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Black Death Massacres

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The Black death (Black plague, Great Pestilence)  first visited Europe about 1348, killing between 30 and 60% of Europe's population (about 25-50 million deaths). Usually lost in the descriptions of the catastrophe is the fact that it was also an occasion for horrific 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. 

Repeated outbreaks of plague, of lesser virulence, occurred every century or so thereafter until the 19th century. The last big outbreak took place in the 17th century, but apparently none was as devastating as the first. The persecution of the Jews we 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. ref ref

The Black death of 1348 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. Accordingly, the plague could be viewed as punishment for sins, or blamed on lepers or Jews.

The Black Death rendered the forces of law and order helpless. As it did not occur to the Jews to undertake their own self-defense, the results of the pogroms of this period were especially catastrophic.

pogrom: Torturing on the wheel
Torturing  on the wheel during the plague.
Jews were first tortured for spreading the Black Death in September 1348, in the Castle of Chillon on Lake Geneva. The "confessions"  indicate that their accusers wished to prove that the Jews had set out to poison the wells and food "so as to kill and destroy the whole of Christianity" ("ad interficiendam et destruendam totam legem Christianam"). The disease was supposedly spread by a Jew of Savoy. He was allegedly ordered to do so  by a rabbi who told him:

"See, I give you a little package, half a span in size, which contains a preparation of poison on venom in a narrow, stitched leathern bag. This you are to distribute among the wells, the cisterns, and the springs about Venice and the other places where you go, in order to poison the people who use the water. ..."

On Oct. 3, 1348, during the summing up of a trial, an allegation providing a motive for the total destruction of Jewry was made; it was asserted that "before their end they said on their Law that it is true that all Jews, from the age of seven, cannot excuse themselves of this (crime), since all of them in their totality were cognizant and are guilty of the above actions:"

("asseruerunt praefati Judaei ante eorum ultimum supplicium per legem suam esse vera dicentes quod omnes Judaei a septem annis circum non possint super hoc se excusare, quoniam universaliter sciant omnes, et sint culpabiles in dicto facto").

These "confessions" were sent to various cities in Germany. The accusation that the Jews had poisoned the wells spread there like wildfire, fanned by the general atmosphere of terror. The patricians of Strasbourg attempted to defend the Jews at a meeting of representatives of the Alsatian towns at Benfeld, but the majority rejected their plea, arguing:

"If you are not afraid of poisoning, why have you yourselves covered and guarded your wells?"

The defamation, killings, and expulsions spread throughout Christian Spain, France, and Germany, to Poland-Lithuania, affecting about 300 Jewish communities. 

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". He tried to convince Christians that "since this pestilence is all but universal everywhere, and by a mysterious decree of God has afflicted, and continues to afflict, both Jews and many other nations throughout the diverse regions of the earth to whom a common existence with Jews is unknown (the charge) that the Jews have provided the cause or the occasion for such a crime is without plausibility."

The emperors Charles IV and Peter IV of Aragon also tried to protect the Jews from the  accusation. The physician Konrad of Megenberg in his Buch der Natur stated:

"But I know that there were more Jews in Vienna than in any other German city familiar to me, and so many of them died of the plague that they were obliged to enlarge their cemetery. To have brought this on themselves would have been folly on their part."

However, all these appeals to reason were ineffective. The massacres of the Jews continued, and Jewish property was confiscated.

Despite his policy of protecting the Jews, in 1350 the emperor Charles IV formally absolved the burghers of Cheb (Eger) in Bohemia for the killings and robbery they had committed among the Jewish population. In doing so, he stated:

"Forgiveness is (granted) for every transgression involving the slaying and destruction of Jews which has been committed without the positive knowledge of the leading citizens, or in their ignorance, or in any other fashion whatsoever."

By this time it was understood by nearly everyone that the accusation that Jews had spread the plague was false.

Mainz had been the site of massacres during the Crusades. Now the massacres returned. To avoid torture, the Jews reportedly set fire to their homes and to the Jewish streets. About 6,000 Jews reportedly perished in the flames. This also occurred at Frankfurt am Main. In Strasbourg, 2,000 Jews were burned on a wooden scaffold in the Jewish cemetery. (Source: Encyclopedia Judaica: Black Death)

The well poisoning libel was added to the repertoire of anti-Semitic lore. As with the Crusades, the aftermath of the black death massacres only increased the vehemence of anti-Semitism. Many Jews migrated to Poland and Lithuania, others remained in Central Europe and stubbornly rebuilt their communities. 

Ami Isseroff

March 31, 2009

 


Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information: pogrom


Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.


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This work and individual entries are copyright 2005 by Ami Isseroff and Zionism and Israel Information Center and may not reproduced in any form without permission unless explicitly noted otherwise. Individual entries may be cited with credit to The Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Zionism and Israel

 

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