A picture representing the 2000 jews accused of causing the plague by poisoning wells, who were burned alive on February 14, 1349,’ in Strasbourg. C 1370. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
The Medieval Holocaust
Those Christians who did not blame God or humanity’s sinful behavior for the plague looked elsewhere for scapegoats. In Spain, the Arab population was singled out, and in France, the English. However, the primary European scapegoat for the plague was the Jews. The only exception to this rule was in England- but only because Edward I had already expelled all those of the Jewish faith in 1290. On the mainland of the continent, some claimed the Jews transmitted the plague by poisoning food while others said they contaminated wells. All, however fancifully believed that the Black Death was a Jewish attempt to ‘Destroy Christendom”.
The first severe case of Jewish persecution during the plague began at Chillon in southern France in the summer of 1348. A local Jew was accused of poisoning a well. He was arrested- and tortured. Unsurprisingly, he confessed to the crime and news of this confession quickly spread. The Chillon case acted as a tinderbox, and the result was a fire of hatred for the Jews that spread across Europe. Some rare cities such as Zurich contented themselves with merely banning Jews. Regrettably, reactions elsewhere were much more violent.
“In November  began the persecution of the Jews,” wrote one German chronicler. That same month, Jews were rounded up and burnt alive at Solothurn, Burren, Memmingen, and Lindau. The following January, more burnings occurred at Fribourg and Ulm. Gotha and Dresden shortly followed suit. In February 1349, 2000 Jews were incinerated in Strasburg and in August 1349, Mainz and Cologne exterminated their Jewish citizens. In all, the Germania Judaica, compiled from archives across Germany, Austria, and central Europe reported that plague driven pogroms wiped out at least 235 Jewish communities across this area alone.
There had been pogroms before. However, the scale of the plague driven slaughter of Jews was unprecedented. In normal times, Christians generally tolerated their Jewish neighbors. However, the tensions caused by the Black Death released the often-pent up hatreds and resentments in specific sectors of society. The usual metaphorical stick Christians used to beat Jews with was their role in the death of Christ. However, part of the violence of the persecution during the plague was motivated by something more prosaic: money.
The Jews were moneylenders of Christian society- and hard-pressed Christians were becoming more and more in debt to them as the hard economic times caused them to take out more loans to survive. The records of the town of Perpignan in Southern France show how from the beginning of 1348, a growing number of Christians were in debt to Jewish moneylenders. In January 16 loans were taken out. In February the figure was 25. By March it had risen to 32. In the first 11 days of April alone, a further eight loans were taken out- before ceasing until August. Were the Jew’s persecuted so people could avoid paying them back? This would not be surprising. For morality, in general, was wearing thin in plague-ridden Europe.