Why Were Jews Persecuted During the Black Death?

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A Brief History

Today, as the United States and the rest of the world continues to be ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, we look back to a previous pandemic of enormously greater proportions, the infamous Black Death of Bubonic Plague that ravaged much of the world in the 14th Century.  Panicked populations, desperate for answers and solutions to the deadly plague, took to blaming Europe’s Jewish population as the cause of the calamity, a scapegoating of Jews common throughout history.  The pervasive theme of blaming various catastrophes on Jews made the scapegoating of the Black Death an almost foregone conclusion!  (Note: Muslim and African American anti-Semitism is not discussed in this essay.)

Digging Deeper

An example of the blaming of the Jews for the woes of the population during the plague pandemic is the February 14, 1349, massacre of Jews in Strasbourg, France, an incident we referred to as “The Other St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” in a previous article.  Located near the French-German border in the region known as Alsace, Strasbourg was not a stranger to anti-Semitism.  Lest you think anti-Semitism was something invented by the Nazi’s in World War II, pogroms against people practicing the Jewish faith go back a long time, even before the earliest settlement of Strasbourg in 12 B.C.  In 1349, only a year after an epidemic of Bubonic Plague (Black Death) had devastated Strasbourg, a tide of hatred swept over the city, and public hysteria blamed Jews for “poisoning the wells.”  In “retaliation,” about 1,000 Jews were burned to death!  The systemic and pervasive anti-Semitism that made such a massacre possible as if the mass murder was not enough, is evidenced by local laws that were then enacted that forbade Jews from being within the city after dark, and the 10 o’clock p.m. curfew was sounded by a special horn to ensure compliance with this law.  Incredibly, this policy lasted all the way until the French Revolution.  And if that was not enough, a special tax was levied on Jews for any horse they brought into the city, supposedly for pavement maintenance.  During World War II, the anti-Semitic monster again reared its ugly head in Strasbourg as the Jewish population of the city was evacuated to the West to avoid persecution by the invading Germans.

Another instance of European Christians blaming the Jews for the calamity of the Black Death occurred in Mainz, Germany, also in 1349, an event we also have previously discussed. On August 24, 1349, 6,000 Jews were massacred in Mainz, Germany by being burned alive.  Blamed for so many ills, this time they were held responsible for spreading the Bubonic plague.

The history of the Jewish people prior to the Black Death was also replete with incidents of massacres and oppressive actions against Jews, largely by Christians and Muslims.  The Jews found themselves to be in the minority wherever they lived, making them the “outsiders” and “different,” practicing a “strange” religion and traditions, as well as babbling in a “strange” language, that is Hebrew and or Yiddish.  Humans are notoriously leery of anyone that is “different,” and the Jews fit that description, at least in the minds of the Gentiles.  A notable example of such discrimination and persecution at a high level of authority was the Inquisition conducted by the Catholic Church, which began in the 12th Century in France.  While the “Holy Inquisition” investigated all sorts of alleged heresy and blasphemy, or other religious crimes, the crime of being a Jew was certainly on their agenda.  Jews were singled out for persecution, and not rarely for extermination or expulsion, usually with their property and belongings seized by the Church or local Christian persecutors who stood to gain by the pogroms.  Spreading through other European countries and lasting for centuries, the various Inquisitions offer proof of systemic and “legally” sanctioned anti-Semitic activity, giving us insight into the mind of European Christians.  A quotation from an article on the subject of Europeans blaming Jews is most alarming, “Tens of millions of European Christians once believed — and tens of millions of Muslims believe today — that Jews kidnap and slaughter non-Jewish children before Passover to use their blood for baking matzo.”  Another incident of an anti-Jewish European event prior to the Black Death is the Church imposed order of the enslavement of all  Jews at Toledo, Spain, in 694.  The inexorable will of the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages to gain converts and establish control over all European populations made Jews a natural “enemy” to the Church.  Religious intolerance, being a pervasive and almost universal human trait, makes the scapegoating of Jews for the Plague and other ills as inevitable as it is wrong.

Jews have often been referred to as “moneylenders” by Christians, a pejorative term that highlights the difference between Jews, who are allowed by their religion to loan money and charge interest, and Christians that often were forbidden from engaging in the business of lending money for profit.  Calling Jews “usurers” was also somewhat misleading, as the technical definition of usury means any profit derived from interest, while the commonly accepted connotation is one of excessive interest (today often called “loansharking”).  Resentment against those to whom money is owed is another common human trait, regardless of who the person or persons are that are due the payments.  By labeling an entire group of people with such a negatively charged accusation it became easier for European Christians to reinforce each others’ core biases.  Other examples of possible violent action against someone to whom powerful people were in debt was the situation with the Knights Templar.  Destroying that order and seizing their assets alleviated the enormous debts owed the order by rich and powerful Europeans, including royalty.  Bizarrely, perhaps, there were indeed Christian moneylenders in Europe during the Middle Ages, and usually those Christians lending money charged a higher rate of interest than did Jews!  The “differentness” of the Jews, with the aforementioned religion, customs and language, probably made it easier to focus bitterness at having to pay back loans against a readily identifiable group.  The disparaging of Europe’s Jews as “moneylenders” was just plain wrong, but being wrong has never stopped people from maintaining strong opinions and prejudices!

Jealousy, envy, resentment, all worked together to create an anti-Semitic atmosphere.  The much studied and demonstrable fact that Jews generally have a higher regard for education may have also contributed to at least some Jews apparent wealth, another source of resentment from those less well off.  Jews today reflect this bias toward education as evidenced by the statistic that shows Jews have an average of 13.4 years of education compared to the runner up group, Christians, at 9.3 years of education among religious groups.  A cultural drive to steer children into occupations that are likely to result in better living conditions and remuneration results in envy, when it should result in emulation.  As humans seldom willingly take the blame for their own relative failures, scapegoats are searched for and virtually always “found,” whether those to blamed are labeled “witches” or Jews.

Another major historical series of events that offer the implication of the inevitability of the blaming of the Jews for the Black Death can be found in the persecution of Jews in Europe during the period of the Crusades.  During the various Crusades, starting with the First Crusade, (1096-1099), the Crusaders took out their religious fervor on Jewish populations in cities the Crusading throngs passed through on their way to the Holy Land.  Not only did the Holy Warriors of the First Crusade terrorize, murder and rob Jewish settlements along the route to the Middle East, notably along the Rhine and Danube Rivers, once in the Holy Land Jews were treated as enemies to be eradicated.  Although any substantial Jewish state had been gone from the Holy Land for centuries by the time of the First Crusade, many Jewish settlements and cities remained in the area.  The Crusaders promptly besieged and attacked any Jewish city they came upon, and when Jerusalem was finally taken by the Crusaders in 1099, the Jews that had defended the city alongside Muslim occupants were rounded up, herded into a synagogue, and burned alive!  While the report of the burning of the Jews may or may not be accurate, at a minimum the Jews of Jerusalem were forced into involuntary labor, slavery, or beheaded.  Some lucky Jews were ransomed for their freedom, while others were merely executed.  Other Jews saved their own lives by agreeing to conversion to Christianity.  No doubt the robbing and murder was “justified” in the minds of the Crusaders by ascribing all sorts of alleged wrongs committed by the Jews, from “killing” Jesus Christ to financial misdeeds such as usury, to merely being unwilling to convert to Christianity.  Such rationalization has been used by people throughout history on both a personal and a group level to allow people to engage in otherwise proscribed behavior such as killing and looting.  One particular account of the persecution of Jews during the First Crusade, specifically in Mainz (in modern Germany), is an anonymous retelling written in Hebrew called Mainz Anonymous.  Both Jewish and Christian authors have written extensively on the subject of the persecution of Jews during the Crusades.  Subsequent Crusades did not always even reach the Holy Land, but still resulted in the massacre and robbing of Jews by Crusaders in their march toward Jerusalem.  Europe seemed to be ever on the brink of “open season” on their Jewry.

The persistent and pervasive anti-Semitism displayed by European Christians has continued through the centuries since the Inquisition, the Crusades and the Black Death.  The prejudice against and fear of Jews is deeply ingrained in Europeans, as is the European predilection for blaming Jews for every ill that befalls Europe.  While anti-Jewish pogroms have taken place throughout European history, the most well documented and perhaps most massive anti-Jewish movement took place in Germany during World War II (1939-1945) when restrictive and oppressive anti-Semitic laws went a giant step further to attempted genocide of the Jewish population of Europe.  Many German conquered or aligned countries found many willing participants among the local population to join the massive effort of rounding up and/or killing local Jews.

Sometimes this “blame the Jews” phenomenon reaches across the Atlantic to North America, and in 2020, the mayor of New York City and the Governor of New York have been accused of blaming Jews for the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in New York!  Other American conspiracy theories about the culpability of Jews for all sorts of perceived problems have resulted in attacks and protests against Jewish Americans even today, often accompanied by chants of “They will not replace us,” implying some sort of Jewish plan to take over and replace Gentiles.  Jews are blamed for the mythical Illuminati campaign to run the world, and in the process keep “honest” hard working Christian people oppressed and virtual slaves to the aim of enriching the Jews.  Various wealthy and powerful Jews are painted as conspirators to undermine Christianity and Christians.  Jews get blamed for every war, every financial crisis, and many of society’s ills in Europe and America.  Since the early 20th Century, Jews have largely been blamed for the communist movement, a rallying cry that unites the majority of European and European Americans against the perceived monolithic Jewry.  The animosity and anti-Semitism has been ingrained in non-Jewish Europeans and Americans for centuries.  It seems almost “natural” that Europeans would blame Jews for the Black Death!

With a history of blaming Jews for various problems prior to the catastrophe of the Black Death, and the evidence of pervasive anti-Semitism and Jew blaming in the centuries since, it should come not only as no surprise that Jews were blamed by European Christians for somehow causing the Black Death, but also for nearly every problem in Europe since.

Question for students (and subscribers): What can be done today to eliminate anti-Semitism?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Kelly, John. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. Harper Perennial, 2006.

Stehr, Emily. Tragic (but Interesting) History of Anti-Semitism and Persecution of Jews. Amazon, 2017.

The featured image in this article, a representation of a massacre of the Jews in 1349, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.