Why Were the Jews Blamed for the Black Death?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague

By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

The persecution of the Jewish people had continued for centuries, to the extent that they were even blamed for the Black Death in the middle ages. Believed to be sinners for not following the Messiah, they were expelled from the community and were forced to live in separate quarters. What all did the Jews have to go through during this time?

Image showing plague victims in the medieval age.
The Black Death led to increased marginalization of the Jews, resulting in horrifying acts against them. (Image: Roberto Castillo/Shutterstock)

The Crusaders’ Attack on the Jews

In 1095, Pope Urban II called for Christian forces to head to the Middle East and retake Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land from the Muslim rulers who controlled it. Several of the Crusaders, on their way overland through Europe, got to the area of the Rhineland, which had several large Jewish populations. On reaching there, they decided to either convert or kill the Jews, whom they viewed as infidels.

The Jews who refused to convert killed their own family members in an act of mercy before the crusaders could do so. Some Christian leaders—both secular and religious—tried to shelter and protect the Jews from the hysterical anti-Semitism that was raging through the Crusader ranks. For example, the Bishops of the respective towns of Mainz, Speyer, and Worms tried to shelter groups of Jews within the walls of their own households, but angry mobs proved too much for their defenses.

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

Did the Jews Cause the Plague?

When the Black Death struck in the 12th century, after the onset of crusading fervor, the Jews proved to be a convenient scapegoat for a population desperately looking for someone to blame for the horrific event they were experiencing.

Some chronicles make a point of saying that the accusations that Jews were causing the plague by poisoning wells and other water sources for various towns were obviously wrong because Jews were dying in numbers equal to the mortality rates of non-Jews. For a long time, most scholars assumed this was a lie meant to bolster the accusations against the Jewish populations. But some have theorized that there may have been some truth to this claim, in at least a few communities.

The Low Mortality Rate of the Jewish Population

Image showing a lamp burning outside a house.
During the middle ages, the Jews were forced to live in confined quarters that separated them from the Christian population. (Image: yosefus/Shutterstock)

In some places in Europe, the Jewish population seemed relatively unaffected by the Black Death compared to the mainstream population. How was it possible?

It is essential to consider that the Jewish population in many places was confined to a particular part of a town or community, and very often there were actual physical boundaries or walls marking off the Jewish quarter from the rest of the city. This would have reduced their direct contact with a plague-infested Christian community.

Another thing that might support this idea that the Jews suffered fewer losses in some areas has to do with a theory surrounding the ritual practices associated with the holy celebration of Passover.

Learn more about the black death in England.

The Holy Celebration of Passover

One of the rituals associated with Passover is ridding the home of chametz—this means any foodstuffs made of wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats. These things must be cleared out of the house, and this includes some serious sweeping and scrubbing: not even any crumbs should remain.

For the duration of the holiday, unleavened bread, or matzo, is consumed. If there was no food to consume, it would mean that there would not be rats. And, if people have gone so far as to actually scrub out their grain bins and have followed these protocols for several days, then the whole community will have less of a rat problem. No rats and no fleas would mean no bubonic plague.

Questioning the Jews

As people in the middle age attempted to get to the root cause of what was causing the Black Death, and their suspicions fell on the Jews of each community. Many leaders took it upon themselves to round up some Jews, put them to the question, and get a confession about what was happening and how they were going about it. According to a chronicle account of a Franciscan friar named Herman Gigas, who, when, he attempted to explain the origins of the Black Death, noted:

Many Jews confessed as much under torture: that they had bred spiders and toads in pots and pans and had obtained poison from overseas; and that not every Jew knew about this wickedness, only the more powerful ones so that it would not be betrayed.

These confessions were made under the duress of torture methods variously identified as thumbscrews, the rack, the wheel, and many, many more. The confession played into the fears of an already paranoid populace by clearly suggesting that this was a well-thought-out campaign organized and run at the highest levels of the Jewish community.

Learn more about the epidemiology of plague.

Continued Pogroms against the Jews

According to Herman Gigas, as a result of the confessed information by Jews, many communities throughout Germany had blocked up their wells in order to avoid being poisoned.

They traveled long distances to procure drinking water, or sometimes even get drinking water from the local rivers, which in the Middle Ages was very unhygienic and equivalent to drinking out of the toilet.

As a result, the pogroms against the Jews continued to spread mostly throughout the German-speaking lands—present-day Austria to the Netherlands, including present-day Switzerland and Germany. The pogroms also took place in parts of what is present-day France and Spain.

Once the persecution had started in 1348, it continued well into 1349. The means of execution here were truly shocking. Chronicler Heinrich Truchess mentions the fact that not all of the members of the Jewish communities were executed at this time—some were kept back to be burnt on the third day after the Nativity of the Virgin.

Common Questions about the Jewish Persecution During the Black Death

Q: Where did the pogroms against the Jews continue to spread in Europe during the Black Death?

The pogroms against the Jews continued to spread mostly throughout the German-speaking lands during the Black Death.

Q: Why did many communities throughout Germany block up their wells in the Middle Ages?

As a result of the confessed information by Jews, many communities throughout Germany had blocked up their wells in the Middle Ages in order to avoid being poisoned.

Q: How did the forced confession of the Jews affect the Christian population during the Black Death?

The forced confessions made by the Jews under the duress of torture methods played into the fears of an already paranoid Christian populace. They were convinced that the spread of the plague was a well-thought-out campaign organized and run at the highest levels of the Jewish community.

Keep Reading
Effects of Black Death in Russia
An Overview of the Black Death’s Journey through Europe
The Scandinavian Myths about the Black Death