The Black Death Persecutions: Cruel Acts of the Medieval Europeans
There has been hostility and prejudice against the Jewish nation from the time of the opening of Jewish history. Throughout history Jews have emerged by refusing to assimilate and emulate the religious customs of other nations. Jews have been blamed and criticized by other nations because of their deep devotion and dedication towards their sacred religion known as Judaism. The Black Death is an event from many which created hatred against the Jewish people by reason of their religion and practices. Jews suffered from this hatred and reacted in several contrasting manners. The Black Death was a devastating and tragic plague which befell Europe during the years of 1347-1353.
The Black Death was a deadly disease which took on 2 different forms. One was known as the bubonic plague, which spread through fleas who lived on rats and other animals. While the other was known as the pneumonic plague, which spread from person to person through the air. This fatal disease leads to the death of 60 percent of Europe’s population. An Italian writer, Giovanni Boccaccio who lived during the bloody years of the Black Death is well known for his book, Decameron. “What I have to say is so extraordinary,” he wrote, “that if it had not been so often witnessed, and I had not seen it with my own eyes, I could scarcely believe it, let alone write about it”. Dreadful fear expanded so rapidly that “brothers abandoned each other, uncles abandoned their nephews, sisters abandoned their brothers, and wives frequently abandoned their husbands. And there is something else that is almost incredible: fathers and mothers were loath to visit and care for their children, almost as if they did not belong to them”. These words of Boccaccio genuinely resemble the pain and fear the Europeans had gone through during these fierce years of catastrophe and death.
What made this event all the more tragic was that although the Europeans had theories on what was causing this disease, no one knew with certainty of what it really was, but their most powerful argument was that the Jews caused the Black Death to befall on them. The medieval Europeans accused the Jewish people of being the source of the Black Death. The Jews were accused of poisoning the wells in order to wipe out the Christians. In the year 1348, an Italian commentator proclaimed that “ Some Jewish men were found in possession of certain powders and were accused of poisoning the wells-with the result that anxious men now refuse to drink water from wells”.
The Europeans burnt the Jews as a consequence of their atrocious deeds, and thus this was the Black Death persecutions. This time period is known as being a time of darkness for the European Jews. Despite being killed by the Black Plague like everyone else, the Jews were also murdered by their neighbors for being accused of causing the Black Death. The Europeans burnt the Jews and only allowed them to live if they baptized themselves as Christians. The people took the possessions that belonged to the Jews, which included money, and shared it amongst the working men and the Church. An account from the German town of Strasbourg described how the Jews were being burned alive: “They burned the Jews on a wooden platform in their cemetery... Many small children were taken out of the fire and were baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers. And everything owed to the Jews was canceled… In some towns, they burnt the Jews after a trial, in others without a trial”.
Jews and their families suffered tremendously from the cruel and harsh acts of the medieval Europeans, they lost many of their loved ones and had the fear of being the next to suffer. The Jewish people in Europe were suffering severe trauma and many of them didn’t know how to respond to this crisis. Some Jewish people converted to Christianity and took on the ways of the Christians in order to not be burned. Others, after being mistreated confessed that they poisoned the wells. In 1348 there was an occurrence that a Jewish merchant confessed. This Jewish merchant, named Agimet was arrested in Chatel and was accused of purposely poisoning the wells of the Christians. After much torture and abuse, the Jewish man confessed that he carried “ some prepared poison and venom in a thin, sewed leather bag. He planned to distribute it among the wells, cisterns, and springs about Venice and the other places to which Christians go, in order to poison them”.This confession was clearly untrue and was done in order to prevent further misery. However, these types of confessions spread throughout Europe and gave the Europeans proof and an excuse to continue persecuting the Jews.
Pope Clement VI tried to prove to the Christians that there wasn’t much logic in scapegoating the Jews for the plague epidemic which swept across Europe. Pope Clement VI explained that there was a generous amount of Jews who died from this plague and it wouldn’t be sensible that the Jews poisoned the wells if that would mean their fellow people would die too. Why would Jews cause suffering on their own people and family? Pope Clement VI also announced that there were many other regions who also suffered from the plague and yet no Jewish people lived there. If no Jewish people lived there, then what caused those inhabitants to die? Clement declared that no one should “capture, strike, wound, or kill any Jews.” Although the Pope provided valuable evidence of why the Jews were clearly not the case of the Black Death, anti-Semitism was so great that very few people obeyed or listened to the words of the Pope. We have said that the Jews were blamed because the Europeans accused them of poisoning the wells, but what were the underlying reasons of why they scapegoated the Jews to begin with? One explanation is that in the 14th century, life in Europe revolved around Christianity, therefore their culture contained Christian beliefs, which made Jews the minority.
The Jewish people had customs which differed from the Christians and these unfamiliar customs led to suspicion. All the more the unwillingness of the Jews to convert to Christianity led to hatred and disgust. There was a great deal of anti-Semitism during the 14th century because of the Jews' deep dedication to their religion and therefore when the Europeans had a chance to portray their hate against the Jews, they did it without a doubt in their mind. Another explanation as to why the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells is being that not many Jews obtained this deadly plague.
There are several arguments that explain why not all of the people of this religion picked up this plague. One explanation is that at this time Jews were isolated in ghettos, which prevented them from getting affected. Another explanation is that Jews had sanitary practices in their religion, their sanitary practices prevented them from obtaining the disease as freely as the Christians. Some of their practices include washing hands before eating, bathing once a week in honor of Shabbos, and not being permitted to recite a blessing in places which contain a vicious odor. The Jews were also very careful to clean and bury the dead bodies. All of these actions prevented the plague from spreading and affecting the Jews. Although several centuries have passed since the time of the Black Death, Jews are still taken to blame on things they didn’t do, however, most often it is not as violent as it was during the fourteenth century. For instance, there are some people from the former Soviet Union Republics that are still blaming the Jews for the destruction of the Soviet Union. They claim that the Soviet Union collapsing in 1991 was in effect of the Jews who ruined the economy.
Although the Jews are being blamed, there is not much violence or murder as there was during the time of the Black Death persecutions. Furthermore, it is not only the people from the former Soviet Union Republics that are still blaming the Jews, rather it is all of the anti-Semites in Europe. Anti- Semites in Europe have accused the Jews of being the cause of anti-Semitism. They explain that it’s the Jewish people's behavior and the actions of Israel that cause anti-Semitism.
In conclusion, the anti-Semitism that we face today is similar in regard to that we are still scapegoated. However, there is a change in regard to that the Europeans aren’t burning the Jews as they did during the time of the Black Death persecutions.
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