History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

The Black Plague.

We turn again to Central Europe, no longer standing in unfavorable contrast with Spain. The Jews now encountered an inhospitable and hostile spirit in all Christian nations.

Were we to single out one century darker than the rest that were already so dark for German Israel, it would be the fourteenth—for then extortion and massacre followed fast upon each other, with short intervals of peace.

The "Armleder" and Other Persecutions.

We have seen in the time of Meir of Rothenberg that persecution drove the Asherides from Germany to Spain. It was a time of civil war and anarchy for German States. In 1336-37 two noblemen!—mark the term (such were the usual ringleaders in days of outlawry)—started yet another anti-Jewish crusade. With leather on their arms, hence called Armleder, they incited the passions of five thousand peasants to avenge the wounds of Jesus! These were "avenged" in Alsace and the Rhineland. Were they never to be healed?

When the impulse was not bigotry it was avarice. Emperor Louis V, the Bavarian, devised a new means of squeezing money from the Jews. He imposed the "golden-gift pence," in 1342, an annual tax of one florin, on each Jewish soul in the German Empire above the age of twelve and possessing twenty florins or more. This was but another variation of the much-utilized theory that the Israelites were a property inheritance from ancient Rome.

The people of Deckendorf, Bavaria, freed themselves of their debts to Jews by declaring that they had desecrated the host—the host protesting by miraculously shedding blood! The ringing of a church bell was the signal for putting them all to the sword. The place became henceforth a shrine for pilgrimage. Thus was crime confused with piety.

The Black Plague.

Instances such as these of which many more occurred throughout the Empire all pale into insignificance before the grand tragedy—sequel of the Black Plague. Well might Israel have cried with the Psalmist, in the day of pestilence, "Let me fall into the hand of the Eternal for his mercies are abundant; but into the hand of man, let me not fall."

The Black Plague was brought west to Europe probably by sailors from central Asia, through the trade routes, via Russia and Italy, whence it spread through all Europe, carrying death in its train. During the three years of its ravage, 1348-1351, its victims numbered, it is said, though hardly credible, twenty-five million souls. Its ravage was increased "by the unsanitary condition of the crowded towns and the wretched mode of living of the poorer classes." In some regions whole populations were wiped out, crops rotted and flocks wandered unattended.

So far the evil was terrific enough in all conscience, yet man tried to be more cruel than Nature. Looking ever upon the Jew as the source of all evil, the rumor spread, almost as swiftly as the pestilence, that they had caused the plague by poisoning the wells. The awful slander gained steady credence in Christendom—though not in Moslem lands. These enemies of mankind, it ran, had induced their doctors of the "black art" to concoct a diabolic poison, to drop it in the wells and rivers whence Christians drank and thus to scatter death among them!

Owing to their more abstemious habits and keener sense of family devotion, the plague's ravages among Jews were not as great. But this partial immunity only strengthened the slanderous belief and meant their far greater loss by fire and sword in the end.

Certain Jews were seized, placed upon the rack and tortured until they declared that they and their brethren were guilty of the charge. But why, it will be asked, if they were innocent? Because, under excruciating torture, it is a demonstrated experience that people can be induced to declare anything, however monstrous, that seems to satisfy the tormentor. These "confessions," made broadly public, were followed by the extermination of entire Jewish communities by fire and sword. Massacres occurred in Switzerland, Belgium, France, but chiefly in Germany; in Spain hardly at all—it was before 1391. Pope Clement VI (patron of Gersonides) issued a bull against these murders—for such they were—declaring the innocence of the Jews and even demonstrating the folly of the charge. The German Emperor added his protest. But it was of little use at a time when the ravages of the plague had already demoralized society.

The torture, the condemnation and the burning alive went on with horrible monotony from one Swiss town to another, each giving precedent and excuse to the next for the barbaric procedure. In some cases burning was remitted for perpetual exile. The Flaggelants—a fanatic order, who flogged themselves in frantic frenzy and thought it piety—fostered the bigotry of the mob and its lust for blood.

In some cases Jews were deliberately put to death for sordid plunder, their records being burnt to canceal outstanding debts. One writer, in fact, declares: "Their goods were the poison which caused the death of the Jews."

Wholesale Slaughter in German States.

In Germany here and there a burgomaster, a sheriff, the councils of Cologne and Strassburg, did not "follow the multitude to do evil," being wise enough to see the absurdity of the accusation and humane enough to register their abhorrence. But Basle built a house on an island in the Rhine in which it first imprisoned and then set fire to its Jewish inhabitants. What a transformation this fanatic delusion had worked on otherwise law-abiding, and presumably pious citizens. Freiberg burnt its Jews at the stake, getting first a list of their creditors, to enrich the community with the outstanding debts. Some Jews of Speyer anticipated the holocaust by self-slaughter. This had become a familiar but no less terrible precedent. Strasburg, after deposing its humane Council, roasted alive two thousand Jews in their own cemetery. Those of Worms, the oldest Jewish community in Germany, those of Oppenheim and Frankfort, seeing death inevitable, cheated their remorseless persecutors by setting fire to their homes. In Mayence they dared commit the unpardonable offence of defending themselves, killing two hundred of their savage persecutors; it meant their own complete destruction. Six thousand was the deathroll there! Three thousand in Erfurt. In their prosperous centre at Nuremburg, on the Judenbuhl, the awful human sacrifice was repeated. Austria and Bavaria recorded the same shocking chronicles.

Did ever the unholy alliance of ignorance and hate produce such abnormities! To think that communities should commit such deeds and call themselves human, to think that a people should suffer such deeds and survive!

Poland alone, one of the Jewish lands of refuge, showed some instincts of humanity. Yet even here ten thousand were slain, the government being unable to stem the mad tide.

When the ravage was over of Germany's three hundred and fifty Jewish communities, but three of importance remained.

Some towns, in spite of vows of perpetual banishment, invited exiled Jews to return—less out of humanity, than out of interest. For they keenly felt the loss of inhabitants so industrious and enterprising. They already saw that the commercial framework of society greatly depended upon this intelligent people.

Synod of 1381.

The Black Plague's sequel brought other internal consequences to long-suffering Israel. Family records were destroyed, and in 1381 it became necessary to call a synod at Mayence to readjust their affairs. Among old decisions endorsed were—that the childless widow should be granted "chalitza" (release) without quibble or delay. This ancient law made it necessary for the childless widow to go through the ceremony of "release" from her brother-in-law before she could remarry, hence called 'Levirate law' (Levir, Latin for brother-in-law). For the earliest form of this law see Deut. xxv:5-10.

The tragedy also brought an intellectual decline. Plague and massacre, the natural and the human scourges, had made havoc in the ranks of rabbinical savants. Superficial men became rabbis, lacking even the title Morenu (our teacher).

Demoralization in the Church.

The Church also was in a bad way. The papacy temporarily established at Avignon was a centre of intrigues, conspiracy and corruption. The revolt sooner or later must come. Naturally its clergy "bettered the instruction" of their chiefs and were openly immoral. They also sanctioned all sorts of enormities on unoffending Jews, whom they styled "outcasts of God."

So the story of loot and massacre went on from place to place and from year to year with here and there a short lull. In 1384, Nordlingen wiped out its Jewish community. In Augsburg they were mulcted of 20,000 florins. On the way to a synod convened at Weissenfels, in 1386, a number of rabbis, granted "safe-conduct," were waylaid by robber barons, and imprisoned. They were only released on payment of a ransom. The plea of the marauders that Jews deserved no protection and that it was always a duty to slay the "enemies of Christ" was all-sufficient to pardon the robbers. In 1389, in Prague, on a slanderous charge of priests that Jewish children had desecrated the host—a general massacre followed. Again had Israel to repeat that awful ordeal, slaying its nearest and dearest to escape worse horrors. A condemnatory papal bull brought no relief. Emperor Wenceslaus laughed at a Jewish appeal, seized their property and continued to tax and despoil them. In 1399, we find Jews imprisoned again because an apostate declared that the prayer Alenu cast an indirect slur on the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Its net result was more martyrdom. So the_cry went up to heaven: "How long O Lord, how long?"

Thus the fourteenth century began and ended in the martyrdom of the witnesses of God.


The Plague:—Had Jews been living in England in 1660, its great plague might have been laid at their door. Read "Dance to Death," Emma Lazarus, in Songs of a Semite, a story of burning the Jews in Nordhausen in 1349.

Alexin:—A prayer of adoration near the close of a Jewish service, named from its opening words. "It is incumbent on us to praise the Lord of all." See article in Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. i.

Theme for Discussion:—The Jew as a scapegoat for the world's woes.