The Black Death Massacres and the Persecutions of the Jews

The 14th century was a dangerous time to be a Jew 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, 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 killed en masse, thanks to the mindless prejudice that spread with the disease.

poisoning the well

Struggling to understand, in the days before the germ theory, why their loved ones were dropping like flies, many Christians in Europe decided – like most things, as far as they were concerned – that it was all the fault of the Jews. Jews were already seen as enemies of Christianity, with attacks against them dating back to the Crusades of 1096, so unfortunately violent anti-Semitism was old hat for many Christians. It didn’t help that, in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Talmud was destroyed for containing what were 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. His only evidence for the theory was that Jews rarely used the common wells that were said to have been poisoned and did not seem to catch the disease as often as others, although this is likely because Jewish communities were largely segregated and their religious laws were strict regarding the cleaning. Jews who were detained and tortured also confessed to poisoning the wells with frogs, lizards, spiders and “Christian hearts”, but these confessions can be confidently dismissed. Pope Clement VI he saw the writing on the wall and issued a statement that the Plague had affected people of all races and religions, but not even he could stop the anti-Semitic train that was about to roll across Europe.

The Black Death Massacres

The persecution of the Jewish people during the Black Death was as terrible as it was prolific. Jews were rounded up by the hundreds and forced into pits, houses and even fields which were set on fire, and anyone who escaped was beaten to death with stones and clubs. On Valentine’s Day 1349,   2,000 Jews were murdered   in the French city of Strasbourg. Shortly afterwards, a forced mass suicide was committed in Frankfurt. Before long, entire villages were decimated.

King Casimir III urged Jews to flee to Poland and Lithuania, but few managed to escape. Victims sometimes escaped death by promising to convert, but it rarely worked unless children were involved. In many cases, babies were torn from their families and baptized when their parents were burned. This does not mean, however, that the Jewish people simply backed away and took the abuse from the Christians. When the people of Mainz, Germany fought off the mobs that came after them, they killed 200 of their attackers. During a counter-attack, 6,000 Jews barricaded themselves in their homes, which tragically burned down moments later, killing entire families alive.

We will never know exactly how many Jews were murdered in Europe as a result of a prejudiced people’s desperation for a scapegoat, but the number runs into the thousands. Fortunately, as the severity of the Plague lessened, so did the persecution of the Jewish community… until 1492, when they were expelled from Spain altogether. And then, you know, everything after.