A violent pestilence ravaged Europe from 1347 AD to 1350 AD. It was called The Black death (Black plague, Great Pestilence) and killed between 30 and 60% of Europe's population (about 25-50 million deaths). It was also an occasion for terrible pogroms that killed large numbers of Jews. Even where records exist, it is impossible to determine what percentage of Jews who died were victims of the plague, and how many died in persecutions and pogroms.
For a long time, the Black plague was thought to have been caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, carried by fleas (xenopsylla cheopis) on the backs of rats in the holds of ships, a disease commonly known as Bubonic Plague, which infected Asia in the 19th century. More recently, it has been suggested that it may have been a plague of viral hemorrhagic fever, similar to Ebola, carried by humans.
The plague started in the early 1330's in China, and it was only a matter of time before the outbreak spread to western Asia and Europe. In October of 1347, several Italian merchant ships returned to Genoa from the Crimea on the Black Sea, one of the key links in trade with China. Many of those on board the ships were already dying of plague. Within days the disease spread to the city and the surrounding countryside. The plague was erratic: it skipped certain towns and areas. Furthermore, it abated in the cold weather of winter.
By January 1348, many thought that the plague was over. But with the coming of spring and warmer weather, the plague started anew with greater ferocity. During March and April, 1348, it spread through Italy, Spain, and southern France; and by May of that year it had reached southwest England.
No one at the time knew the reason for the plague, but certain ideas developed. The most common reason was that it was the wrath of God. The times were fanatically religious, and one of the ways God got even, so to speak, was by punishing man.
The Black Death caused a massive upheaval in European society. Towns and villages were left without rulers and effective police. Fields lay fallow for want of workers. There was no understanding of the causes of illness, and no intellectual or philosophic framework for dealing with any aspect of life other than religion. It was a disaster practically unequalled in the annals of recorded history and it took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover. Accordingly, the plague could be viewed as punishment for sins, or blamed on lepers or Jews.
The Jews were considered a popular scapegoat because they were the image of the Antichrist. It became widely accepted that The Black Death was ravaging their land because they allowed the Jews to live in their midst as Jews.. Therefore, in many communities throughout Christian Europe the formula and prescription of saving the community from the plague lay in converting, exiling, or murdering the Jewish population.
There then arose another theory by the fall of 1348 regarding the Black Death: The origin of the plague was that the drinking water wells were poisoned. Who were the poisoners? Naturally, the Jews. Why would they do that? Because they took delight in destroying the Christian world. They were the agents of Satan, the anti-Christ. Therefore, it was nothing for the Jews to poison the well.
The official Church position during the Black Death was on the whole pro-Jewish. On September 26, 1348, Pope Clement VI issued a bull in Avignon, Quamvis Perfidiam, denouncing this allegation, stating that "certain Christians, seduced by that liar, the devil, are imputing the pestilence to poisoning by Jews." This imputation and the massacre of Jews in consequence were described by the Pope as "a horrible thing." The emperors Charles IV and Peter IV of Aragon also tried to protect the Jews from the accusation.
But the situation was so out of hand that the official word of the pope and monarchs did not carry much weight — especially considering that due to the great schism raging within the church at the time there were two popes, one in Avignon and one in Rome. The power of the pope was diminished.
It was reported that the leaders in the Jewish metropolis of Toledo had initiated the plot and that one of the chief conspirators was a Rabbi Peyret who had his headquarters in Chambéry, Savoy, whence he dispatched his poisoners to France, Switzerland, and Italy.
By authority of Amadeus VI, Count of Savoy, a number of the Jews who lived on the shores of Lake Geneva were arrested and put to the torture, and naturally confessed anything their inquisitors suggested. These Jews, under torture, incriminated others.
Meanwhile correspondence had been carried on between the town councils of Basel, Cologne, Chillon, and Strasburg, containing the substance of the so-called confessions. The report spread to Chatel, Chatelard, and Bern; and from the last-named place special messengers were sent to all the Swiss and Upper Rhine towns, which soon produced the natural effect. The defamation, killings, and expulsions spread throughout Christian Spain, France, and Germany, to Poland-Lithuania, affecting about 300 Jewish communities.
The confession of Agimet is found in the Appendix to Johann S. Schilter's 1698 edition of the Middle High German chronicle of the Strasbourg historian, and was originally published by Jacob von Königshofen (1346-1420). Below is a translation from the Latin.
The Confession of Agimet of Geneva, Châtel, October 20, 1348
On Friday, the 10th of the month of October, at Châtel, in the castle thereof, there occurred the judicial inquiry which was made by order of the court of the illustrious Prince, our lord, Amadeus, Count of Savoy, and his subjects against the Jews of both sexes who were there imprisoned, each one separately. [Jews were sometimes imprisoned separately to prevent suicide.] This was done after public rumor had become current and a strong clamor had arisen because of the poison put by them into the wells, springs, and other things which the Christians use-demanding that they die, that they are able to be found guilty and, therefore, that they should be punished. Hence this their confession made in the presence of a great many trustworthy persons.
Agimet the Jew, who lived at Geneva and was arrested at Châtel, was there put to the torture a little and then he was released from it. And after a long time, having been subjected again to torture a little, he confessed in the presence of a great many trustworthy persons, who are later mentioned. To begin with it is clear that at the Lent just passed Pultus Clesis de Ranz had sent this very Jew to Venice to buy silks and other things for him. When this came to the notice of Rabbi Peyret, a Jew of Chamb6ry who was a teacher of their law, he sent for this Agimet, for whom he had searched, and when he had come before him he said: "We have been informed that you are going to Venice to buy silk and other wares. Here I am giving you a little package of half a span in size which contains some prepared poison and venom in a thin, sewed leather-bag. Distribute it among the wells, cisterns, and springs about Venice and the other places to which you go, in order to poison the people who use the water of the aforesaid wells that will have been poisoned by you, namely, the wells in which the poison will have been placed."
Agimet took this package full of poison and carried it with him to Venice, and when he came there he threw and scattered a portion of it into the well or cistern of fresh water which was there near the German House, in order to poison the people who use the water of that cistern. And he says that this is the only cistern of sweet water in the city. He also says that the mentioned Rabbi Peyret promised to give him whatever he wanted for his troubles in this business. Of his own accord Agimet confessed further that after this had been done he left at once in order that he should not be captured by the citizens or others, and that he went personally to Calabria and Apulia and threw the above mentioned poison into many wells. He confesses also that he put some of this same poison in the well of the streets of the city of Ballet.
He confesses further that he put some of this poison into the public fountain of the city of Toulouse and in the wells that are near the [Mediterranean] sea. Asked if at the time that he scattered the venom and poisoned the wells, above mentioned, any people had died, he said that he did not know inasmuch as he had left everyone of the above mentioned places in a hurry. Asked if any of the Jews of those places were guilty in the above mentioned matter, he answered that he did not know. And now by all that which is contained in the five books of Moses and the scroll of the Jews, he declared that this was true, and that he was in no wise lying, no matter what might happen to him. [This Jew does not seem to know that the books of Moses and the scroll of the Jews are identical!]
In the resultant actions against Jews, pogroms occurred in nearly three quarter (73%) of the 320 towns that had Jewish settlements during the 14th century; 88 did not. Many of these locations — with many annihilating their Jewish communities, and others leaving them untouched — are only a few kilometers apart.
At Zurich, where the new charge was combined with the old blood accusation, several Jews were burned on Sept. 21, 1348, while the rest were expelled.
During the month of November the rumor reached Augsburg (Nov. 22), Würzburg, and Munich, and spread through eighty towns of Bavaria, where massacres of the Jews occurred. In the following month the great epidemic reached the Upper Rhine with the same results.
In Basle, Switzerland in January of 1349, the entire Jewish community, several hundred Jews, were all burnt alive in a wooden house specially constructed for the purpose on an Island in the Rhine.
On Jan. 22, 1349, the Jews of Speyer fell victim, several being slain, and several killing themselves to escape baptism, while others, less firm-spirited, accepted baptism as the sole refuge from death.
At Freiburg in Breisgau on Jan. 30, 1349, all of the Jews, except twelve of the richest, were slain, the latter being reserved solely that their riches might be appropriated. Here it was reported that four Jews of Breisach had been sent to Freiburg with the poison, which they had obtained at Basel, and that all of the Jews of Strasburg, Basel, Freiburg, and Breisach were in the conspiracy.
The city council of Strasbourg originally refused to give credence to letters received, warning them of the danger of Jews poisoning the wells. The mayor declared his intention of sustaining the Jews; whereupon he was removed from his post. A mob led by the butchers' and tanners' guilds and by the nobles who were determined to do away with the Jews who were their economic competitors and to whom they were indebted for loans then deposed the ruling council on the 9th-10th of February, and the new council gave in to the mob, who then arrested the Jews on Friday, the 13th. On Feb. 16, 1349, the Jews were burned, over 2,000, on a wooden scaffold in the Jewish cemetery.
Jacob von Konigshofen (1347-1420) served as town historian for Strasbourg. He described the Cremation of Strasbourg Jewry in his High German chronicle Written in Alsace. He began it in 1382; he twice revised it, and brought it down to the year 1415. Königshofen lived close to the events of which he writes and incorporated considerable material from his Strasbourg predecessor, the historian F. Closener, who was probably an eyewitness of the tragedy.
II. The Cremation of Strasbourg Jewry St. Valentine's Day, February 14, 1349 - About The Great Plague And The Burning Of The Jews
In the year 1349 there occurred the greatest epidemic that ever happened. Death went from one end of the earth to the other, on that side and this side of the sea, and it was greater among the Saracens than among the Christians. In some lands everyone died so that no one was left. Ships were also found on the sea laden with wares; the crew had all died and no one guided the ship.
The Bishop of Marseilles and priests and monks and more than half of all the people there died with them. In other kingdoms and cities so many people perished that it would be horrible to describe. The pope at Avignon stopped all sessions of court, locked himself in a room, allowed no one to approach him and had a fire burning before him all the time. [This last was probably intended as some sort of disinfectant.] And from what this epidemic came, all wise teachers and physicians could only say that it was God's will. And as the plague was now here, so was it in other places, and lasted more than a whole year.
This epidemic also came to Strasbourg in the summer of the above mentioned year, and it is estimated that about sixteen thousand people died.
In the matter of this plague the Jews throughout the world were reviled and accused in all lands of having caused it through the poison which they are said to have put into the water and the wells-that is what they were accused of-and for this reason the Jews were burnt all the way from the Mediterranean into Germany, but not in Avignon, for the pope protected them there.
Nevertheless they tortured a number of Jews in Berne and Zofingen [Switzerland] who then admitted that they had put poison into many wells, and they also found the poison in the wells. Thereupon they burnt the Jews in many towns and wrote of this affair to Strasbourg, Freiburg, and Basel in order that they too should burn their Jews. But the leaders in these three cities in whose hands the government lay did not believe that anything ought to be done to the Jews.
However in Basel the citizens marched to the city-hall and compelled the council to take an oath that they would burn the Jews, and that they would allow no Jew to enter the city for the next two hundred years. Thereupon the Jews were arrested in all these places and a conference was arranged to meet at Benfeld rAlsace, February 8, 13491. The Bishop of Strasbourg [Berthold II], all the feudal lords of Alsace, and representatives of the three above mentioned cities came there. The deputies of the city of Strasbourg were asked what they were going to do with their Jews. Thev answered and said that they knew no evil of them.
Then they asked the Strasbourgers why they had closed the wells and put away the buckets, and there was a great indignation and clamor against the deputies from Strasbourg. So finally the Bishop and the lords and the Imperial Cities agreed to do away with the Jews. The result was that they were burnt in many cities, and wherever they were expelled they were caught by the peasants and stabbed to death or drowned. . . .
THE JEWS ARE BURNT
On Saturday - that was St. Valentine's Day-they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform in their cemetery. There were about two thousand people of them. Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared. [Some say that about a thousand accepted baptism.] Many small children were taken out of the fire and baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers. And everything that was owed to the Jews was cancelled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts.
The council, however, took the cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working-men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt. After this wealth was divided among the artisans some gave their share to the Cathedral or to the Church on the advice of their confessors.
Thus were the Jews burnt at Strasbourg, and in the same year in all the cities of the Rhine, whether Free Cities or Imperial Cities or cities belonging to the lords. In some towns they burnt the Jews after a trial, in others, without a trial. In some cities the Jews themselves set fire to their houses and cremated themselves.
The Jews of Worms were the next victims, and no less than 400 of them were burned March 1, 1349. In Cologne, the Jews were forced to flee.
Erfurt beginning of March 1349 over 100 Jews were murdered by the populace, and many set fire to their homes and perished in the flames. Those who survived were driven from the city.
On July 24, 1349 the Jews of Frankfort preferred to offer themselves up as a holocaust, and in so doing burned part of the city.
In Mainz on August 24, 1349, which had the largest Jewish community in Europe, the Jews defended themselves against the mob and killed over 200 Christians. Then the Christians came to take revenge. Finding the task of freeing themselves hopeless, they barricaded themselves in their dwellings, and when the alternative of starvation, torture, or baptism faced them, set fire to their houses and perished in the flames. About 6,000 Jews reportedly perished in the flames.
Two days afterward the same fate befell the Jews of Cologne; and, seemingly in the same month (though other records assign March 21 as the date),
Margrave Frederick of Meissen, eager for Jewish money, wrote to the city council of Nordhausen (May 2, 1349) that he had ordered all the Jews on his estates to be burned in honor of God, and that the citizens of Nordhausen might follow his example. A massacre occurred in which, in spite of efforts of the Duke of Brabrant, some 600 Jews were killed. Some of them were burned at the stake, their rabbi, Jacob b. Meïr, being among the number. There is also a legend that the martyrs went to the pyre dancing.
On Sept. 29, 1349, the populace of Krems and the nearby villages massacred most of the Jews and plundered their homes. A few Jews escaped to the fortress. Duke Albrecht V ordered his soldiers to punish the attackers, laid penalties on the city, and sentenced three of the ringleaders to death.
The last month of the year 1349 saw attacks at Nuremberg (Dec. 6), Hanover, and Brussels.
[Picture above is of a woodcut in Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493 (Schedelsche Weltchronik) of The burning of the Jews of Nuremberg.]
On December 5, 1349, 560 Jews were burnt to death in Nuremberg; the rest fled or were expelled. Charles IV (1346–76) exonerated the town council: promising the property of the Jews to the burgrave of Nuremberg and the bishop of Bamberg, he allowed the majority of Jewish houses to be demolished to make room for the markets; the St. Mary Church (the Frauenkirche) was built on the site of the synagogue.
The Jewish communities in Antwerp and Brussels were entirely exterminated in 1350. There were almost no Jews left in Germany or the Low Countries by 1351. From 1349 until about 1390, the Jewish communities of France, Germany and England almost disappeared completely. In 1350, Frankfurt had over 19,000 Jews. By 1400, not even 10 Jews were left. That typified the situation in many other communities throughout Western Europe.