The Plague, Anti-Semitism, and Death and Destruction in France


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

As the Black Death made its way through France and headed into what is today Switzerland, Belgium, and Germany, people began to look for someone to blame. Many believed the disease was a punishment from God, and others accused the Jewish community of causing the disease. The plague was about to change the whole cultural and political structure of European power. 

Image of a young woman's hand holding the Star of David.
The leading edge of the disease was followed by a wave of anti-Semitism and the death and destruction of Jewish communities. (Image: Roman Yanushevsky/Shutterstock)

Jews: Scapegoats of History

Throughout most of the Western medieval world, the leading edge of the disease was followed by a wave of anti-Semitism and a series of pogroms that resulted in the destruction of most Jewish communities and the horrible deaths of many Jews—but not in Marseille.

France offers a microcosmic picture of all the possible responses to the plague in medieval Europe. And while the town of Toulon, east of Marseille, was the site of a horrible incident of Jewish persecution on Palm Sunday in 1348, and a harbinger of what was to come in other French communities, Marseille’s response offers an affirming contrast to that all-too-common scenario.

Learn more about the Black Death’s ports of entry.

The Plague, a Punishment from God?

Statue of Pope Clément VI who consecrated the Rhône river during the plague.
When Avignon ran out of land, the pope consecrated the Rhône River, and hundreds of victims of the plague were thrown in the river. (Image: Giogo/CC BY SA/3.0/Public domain)

Starting in 1309, the seat of the papacy moved from Rome to the southern French town of Avignon. And the community next hardest hit after Marseille was Avignon, something that the papal community perceived as a punishment from God.

By March 1348, it’s estimated that around 15,000 residents of that city had died from the plague, and over 11,000 of them had been buried in a new cemetery that the pope had purchased and given to the city for the sole purpose of accommodating this tidal wave of death.

When the plague didn’t let up and Avignon ran out of land, the pope consecrated the Rhône river itself. Every day, hundreds of victims of the plague were dumped in the river, and their bodies made their way out to the Mediterranean.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Background of Anglo-French Wars

In 1137, Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Louis VII of France became husband and wife. Eleanor was heiress to the vast southern duchy of Aquitaine, and when she married Louis, her lands pretty much doubled the size of France overnight. But the marriage did not last long, and in 1152, she was married to Prince Henry of England, who became Henry II, and thus her lands went from France to England.

From Marseille and Avignon, the plague went to Bordeaux. Bordeaux at this time was still part of England—it had originally been part of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s lands—and it was considered one of the jewels in the English crown, in no small measure because of the wines that came from this region.

A painting depicting the Battle of Crecy where Edward III of England defeated Philip VI of France.
The English victory at the Battle of Crécy in 1346 boosted King Edward III’s self-confidence. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Starting in 1337, King Edward III of England had been actively campaigning to retake French lands for England.

In 1346, Edward had launched an invasion into Normandy and had taken the city of Caen in the space of a single day, catching the French totally off guard. On August 26, 1346, Edward’s forces engaged the French army at the Battle of Crécy, leading to a stunning victory for the English.

This victory boosted the king’s self-confidence. This may explain why, in 1348, when the plague was hitting Bordeaux hard, he made a deadly decision and sent his 15-year-old daughter, Princess Joan, there for a stopover on her way to the Kingdom of Castile.

Learn more about the economics of the Black Death.

A Deadly Wedding

In an attempt to reclaim lost French lands, he had arranged to marry his daughter Joan to the heir to the Kingdom of Castile, Prince Pedro. He sent his daughter and a suitable entourage across the Channel to Bordeaux.

When the English ships carrying Princess Joan reached Bordeaux in August 1348, the city was suffering from an outbreak of the plague with an approximate 50-60 percent mortality rate.

The royal wedding party promptly took up lodgings in the Palais de l’Ombrière. Joan and her escorts died horrible, agonizing deaths from the plague—only Ullford survived, and it was he who had the very unpleasant task of reporting to the king that his daughter had died and, with her, England’s chance for an alliance with Castile.

Edward sent emissaries to recover his daughter’s body and bring it back to England for burial, but that never happened. In October 1348, Bordeaux’s mayor ordered the harbor and all of the buildings on the waterfront to be burned to the ground in an attempt to eradicate the disease. It’s probably the case that Joan’s body turned to ashes when the Palais de l’Ombrière was incinerated.

Edward had already married off his other daughter, so his hopes for an alliance with Castile were dashed, and England’s continental ambitions took a hit that would have long-lasting consequences.

Learn more about the Black Death in France.

Death and Destruction

It can be seen that the community continued to try and maintain normal operations despite the epidemic until it was clear that drastic measures were called for—setting fire to the part of the city that was the hub of their economy.

In other instances, the news of plague outbreaks caused panic, mass exodus and violence against Jews in cities that hadn’t yet been infected. The strain of knowing what must be coming caused some communities to crack under pressure.

This is exactly what happened in Strasbourg, where some people went on a rampage and killed some 900 Jews as they were waiting for the plague to make its way to them. Jews have been the scapegoats many times throughout history.

Common Questions about the Plague, Anti-Semitism, and Death and Destruction in France

Q: How did the Black Death affect the Jewish community in Europe?

Throughout most of the Western medieval world, the leading edge of the Black Death was followed by a wave of anti-Semitism and a series of pogroms that resulted in the destruction of many Jewish communities and the horrible deaths of many Jews.

Q:  How did the Papal Court react to the plague?

The papal community believed the plague was a punishment from God. Also, the pope consecrated the Rhône river as a burial ground, leading to thousands of plague-ridden corpses being thrown into the river.

Q: How did the daughter of King Edward III die?

King Edward III decided to send his 15-year-old daughter, Princess Joan, to Bordeaux, a plague-ridden part of France, where she and her escorts died from the plague.

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