Well-Poisoning Accusations in Medieval Europe: 1250-1500
By Tzafrir Barzilay
PhD Dissertation, Columbia University, 2016
Abstract: In late medieval Europe, suspicions arose that minority groups wished to destroy the Christian majority by poisoning water sources. These suspicions caused the persecution of different minorities by rulers, nobles and officials in various parts of the continent during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The best-known case of this kind of persecution was attacks perpetrated against Jewish communities in the German Empire between 1348 and 1350. At this time, the Black Death devastated the continent, and Jews were accused of intentionally spreading the disease by poisoning wells. A series of terrifying massacres ensued, destroying many of the major Jewish communities in Europe.
This was not, however, the only case in which such charges led to persecution. In 1321, lepers in south-western France were accused of attempting to spread their particular illness by poisoning water sources. These accusations evolved to include the idea that the plot was initiated by Muslim rulers and aided by the Jews of France. As a consequence, both Jews and lepers suffered violent fates, from expulsion or isolation to execution by fire. Similar, albeit less widespread, cases can be traced up until the fifteenth century. Often Jews were the victims, but lepers, Muslims, paupers, mendicants and foreigners also fell victim to persecution justified by allegations of well poisoning.
This dissertation presents a thorough analysis of the subject of well-poisoning accusations and describes why and how they were adopted in the late Middle Ages. The study describes the origins of this phenomenon, how it spread through medieval Europe and its eventual decline. It asserts that in order to explain this process, one must first understand the factors within medieval society, culture and politics that made the idea of a well-poisoning threat convincing. It shows that these accusations were created to justify and drive the persecution and marginalization of minorities. At the same time, it claims that well-poisoning accusations could not have caused such major political and social shifts unless contemporaries genuinely believed the charges were plausible, convincing and threatening.
Top Image: Biblioteca Apostòlica Vaticana Pal.lat. 1806 Folio 009r