The Black Death and the Burning of Jews
Samuel K. Cohn Jr
Past and Present: Vol. 196:1 (2007)
Over the past forty years, studies of the period from the First Crusade at the end of the eleventh century to the rise of the mendicant orders in the early thirteenth century have dominated research into anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages. Curiously, far less attention has been devoted to the most monumental of medieval Jewish persecutions, one that eradicated almost entirely the principal Jewish communities of Europe — those of the Rhineland — along with many other areas. Coupled with mass migration that ensued, they caused a fundamental redistribution of Jewry. These persecutions were the burning of Jews between 1348 and 1351, when in anticipation of, or shortly after, outbreaks of plague Jews were accused of poisoning food, wells and streams, tortured into confessions, rounded up in city squares or their synagogues, and exterminated en masse.
From the numerous surviving German chroniclers, who described and often tallied the numbers murdered, and from the Hebrew Memorbuch and martyrologies, historians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries listed and mapped the sequence of these persecutions in great detail. In the past several years, German scholars have added further details to these maps of Jewish destruction. The social character of that persecution (who ordered and led the massacres, who were its initial targets, and what were the motives?), however, remains hypothetical, often based on unexamined assumptions about the character and reasons for the killing of Jews. These derive from generalizations about Jews and their killers that are taken as near timeless over the course of the European Middle Ages, to the Holocaust of the twentieth century and beyond.