On February 14, 1349, the citizens of Strasbourg rebelled against merchants and nobles who controlled the city, in part because of anger over their protection of the Jews. The new leaders of the city dispatched two of the deposed nobles to the Jewish quarter, where they informed the Jews that they were there to lead them to safety. The men lead many of the city’s Jews to a place outside the walls where a large wooden building had already been erected. There they gave them a choice: consent to baptism or die. Those who agreed were spared, along with children and particularly beautiful women.
Those who refused were forced inside and the building was set alight with torches. With the city’s protection lifted, mobs poured into the Jewish quarter and began setting fires. As in earlier riots, houses were looted and any Jews found left on the streets were murdered or rounded up to be burned at the stake. According to contemporary chroniclers, the massacre lasted six days and claimed nine-hundred lives, effectively eliminating the entire population of Jews in the city. Their property was divided up among the rulers of the city and all debts owed to them canceled.
This pattern of city leaders trying to protect their Jewish citizens only to be over-ruled by the mob was actually very common throughout German-speaking areas. A similar event happened a few months before the Strasbourg massacre in the city of Basel. As in Strasbourg, the Jews were forced into a wooden barn and burned alive. The survivors were forcibly converted to Christianity. Unlike other nations in Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was divided into smaller city states and largely independent principalities. And often these cities were ruled by councils of merchants.
These councils often relied on Jewish money lending and taxes to sustain their wealth, so they typically had more incentive to protect their Jewish populations than the rulers of other areas. But as the social order broke down under the strain of the Black Death, they often found that they lacked the authority to do so against the mob. One man who did have the authority to ban all attacks on Jews was the Pope in Rome. And he did with a series of Papal Bulls that stated anyone blaming the Jews for the Plague had been “seduced by that liar, the Devil.”
But not even someone who was widely believed to be God’s representative on Earth could stop the violence. That’s likely because religion was less of an incentive for attacking Jews than greed was. The attacks provided an opportunity for those who owed money to Jewish lenders to wipe out debts and seize wealth. But ultimately, the best explanation might have been fear and simple bloodlust. Attacking Jews allowed people to vent their rage at those they blamed for the Plague. It wasn’t the first time the people of Europe targeted Jews in times of strife, and unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last.