Jews committed mass suicide by shutting themselves in their synagogue and lighting the building on fire. In Strasbourg, 900 out of 1,884 Jews were burned after being led into a house where on the way they were stripped of nearly all their clothing. Persecution of the Jews did not end there. Anti-Semitism continued through Europe, fueled as a way of absolving the debts of powerful individuals within Christian communities (Cantor, 2001).
The pogroms against the Jews led the invitation from Duke Casimir II of Poland for Jews to migrate eastward to Poland. The immigration of Jews to Poland continued well into the 16th century. Half of the Jewish world population, a total of 3.5 million people, resided in Poland and Ukraine. Still, many Jews in other parts of Europe were being pressured to convert. In 1543, Martin Luther, who originally held no animosity towards Jews, hoped to convert them to his Christian beliefs. When most Jews resisted, Martin Luther attacked them more and more within his writings. Although Martin Luther did not invent anti-Semitism, his writings fueled it to levels unimaginable. Four hundred years after his writings, many Nazi newspapers and pamphlets quoted his ideas. Hitler, himself, described Martin Luther as “one of the greatest reformers” (Walker, 2004). Martin Luther’s writings from the 16th century, fed the anti-Semitic fire that plagued Jewish communities across Europe and through the 20th century.
In 1648 things began to change for the Jews in Poland and Ukraine. Jews began to lose fortunes as peasants rebelled against their landlords. In the 1790’s, Poland was partitioned and “…75 percent of the Eastern European Jewish population passed under the rule of the czarist Romanov empire. Infected by the intense anti-Semitism of the Greek Orthodox Church, the czarist government and the Jewish rabbinical leadership were not able to work out a modus vivendi that could forestall increasing Jewish poverty” (Cantor, 2001). Eventually the Nazi invasion of Europe occurred and Jewish populations in Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland were decimated; in Poland alone, 3.3 million Jews were killed (Cantor, 2001).
Religious differences between Jews and Christians throughout time paved a path of continual Jewish persecution that lead to the most virulent strain of anti-Semitism in the Nazi era. Because of these religious differences, Jews were an easy scapegoat. Populations were so ravaged and in such a state of despair in the 14th century from plague that the notion that Jews had poisoned their wells spread quickly. This notion spread anti-Semitism across Europe and provided a history for the philosophies and writings of Martin Luther. It was his very writings that provided the foundation for Hitler’s Neo-Nazi movement. The great plagues of the 14th century not only took lives of Europeans, but fueled the perennial persecution of Jews for the centuries to come.
- Cantor, N.F. 2001. In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made. Perennial Press, New York.
- Grobman, G.M. 1990. Classical and Christian Anti-Semitism. http://www.remember.or/History.root.classical.html
- Julius, A., R.S. Rifkind, J. Weill, and F.D. Gaer. 2004. Antisemitism: An Assault on Human Rights. The American Jewish Committee. http://www.ajc.org/InTheMedia/PubAntisemitism.asp?did=419.
- Tuchman, B.W. 1978. This is the End of the World: The Black Death. pp 92-125. In A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Ballantine Books, New York.
- Walker, J. 2004. Martin Luther’s dirty little book: On the Jews and their lies. http://www.nobeliefs.com/luther.htm
- Ziegler, P. 1969. The Black Death. Harper & Row.