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  • The Black Death and the Burning of Jews*
  • Samuel K. Cohn Jr

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.1 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.2 These persecutions were the burning of Jews between [End Page 3] 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.3 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.4 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 [End Page 4] taken as near timeless over the course of the European Middle Ages, to the Holocaust of the twentieth century and beyond.5

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Detail from Hartmann Schedel, Liber cronicarum cum figuris et ymaginibus ab inicio mundi [the Nuremberg Chronicle] (Nuremberg, 1493), fo. 230v, Sp. Coll. Euing BD9-a2. By permission of the Librarian, Department of Special Collections, Glasgow University Library.

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 [End Page 5] 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 century6 — 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.7 [End Page 6]

In recent work I have argued that the Black Death realigned the trajectories of social conflict north and south of the Alps.8 From two separate paths before 1348, the experience of plague unified trends north and south, despite the lack of any evidence of joint co-ordination or communication linking such distant insurgents across the Alps. First, for the Black Death and its immediate aftermath, 1348-52, social movements with concrete aims to redress economic grievances, challenge political authority or question prevailing social hierarchies are difficult to find either north or south of the Alps. In Tuscany, the Black Death abruptly terminated workers' newly acquired zeal to topple governments or protest against burgeoning capitalist exploitation as in revolts of artisans and disenfranchised workers in Siena, Florence and Bologna earlier in the fourteenth century. By 1345, such insurgents had formed working men's associations with strike funds, attempted to overthrow merchant oligarchies, created (even if only momentarily) their own guilds, and claimed rights as citizens. From the outbreak of pestilence in 1348 to around 1355, by contrast, the chronicles and archival sources—judicial records, town council...