By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
One of the most devastating events in the history of humankind, the Black Death brought with it not only death and chaos but also turned people against each other. One of the groups that suffered the most was the Jews, who were persecuted mercilessly by Christians as they were believed to be responsible for causing the plague.
The persecution of the Jews started during the crusading fervor in 1095, before the Black Death entered Europe. The horrific acts further magnified when the plague hit the European shores. The Jews were blamed for causing the plague and to prove this, many Jewish people were tortured to give false confessions. There are three moments that are key to understanding how the pogroms came to be. Let us take a look at these moments one by one.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Confession from the Region of Savoy
The castellan of Chillon, a town that was under the control of the counts of Savoy during much of the Middle Ages but presently a part of Switzerland, wrote a letter addressed to the citizens of Strasbourg in which he said: “The people of Bern have a copy of the inquisition and confession of the Jews dwelling in their neighborhood who were involved in putting poison into the wells there and in several other places.”
The main confession supposedly came from a man named Balavigny, who, after several days of torture, admitted to poisoning wells and being part of an international Jewish conspiracy. When pressed on the source of this poison, Balavigny claimed it came from the basilisk—a mythical serpent-type creature from medieval-themed fantasy literature.
Hysteria Caused by the Letter from Chillon
The recipients of the letter sent by the leaders of the town of Chillon to various other towns in the area reacted with the hysteria. The town of Cologne was one of the few communities whose leaders viewed this supposed confession with a pronounced skepticism.
One town that did react with particular extremism was the community of Strasbourg. The surviving archival evidence shows that the leaders of Strasbourg requested and received information from at least 17 different neighboring towns as to what they thought was best to do to handle what was quickly being considered a Jewish problem.
Each of these communal responses—with the exception of Cologne’s—included evidence from their own interrogations with Jews that had resulted in confessions of well-poisoning. First, many wells were filled in or had their bucket mechanisms destroyed, so that people could not drink from them. However, this was not enough. On February 14, 1349, all of the Jews of the community were rounded up and executed in a process that took almost a week.
Learn more about the epidemiology of plague.
Jews in Strasbourg
Strasbourg was plague-free till that time. But the stories its citizens had heard from other communities terrified them to the extent that they were willing to do literally anything to spare themselves the fate so many other had met. They thought if they killed the Jews in their community quickly enough, those people would not have time to put their plan of well-poisoning into action, and so the Christian community of Strasbourg would be saved.
Many of the leaders of Strasbourg had previously sought to protect the Jews in their community. The mayor and several of the most prominent burghers of the town tried to enforce an order of protection for the Jewish population. These leaders came into conflict with some of the most powerful guild leaders of the community, in particular, the butchers’ guild. In the face of this opposition, most of the burghers gave up their leadership positions.
The mayor, Peter Swarber, stood alone against them. But later he, too, was forced to resign his position. Almost immediately, a new council was elected, and the day after its members were sworn in, all the Jews in the community were rounded up and made ready for execution.
Learn more about the end of the first wave.
Was Cologne a Safe Haven for the Jews?
Cologne was one of the few towns that seemed to believe that these so-called confessions from interrogations of supposed Jewish well-poisoners were nonsense, and Cologne held out for a long time as a place whose Jews were protected.
While there certainly may have been some basic human decency at work here, there were also economic concerns in play, as the Jewish community of Cologne was a pillar of its economic structure. Since Cologne had been one of the more reasonable communities, many Jews fled there in the face of persecution in their home cities and towns.
The Battle of Cologne
This explosion in the Jewish population of Cologne finally began to worry its Christian citizens, the more paranoid of whom began to imagine that the Jews were gathering in a sizeable force in that town to take over and defeat the Christians there. The leaders of the Jewish community got wind of this growing dissatisfaction and began to retreat within the ghetto and distributed weapons among the residents.
A small group of Christians acted as spies. Once inside, they learned that the Jews were planning a raid on a particular quarter of the city on a particular day—most likely because they were running out of supplies, and not because they had any desire to conquer Cologne. The spies alerted the leaders outside the ghetto, and when the Jewish contingent made their move, they found an army waiting for them.
A large battle ensued in the middle of a major city. Although many Christians died, it was the Jews who sustained the largest losses, with some reports saying that 25,000 were killed in the fighting.
Once the first wave of plague receded, so too did the hysterical anti-Semitism. On a few occasions during future outbreaks, Jewish and Christian leaders would join together to offer prayers for deliverance from the plague. These instances stand as moments of hope, positivity, and cooperation in the midst of an otherwise grim landscape of death, disease, fear, and persecution.
Common Questions about the Pogroms against the Jews during the Black Death
Since Cologne had been one of the more reasonable communities, many Jews fled there in the face of persecution in their home cities and towns during the Black Death.
The leaders of Strasbourg came into conflict with some of the most powerful guild leaders of the community, in particular, the butchers’ guild when they sought to protect the Jews.
During the Black Death, many Jews fled to Cologne for safety. The rise in the Jewish population in the town began to worry its Christian citizens. Some of the citizens thought that the Jews were gathering in a sizeable force in Cologne to take over and defeat the Christians there.