The Dark Ages were called such for good reason. Not only was the world filled with extreme ignorance and religious anxiety, but the nascent state of the medical world also contributed greatly to the amount of general sickness, pain, and death faced by the masses; the mystifying Black Death causes were in the forefront of everyone's minds, to boot. As a result, it remains one of the most fascinating periods in history - a time when humans were straining to pull themselves from the muck of blindness and into the light of understanding. In this moment, too, some of the explanations that folks came up with to explain phenomena that they didn't understand (like a pandemic) were downright disturbing. The idea that European Jews were to blame for the bubonic plague is one of these frighteningly misguided lines of medical reasoning.
To be fair, one of the lowest points in medieval history occurred in the mid-14th century when the lethal bubonic plague unleashed itself on the populace, wiping out up to 60% of Europe's total population. Fondly referred to as the Black Death, this pandemic was one of the most devastating in human history, beginning in Eurasia, spreading through the Mediterranean, and eventually peaking in Europe between the years 1346–1353. Ripping through vast numbers of people in a short time, the bubonic plague eventually snuffed out an estimated 200 million people.
Aside from human life, the sickness would also severely damage the tenuous state of the European Jews - who had been struggling to overcome centuries of persecution - and lead to widespread violence. As the frightening hand of death swept across the world, it also removed any veneer of religious tolerance and exposed the true sickness within - a disease that many say followed the Jews through the Reformation and into the modern world.
The Plague Was Gruesome Enough To Make Anyone A Little Crazy
The plague was, indeed, one of the most horrific and gruesome diseases ever to strike the planet. First marked by flu-like symptoms, the Black Death was almost as nefarious as its name. A high fever, chills, and headache would soon lead to black welts and bulges on the skin called buboes, appearing mostly in the lymph node areas of the groin and armpits. Blood and pus would seep from these egg-sized boils, both of which were highly contagious and able to strike a healthy person with very little contact. As the buboes swelled painfully, the stomach flu would ensue, causing the person to suffer from extreme muscle cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. These grim symptoms were also accompanied by a racking cough, heavy breathing, skin decay, and delirium, all leading to agonizing death in most cases. In some ways, given the lack of medical understanding of the horrific phenomenon, it's little wonder that people thrashed in the dark for outlandish explanations for it.
The Blame Game Began With The Question: Why Did God Let This Happen?
The outbreak of plague in 1348 brought up a lot of issues for European society, including ones of morality, as people struggled to understand what was happening. They blamed the outbreak on all sort of things - scandalous dress, human depravity, Christian dissension, and of course, the wrath of God. As the disease spread and brutally snuffed out the innocent, people began to cling even more desperately to their religious beliefs as a way to explain the misfortune. Why would God allow this to happen?
Some said the pestilence was the result of widespread corruption in the church, while others suggested it was punishment for the divisiveness of England and France during the Hundred Years' War. After all, Europe had been experiencing infighting for as long as anyone could remember, and massacres, pillaging, and destruction were simply the way of the land. Some saw the plague as the great equalizer that sought to put everyone back on the same level, even if it was subterranean. Others said the Black Death was punishment for the Christians because they did not continue with the Crusades and succeed in pushing the Muslim enemy from the Holy Land. The Crusades of the 14th century had failed - the Muslims still lived in Palestine - and the plague had arrived to remind everyone of this glaring defeat.
People Whipped Themselves Bloody To Find Forgiveness
As a result of the sickness, many folks took to self-flagellation as a way to appease the Christian God who had clearly forsaken them. By using heavy leather straps studded with sharp metal to whip themselves, these contrite souls hoped to bring about the Lord's forgiveness. Black Death was considered retribution for the sins of humans, like greed, blasphemy, heresy, fornication, and worldliness, and intense penitence was seen as a potential salve. But while the good people of Europe beat themselves senseless as a method of healing, there was an even more pervasive evil that began to take root - the idea that non-Christian Jews were the ones who were truly to blame for the whole affair. In an effort to cope with the terror and uncertainty, people lashed out at their neighbors, while others fretted about the condition of their souls, and the Jews became caught in the middle.
If The Jews Killed Christ, SoThey Probably Did This Too...
While the connection between Jews and the plague may seem tenuous at best to modern eyes, the Biblical interpretation of their role in Christ's death was still fresh in the medieval mind, especially for the flagellants who believed them to be a scourge on the Christian sensibility. There was no concrete or logical reason behind these beliefs, but as you know, that makes little difference in zealots' reasoning. Fueled by hundreds of years of prejudice and persecution, a simple rumor in 1348 was enough to spark a major blame game, where Jews were suspected of secretly poisoning water sources and "corrupting" the air somehow. As a result, the whole world rose up against them, all congregating around the notion that they alone were the reason behind the plague's horrific hold.
The Jews Had Been Targets For Centuries Before The Black Death
It's worth noting that the Jews were already facing many restrictions in Europe even before the plague outbreak in 1348. However, while the Catholic Church appeared to discourage Jewish persecution, the papacy had already enacted a law requiring Jews to wear distinctive clothing so as to separate them from Christians.
Even more, Jews had been professionally restricted for centuries and pigeonholed into being moneylenders or merchants. So while they did serve a valuable role in the community, the turn of the 11th century had changed their societal landscape. Christianity had stormed the world and become the predominant religion, bringing with it some of the most fanatical followers in history. But the Jews were resilient and smart - they developed merchant guilds and began to control a great deal of international commerce. This power did not play well with the gentile world, however, and it led to a general exclusion of Jews in the business world. It also clearly led to the kind of resentment that would manifest in other areas of social life, facilitating medical conspiracy theories around the plague.
The Idea That Jews Kidnapped Christian Children For Their Blood Became A Thing Again
Not only did the Black Death heighten the tensions between Christian and Jewish Europeans, but it also resurrected an ancient and pernicious belief known as blood libel - the accusation that Jews kidnapped and murdered Christian children to use their blood in dark religious rites. While the earliest known example of blood libel came from the Greek philosopher Democritus who, in the 1st century CE, said "every seven years the Jews captured a stranger, brought him to the temple in Jerusalem, and sacrificed him, cutting his flesh into bits," the explosion of plague-induced fear in medieval times renewed these beliefs and led to a resurgence of hatred.
Many Christians began to focus on the mysticism of the Jewish religion, suggesting they needed human blood for baking Passover matzoh and performing sacrifices for their God. In reality, these things ran contrary to the teachings of Judaism, as was proven when Abraham could not fulfill God's command to kill his own son, eventually using a ram as a substitute. The Torah strictly forbids murder and the use of any blood in cooking, and eating human flesh was a clear violation of the dietary laws of kashrut. As for human sacrifice, that wasn't endorsed either. While ancient Judaism did use animal death in some practices, the Old Testament clearly states the killing of humans to appease God is one of the great evils of the world - a sin that separated the pagans of Canaan from the Hebrews.
When No Treatments Could Be Found, Suspicion Turned To The Jews
People were stunned when the disease immediately began to take root in the community, as there seemed to be no explanation for it. Doctors had zero idea how to treat it and believed "instantaneous death occurs when the aerial spirit escaping from the eyes of the sick man strikes the healthy person standing near or looking at the sick." In this way, the disease was seen as a metaphysical - almost divine - power that could be passed along through some sort of magical element in the air. It was precisely this belief that allowed for religious justification and led to the suspicion of the Jews.
The disease was not just a sickness; it was a malady of the mind and spirit, a fact confirmed when medieval treatments like bloodletting, boil-lancing, and the burning of aromatic herbs did nothing. They could not understand why the plague skipped certain towns altogether while desecrating others, or why it abated in winter only to renew itself with even greater ferocity in the spring. In their panic, healthy people avoided the sick at any cost; most doctors refused to see patients; shopkeepers shut their doors; priests refused to offer last rites. People fled the cities to the countryside, but even there death was commonplace, as the corpses of cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens littered the hillsides.
Blaming The Jews Gave Christian Society A Feeling Of Control In An Uncontrollable Time
Rather than seeing their predicament as a medical quandary or a challenge to increase their knowledge, medieval society viewed it as an excuse to blame those they viewed as different. By placing blame elsewhere, they were able to excuse themselves from scrutiny and focus on something they could actually control. And in that process, they vilified the Jews and gave the pervasive evil they saw around them an identity. This gave them a feeling of power during a time when the world seemed to be spinning completely out of control. By projecting all their fear about the Black Death onto the Jews, society was able to rid itself of the burden through simple distraction. It provided an explanation where there was none and understanding in a place of utter darkness.