The Black Death

In October 1347, a ship came from the Crimea and docked in Messina, Sicily. Aboard the ship were not only sailors but rats. The rats brought with them the Black Death, the bubonic plague.

Europe had heard of the bubonic plague, which had ravished central Asia in the early 1300s. It is hard to have an accurate description of numbers, because throughout the Middle Ages numbers are generally used poetically rather than accurately. Nevertheless, the reports that came to Europe were that 20 million people had died in Asia.

Knowing what happened in Europe, it was probably an underestimate, because there were more people in Asia than Europe. Our best estimates now are that at least 25 million people died in Europe over a period of 50 years (peaking between 1348 and 1350). This was almost 40% of the population (some estimates say as high as 60%). It was a disaster practically unequalled in the annals of recorded history and it took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover.

The Fourth Horseman

What compounded the disaster was that no one knew what the disaster was. The Middle Ages was a time wracked with religious fanaticism, ignorance and superstition. A mysterious plague such as this took on much more awesome proportions simply because it was unknown.

The plague spread rapidly throughout Europe, but it was erratic: it skipped certain towns and areas. Furthermore, it abated in the cold weather of winter. By January 1348, many thought that the plague was over. But with the coming of spring and warmer weather, the plague started anew with greater ferocity. Therefore, it had within it a mysterious quality that compounded the suffering all that much more for the medieval mind.

The most common medical explanation today is that plague was spread by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) that lived within fleas, which in turn lived on the rat. It was spread in one of two ways. The first was through human contact. Sanitation in the 14th century was primitive, worse than in the ancient world. The ancient world at least had a more advanced sewage disposal system. In Europe, the sewage disposal system was an open pit channeled through the middle of the street. This guaranteed the spread of the plague.

The second way the plague was spread was through the air. People were infected with it simply by inhaling.

No one at the time knew the medical reason for the plague, but certain ideas developed. The most common reason was that it was the wrath of God. The times were fanatically religious, and one of the ways God got even, so to speak, was by punishing man. This is especially confirmed in Christian mythology with the idea of the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, one of whom is pestilence. This Horseman of Pestilence was there interpretation of the plague.

Reasons for God’s Wrath

Why should God be angry at Christian Europe? Some pointed to the corruption of the Church. Of course, the Church did not say that. It was impossible to preach such things in a sermon in church on Sunday morning.

Others said God’s anger came as a result of the divisiveness that existed within Christian Europe. Indeed, England and France were fighting a war that would last 100 years. Germany and Italy and the papal states of Naples and Sicily were all at each other’s throats constantly. Europe was continually at war, which always included massacre, robbery and pillage. Consequently, the plague was seen as the great leveler, the vehicle to restore peace between the nations.

Others said that the plague was the punishment for the Christians not pursuing the Crusades to the utmost, destroying the Muslims and evicting them from the Holy Land. By the 14th century, it was clear that the Christians had little if no chance of evicting the Muslims from Palestine. In fact, the entire idea of the crusades had waned. There were no more stalwarts for new crusades.

After a short while, there arose a new idea among the European Christian masses why the Black Death was ravaging their land: because they allowed the Jews to live in their midst as Jews. This reason became widely accepted. Therefore, in many communities throughout Christian Europe the formula and prescription of saving the community from the plague lay in either converting, exiling or murdering the Jewish population.

From 1349 until about 1390, the Jewish communities of France, Germany and England almost disappeared completely. In 1350, Frankfurt had over 19,000 Jews. By 1400, not even 10 Jews were left. That typified the situation in many other communities throughout Western Europe.

Why Jews were Less Affected

In addition to Christian persecution, Jews were also dying from the Black Death. It is hard to tell whether proportionally more Jews died from the plague or the persecutions. The Christians claimed that the Jews died at only half the rate. Even if true, it would then be about 20% of the Jewish population who died from the plague.

And even if Jews died at a lesser rate, it can be attributed to the sanitary practices Jewish law.

For instance, Jewish law compels one to wash his or her hands many times throughout the day. In the general medieval world a person could go half his or her life without ever washing his hands. According to Jewish law, one could not eat food without washing one’s hands, leaving the bathroom and after any sort of intimate human contact. At least once a week, a Jew bathed for the Sabbath. Furthermore, Jewish law prevents the Jew from reciting blessings and saying prayers by an open pit at latrines and at places with a foul odor. The sanitary conditions in the Jewish neighborhood, primitive as it may be by today’s standards, was always far superior to the general sanitary conditions.

Jewish law also prescribes certain sanitary conditions related to burial of the dead. Leaving corpses unburied not only abetted the conditions that spread the bubonic plague but typhus and other diseases as well. The Jews, on the other hand, had a unique sense of community that not only led them to feel a responsibility to attend to the sick and dying, but caused them to always maintain a formal burial society (chevrah kadisha), whose responsibility it was to make sure that any Jew who died was treated according to Jewish law, including washing the body before it was buried.

These are only a few examples how Jewish law preserved the Jewish people through this terrible dark period of plague. It imposed a sanitary standard on the Jew far above the ordinary sanitary standard that medieval Europe had. Nevertheless, even if the death rate from the plague among Jews was significantly less, it was still appalling.

A Distant Mirror

Barbara Tuchman’s book, A Distant Mirror, devotes a whole chapter to the Black Death. The descriptions she supplies are taken from the writings of the time. Even if one makes allowances for exaggerations, it is so awful that it defies the imagination.

As she states:

There were many to echo the account of inhumanity and few to balance it, for the plague was not the kind of calamity that inspired mutual health. Its loatheness and deadliness did not herd people together in mutual distress, but only prompted their desire to escape each other.

A Franciscan friar in Sicily stated: Magistrates and notaries refused to come and make out the wills of the dying. What was worse, even the priests did not come to hear their confessions or hear last rites. A clerk of the Archbishop of Canterbury reported the same of English priests who turned away from the care of their children in the church because of fear of death.

Cases of parents deserting children, and children deserting parents were reported across Europe from Scotland to Russia. The calamity chilled the hearts of man, wrote Boccaccio in his famous account of the plague in Florence that serves as the introduction to the Decameron. One man shunned another; kinsfolk held aloof; brother was forsaken by brother; husband by wife. Nay, what is more and scarcely to be believed, mothers and fathers were found to abandon their own children to their fate, untended, alone, unvisited, as if they had been strangers.

Exaggeration and literary pessimism are common in the 14th century, but the Pope’s position was as a sober careful observer who reported the same phenomena: “A father did not visit his son, nor did a son visit his father. Charity was dead.”

That effect upon Europe created a lasting effect, because the plague bankrupted Christianity. In its moment of trial, the Christian religion failed. Faced with this disaster, the veneer of civilization and religion disappeared. It is that failure that helped bring about after the plague the Renaissance and the Reformation – both events marking where the modern world begins.

Well Poisoning and other Canards

The official Church position during the Black Death was on the whole pro-Jewish. More than one pope – Boniface, Innocent and other popes (about four had to really contend with the problem) — issued proclamations that the Jews were not at fault and should be protected. The way to salvation did not lie in the destruction of the Jews.

But the situation was so out of hand that the official word of the pope did not carry much weight — especially considering that due to the great schism raging within the church at the time there were two popes, one in Avignon and one in Rome. The power of the pope was diminished.

There then arose a second theory regarding the Black Death: The origin of the plague was that the drinking water wells were poisoned. Who were the poisoners? Naturally, the Jews. Why would they do that? Because they took delight in destroying the Christian world. They were the agents of Satan, the anti-Christ. Therefore, it was nothing for the Jews to poison the well.


Once the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells, a wave of pogroms ensued. In January 1349, the entire Jewish community in the city of Basel was burned at the stake. The Jewish communities of Freiburg, Augsburg, Nurnberg, Munich, Konigsberg, Regensburg, and other centers, all were either exiled or burned. In Worms, in March 1349, the entire Jewish community committed suicide. In Cologne, the Jews were forced to flee.

In Mainz, which had the largest Jewish community in Europe, the Jews defended themselves against the mob and killed over 200 Christians. Then the Christians came to take revenge. On one day alone, on August 24, 1349, they killed 6,000 Jews in Mainz.

Of the 3,000 Jews in Erfurt, none survived the attack of the Christian mobs. By 1350, those Jews that survived the Black Death itself were destroyed by the ravages of the mobs. The Jewish communities in Antwerp and Brussels were entirely exterminated in 1350. There were almost no Jews left in Germany or the Low Countries by 1351.

The impact of the Black Death on Jewish history cannot be underestimated. It accelerated the movement of from Western Europe to the east, especially Poland, which was almost exempt from the Black Death. Even though the Jews will eventually move back to Western Europe, it will never again be the center of Jewish life it had been for almost four centuries

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Crash Course
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor

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