In 1347, the Black Death arrived on the shores of Europe at Constantinople. Within three years, it had reached the western edge of the continent in Iceland and Greenland. Very few regions escaped the pestilence – most lost a quarter to a third of their populace. In some areas, as much as 50 per cent of the population fell victim to the infection.
Medieval medicine was helpless against the disease, which made it even more terrifying. The papal physician, Guy de Chauliac, believed it “was most humiliating for the physicians, who were unable to render any assistance.” Italian chroniclers also expressed limited confidence in medicine, and alleged that doctors either ran off with your money or made you die quicker.
Instead, people seeking an explanation for the disease turned to religion. The Greek Church believed that God inflicted the disease upon individual sinners, while Western Christianity thought that the pestilence was imposed on society as a whole to collectively pay for sinfulness.
Magnus II of Sweden assumed that the disease was due to an angry God and he ordered “foodless Fridays and shoeless Sundays.” The Bishop of Bath and Wells circulated letters ordering processions and stations every Friday to beg for God’s protection and he called for charity, praying and fasting.
The belief that the Black Death was a punishment from God was not only Christian. According to Islamic teaching, God decided who lived and died in an epidemic. The physician Ibn al-Khatib was murdered by a Muslim crowd for stating that it was in fact contagion that spread the pestilence.
There were attempts to use astronomy to explain the disease. The eminent Paris medical facility thought that the pestilence was caused by “an unusual conjunction of Saturn, Mars and Jupiter” on 20 March 1345.
Homeopathic remedies were also suggested. It was understood that infection was spread by bad air or miasmas. The “prince of physicians”, Gentile de Foligno, recommended inhaling herbs as an antidote. Other suggestions included burning fragrant woods like juniper, aloe, rosemary or oak and carrying a smelling apple or herb. Bonfires were also thought to be effective and were lit on street-corners. To prevent bad air entering your pores, the advice was to avoid sex, exercise and baths.
However, it was not long until people turned on each other. Jewish people were made scapegoats and accused of causing the plague by poisoning wells, food and streams. They were often tortured into confessions, which only fueled the persecutions. Europe saw the mass execution of Jewish men, women and children, with Jews rounded up in town squares. The burning of Jews quickly spread throughout the Low Countries, Spain, France and Germanic areas.
A chronicler, Michael de Leone, said that “the Jews deserved to be swallowed up in the flames” for causing the plague with poison. In Barcelona, Jews were killed for the sin of being Jews, not because they were suspected of poisoning.
The Jews of Cologne burnt alive, reproduced from a woodcut in a 1493 folio of the Liber Chronicarum Mundi © Getty Images
Basel burned their Jewish inhabitants on an island in the Rhine. In Strasbourg, approximately 2,000 Jews were burned in local cemetery on St. Valentine’s Day in an attempt to stop the pestilence. The Jews who agreed to be baptized were saved and some young children were pulled from the fire and baptized against the will of their parents. After the burnings, both the councils of Basel and Strasbourg made an oath that Jews would not be allowed to enter the cities for hundreds of years.
A monastery in Cologne believed that “the Jews wished to extinguish all of Christendom, through their poisons of frogs and spiders mixed into oil and cheese.” Despite this, the theory that Jewish people were to blame was not supported by the Church. Pope Clement VI stated that they were dying just like the Christians, and they would not be so stupid as to poison themselves. The English were also dying, and there were no Jews in England.
Unfortunately, other European leaders were less reasonable. Emperor Charles IV of Bohemia granted immunity to the leaders of four German towns, permitting them to execute Jews and cancelling any debts owed to Jewish money-lenders. Duke Albrecht, who had originally protected Jewish people, submitted to the demands of local rulers and ordered their executions.
Although the burning of Jews is widely documented, a Frankfurt chronicler, reminiscent of modern Holocaust denial, refused to believe that any had been executed. He claimed that the burning down of a local Jewish area was accidental, not due to an extermination.
The Black Death is crucially important in Jewish history. Western Europe had been a centre of Jewish life for four centuries. The violent response to the disease accelerated the movement of Jews from the west into Eastern Europe, especially Poland, which mostly escaped the first outbreak of plague.