How and why were Jews made scapegoats for the Black Death?

How and why were Jews made
scapegoats for the Black Death?
Background: anti-Semitism
scapegoat (n.)
1530, "goat sent into the wilderness on the Day
of Atonement, symbolic bearer of the sins of the
people," coined by Tyndale from scape (n.) +
goat to translate L. caper emissaries
Meaning "one who is blamed or punished for
the mistakes or sins of others"
How were Jews made scapegoats?
• “... the Jewish pogroms that occurred in over
three hundred towns and other communities
and in primarily German-speaking lands from
Switzerland, Alsace, and the Low Countries in
the West to Poland, Bohemia, and Austria the
east between 1348 and 1351. (Pogroms also
occurred in northeastern Spain, Southern
France and the Savoy between Spring and
Autumn of 1348.)” (Aberth 2011: 53)
How were Jews made scapegoats?
• “On Saturday - that was St. Valentine's Day - they
burnt the Jews on a wooden platform in their
cemetery. There were about two thousand
people of them. Those who wanted to baptize
themselves were spared. [Some say that about a
thousand accepted baptism.] Many small children
were taken out of the fire and baptized against
the will of their fathers and mothers. And
everything that was owed to the Jews was
cancelled, and the Jews had to surrender all
pledges and notes that they had taken for debts.”
A desperate attempt to end the Death
“... the Jewish massacres were really about a desperate attempt
to end the Black Death, although certainly medieval Christian
“anti-Judaism” helps explain why Jews were targeted. Instead of
being a religiously based accusation bound up with the victim’s
Jewishness, the charge of well poisoning that was leveled
against the Jews during the Black Death was part of an entirely
rational outlook that was grounded in contemporary medical
and scientific theories about the disease that likewise viewed it
as primarily caused in the human body by some kind of
“poisoning.” The latter were usually interpreted in terms of a
naturally occurring causation, such as a “poisonous vapour”
ingested into the body from the surrounding air, but a few
Christian doctors, such as the Spanish physician based at the
medical school at Montpellier in southern France Alfonso de
Cordoba, did admit of plague poisoning by human agency.
A desperate attempt to end the Death
• These theories were then mutually reinforced
by trials against Jews and poor men that
charged them with poisoning wells or food in
order to spread the Black Death amongst
Christians; these trials first took place in the
Languedoc, Provencal, Dauphine, and
Savoyard regions of France and Switzerland,
all quite close to Cordoba’s theatre of
operations at Montpellier.” (Aberth 2011: 53)
God’s Will and Jewish Heresy
Economic Reasons
• “The money was indeed the thing that killed
the Jews. If they had been poor and if the
feudal lords had not been in debt to them,
they would not have been burnt.”
Economic Reasons
“According to Mordechai Breuer, these
‘ordinary folk’ hated the Jews because they had ‘served the
merchants and the aristocrats, and with their loans and
with their capital, helped establish the urban economy and
the city’s governing political and territorial independence’.
Further, the Jews had exploited artisans ‘with loans at
usurious rates’.26 Others have pushed the case for class
struggle further still, seeing the massacres as the revenge of
impoverished debtors against a privileged elite of Jewish
creditors: ‘Those of the working classes’ confronted ‘Jewish
rentiers and capitalists’ to cancel their debts and seize the
Jews’ wealth.” (Cohn 2007: 13)
• “It is not longer sufficient to say that Jewish
pogroms in Europe were an outgrowth of the
Flagellant movement, since the connections
between the two were tenuous at best. In
terms of timing, Flagellants often arrived in
town long after a Jewish pogrom occurred, as
was the case in Strasbourg, where two
thousand Jews were burnt in February 1349,
months before the Flagellants arrived later
that year in June or July.” (Aberth 2011: 53)

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