The Black Death and the Burning of Jews
By Samuel K. Cohn Jr
Past and Present, Vol. 196:1 (2007)
Introduction: 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.
Were the Jewish massacres around the time of the Black Death popular insurrections spurred on by Jewish exploitation, principally in their role as moneylenders? This essay investigates the sources of the 1348–51 persecution in the context of popular rebellion in Europe during the later Middle Ages and compares the Black Death massacres with those later in the century, arguing that the two differed in the social composition of perpetrators and victims and in their underlying psychological causes. Such comparisons show that transhistorical explanations of violence towards Jews — even ones that argue for fundamental changes in anti-Semitism with the birth of Christianity, the later Christianization of Europe in the fourth century, or the rise of a more aggressive Church and states in the twelfth century — fail to do justice to the sources or account for the vagaries of history. External events such as the unprecedented mortalities of the Black Death could rapidly transform the face of hatred, and afterwards, within a generation or less, the perpetuators and motives for violence could shift fundamentally yet again.