Though almost everyone in Europe was affected by the Black Death, the Jewish communities in many areas had lower death rates. There are a few possible explanations for this fact. First, the historical persecution of Jews meant that they were usually isolated in ghettoes. The lack of interaction with the rest of society meant that there was less opportunity for the Plague to enter the community. In addition, Jewish religious tradition requires strict standards for hygiene. This focus on cleanliness might have protected the Jews from the fleas that spread the Plague. But this protection from disease came at a cost.
The fact that Jewish communities suffered less from the Plague than others made the rest of society suspicious. Accusations soon spread that the Jews started the disease by poisoning wells. It wasn’t the first such accusation. Any sudden epidemic in medieval Europe could be accompanied by arguments that the Jews were to blame. In a time before people understood disease, the idea was easy to believe. But other accusations were also popular. One of the most enduring was the “blood libel,” or the idea that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood for Passover rituals.
As the Black Death spread across Europe, so did people’s anger and distrust towards Jews. And as people died in staggering numbers, that fear and suspicion exploded into violence. One of the first recorded attacks against a Jewish community during the Black Death occurred in the French city of Toulon in 1348. That April, a mob descended on the Jewish ghetto following accusations of well poisoning. Jews were murdered in their homes and their houses stripped of valuables. But this attack was really just a grim warning of what was to come as cities across Europe descended into violence.
In the Holy Roman Empire, this violence quickly reached horrifying levels. In 1349, a mob attacked the Jewish quarter in the city of Erfurt. Groups of men stormed through the streets of the ghetto, seizing any Jews they could find and lynching them or simply beating them to death where they stood. In desperation, some Jewish families set fire to their own homes, preferring to die at their own hands than those of the mob. Fire and blood surged across the Jewish quarter as rioters looted the houses that still stood. Contemporary accounts state that by the end of the massacre over three thousand people were dead.
Meanwhile, in the city of Strasbourg, Jews accused of poisoning wells were arrested and tortured in an attempt to get them to confess. In spite of their denials, they were tied to cartwheels and had their limbs smashed with hammers. The leaders of the city were aware of the earlier pograms in France and wanted to prevent any more attacks on Jews in Strasbourg. Whether out of a sense of justice or because they relied on taxes from the Jewish community, guards were stationed outside the Jewish quarter to protect them from violence. But in the face of the mob, it wouldn’t be enough.