Post-classical history



BY 1350, the plague in France had ended or, at least, so far abated as to make possible the holding of a Council in Paris to tighten up some of the laws against heresy. But in the meantime it had moved eastwards into Germany. Central Europe was thus attacked on two sides or if, as seems probable, the Black Death also advanced by land through the Balkans, on three sides more or less simultaneously. By June 1348, it had already breached the Tyrolese Alps and was at work in Bavaria, by the end of the year it had crept up the Moselle valley and was eating into North Germany.1

In Styria, which it reached in November 1348, it seems to have been especially ferocious. According to the Neuburg Chronicle2 even the wild animals were appalled at its depredations. ‘Men and women, driven to despair, wandered around as if mad … cattle were left to stray unattended in the fields for no one had any inclination to concern themselves about the future. The wolves, which came down from the mountains to attack the sheep, acted in a way which had never been heard of before. As if alarmed by some invisible warning they turned and fled back into the wilderness.’ In Frankfurt-am-Main, where Günther Von Schwarzburg died in the summer of 1349, two thousand people perished in seventy-two days.3 In December 1349 the first case was recorded in Cologne. Six thousand died in Mainz, eleven thousand in Munster, twelve thousand in Erfurt.4 Nearly seven thousand died in Bremen in four parishes alone.

Vienna was visited from the spring to the late autumn of 1349. Every day, wrote Sticker, five to six hundred people died; once nine hundred and sixty perished in a single day. A third part of the population was exterminated, says one record;5 only a third survived says another.6 The population identified the plague as the Pest Jungfrau who had only to raise her hand to infect a victim. She flew through the air in the form of a blue flame and, in this guise, was often seen emerging from the mouths of the dead.7 In Lithuanian legend the same plague maiden waved a red scarf through the door or window of a house to infect its inhabitants. A gallant gentleman deliberately opened a window of his house and waited with his sword drawn till the maiden arrived. As she thrust in the scarf he chopped off her hand. He died but the rest of the village escaped unscathed and the scarf was long preserved as a relic in the local church.8 In some areas the plague poison was believed to descend as a ball of fire. One such ball was fortunately spotted while hovering above Vienna and exorcized by a passing bishop. It fell harmlessly to the ground and a stone effigy of the Madonna was raised to commemorate this unique victory of the city’s defensive system.

The details of the daily horrors are very similar to those in the cities of Italy and France and there is no need to labour them again. One point of difference is the abnormally large number of churchmen who died during the epidemic. It seems indeed that the plague fell with exceptional violence on the German clergy; because, one must suppose in the absence of other explanation, of the greater fortitude with which they performed their duties. Conrad Eubel, basing his calculations almost entirely on German sources,9 shows that at least thirty-five per cent of the higher clergy died in this period. The figure would not be exceptionally high if it related to parish priests but becomes astonishing when it applies to their normally cautious and well-protected superiors. But so far as the monks were concerned it seems that it was not only devotion to duty which led to a thinning of their ranks. Felix Fabri10 says that in Swabia many religious houses were deserted: ‘For those who survived were not in the monasteries but in the cities and, having become accustomed to worldly ways of living, went quickly from bad to worse….’ The monks of Auwa are said to have moved in a body to Ulm where they dissipated the monastery’s treasure in riotous living.

For a variety of reasons, therefore, the German Church found itself short of personnel in 1349 and 1350. One result was a sharp increase in plural benefices. In one area, between 1345 and 1347, thirty-nine benefices were held by thirteen men. In 1350 to 1352 this had become fifty-seven benefices in the hands of twelve men. Another was the closing of many monasteries and parish churches; a third the mass ordination of young and often ill-educated and untrained clerics. As a sum of these factors, the German Church after the Black Death was numerically weaker, worse led and worse manned than a few years before: an unlucky consequence of the losses which it had suffered by carrying out its responsibilities courageously. The many benefactions which it received during the terror ensured that its spiritual and organizational weakness was matched by greater financial prosperity, a disastrous combination which helped to make the church despised and detested where formerly it had been loved, revered or, at least, accepted. By 1350 the Church in Germany had been reduced to a condition where any energetic movement of reform was certain to find many allies and weakened opposition.

One by one the cities of Germany were attacked. As always, firm statistics are few and far between and, where they do exist, are often hard to reconcile with each other. Reincke11 has estimated that between half and two thirds of the inhabitants of Hamburg died and seventy per cent of those in Bremen; yet in Lübeck only a quarter of the householders are recorded as having perished. Most country areas were seriously affected, yet Bohemia was virtually untouched. Graus12 has suggested that this was due to Bohemia’s remoteness from the traditional trade routes yet, in the far milder epidemic of 1380, the area was ravaged by the plague. An impression is left that Germany, using the term in its widest possible sense to include Prussia, Bohemia and Austria, suffered less badly than France or Italy, but such an impression could hardly be substantiated. The Black Death in Germany, however, is of peculiar interest since that country provided the background for two of its most striking and unpleasant by-products: the pilgrimages of the Flagellants and the persecution of the Jews.


The Flagellant Movement,13 even though it dislocated life over a great area of Europe and at one time threatened the security of governments, did not, in the long run, amount to very much. It might reasonably be argued that, in a book covering so immense a subject as the Black Death, it does not merit considered attention. In statistical terms this might be true. But the Flagellants, with their visions and their superstitions, their debauches and their discipline, their idealism and their brutality, provide a uniquely revealing insight into the mind of medieval man when confronted with overwhelming and inexplicable catastrophe. Only a minority of Europeans reacted with the violence of the Flagellants but the impulses which drove this minority on were everywhere at work. To the more sophisticated the excesses of the Flagellants may have seemed distasteful; to the more prudent, dangerous. But to no one did they seem meaningless or irrelevant – that there was method in their madness was taken for granted even by the least enthusiastic. It is this, the fact that some element of the Flagellant lurked in the mind of every medieval man, which, more than the movement’s curious nature and intrinsic drama, justifies its consideration in some detail.

Flagellation as a practice seems to be almost as old as man himself. Joseph McCabe has pursued the subject with loving detail through the ages:14 from the Indians of Brazil who whipped themselves on their genitals at the time of the new moon through the Spartans who propitiated the fertility goddess with blood until finally he arrived at the thirteenth and fourteenth century – the ‘Golden Age of Pious Flagellation’. Most of these exercises were clearly if unconsciously erotic in their nature. As such, they were far removed from the pilgrimages of the Brethren of the Cross. It would be rash to assert that the Flagellants of 1348 did not satisfy, by their self-inflicted torments, some twisted craving in their natures, but ‘erotic’, in its normal sense of awakening sexual appetites, is not a word which can properly be applied to their activities.

The practice of self-scourging as a means of mortifying the flesh seems to be first recorded in Europe in certain Italian monastic communities early in the eleventh century. As a group activity it was not known for another two hundred years. At this point, in the middle of the thirteenth century, a series of disasters convinced the Italians that God’s anger had been called down on man as a punishment for his sins. The idea that he might be placated if a group of the godly drew together to protest their penitence and prove it by their deeds seems first to have occurred to a Perugian hermit called Raniero. The project was evidently judged successful, at any rate sufficiently so for the experiment to be repeated in 1334 and again a few years later, when the pilgrimage was led by ‘a virtuous and beautiful maid’. This last enterprise ran foul of the authorities and the maid was arrested and sentenced to be burnt at the stake. Either her virtue or her beauty, however, so far melted the hearts of her captors that she was reprieved and ultimately released.

The pilgrimage of 1260 drew its authority from a Heavenly Letter brought to earth by an angel which stated that God, incensed by man’s failure to observe the Sabbath day, had scourged Christendom and would have destroyed the world altogether but for the intercession of the angels and the Virgin and the altogether becoming behaviour of the Flagellants. Divine grace would be forthcoming for all those who became members of the Brotherhood: anybody else, it was clear, was in imminent danger of hellfire. A second edition of this letter was issued in time for the Black Death by an angel who was said to have delivered it in the Church of St Peter in Jerusalem some time in 1343.15 The text was identical with the first except for an extra paragraph specifically pointing out that the plague was the direct punishment of God and that the aim of the Flagellants was to induce God to relent.

The ‘Brotherhood of the Flagellants’ or ‘Brethren of the Cross’ as the movement was called in 1348, traditionally originated in Eastern Europe, headed, according to Nohl in a pleasant conceit for which he unfortunately fails to quote authority, by various ‘gigantic women from Hungary’.16It is to be deplored that these heroic figures quickly faded from the scene. It was in Germany that the Flagellant movement really took root. It is hard to be sure whether this was the result of circumstances or of the nature of the inhabitants. Dr Lea suggests that the German people had had their religious sensibilities stirred by the papal interdict against Louis of Bavaria and the recent earthquakes. But, if such were the causes, there would have been quite as much reason to expect the outbreak in Italy, the original home of collective scourgings, deprived as it was of its Pope and in a mood of striking melancholia.

The actual mechanism of recruitment to the Brotherhood is still obscure but the appearance of the Flagellants on the march is well attested.17 They moved in a long crocodile, two-by-two, usually in groups of two or three hundred but occasionally even more than a thousand strong. Men and women were segregated, the women taking their place towards the rear of the procession. At the head marched the group Master and two lieutenants carrying banners of purple velvet and cloth of gold. Except for occasional hymns the marchers were silent, their heads and faces hidden in cowls, their eyes fixed on the ground. They were dressed in sombre clothes with red crosses on back, front and cap.

Word would travel ahead and, at the news that the Brethren of the Cross were on the way, the bells of the churches would be set ringing and the townsfolk pour out to welcome them. The first move was to the church where they would chant their special litany. A few parish priests used to join in and try to share the limelight with the invaders, but most of them discreetly lay low until the Flagellants were on the move again. Only a handful were so high-principled or foolhardy as to deny the use of their church for the ceremony and these were usually given short shrift by the Brethren and by their own parishioners.

Sometimes the Flagellants would use the church for their own rites as well as for the litany but, provided there was a market place or other suitable site, they preferred to conduct their service in the open air. Here the real business of the day took place. A large circle was formed and the worshippers stripped to the waist, retaining only a linen cloth or skirt which stretched as far as their ankles. Their outer garments were piled up inside the circle and the sick of the village would congregate there in the hope of acquiring a little vicarious merit. On one occasion, at least, a dead child was laid within the magic circle – presumably in the hope of regeneration. The Flagellants marched around the circle; then, at a signal from the Master, threw themselves to the ground. The usual posture was that of one crucified but those with especial sins on their conscience adopted appropriate attitudes: an adulterer with his face to the ground, a perjurer on one side holding up three fingers. The Master moved among the recumbent bodies, thrashing those who had committed such crimes or who had offended in some way against the discipline of the Brotherhood.

Then came the collective flagellation. Each Brother carried a heavy scourge with three or four leather thongs, the thongs tipped with metal studs. With these they began rhythmically to beat their backs and breasts. Three of the Brethren acting as cheer-leaders, led the ceremonies from the centre of the circle while the Master walked among his flock, urging them to pray to God to have mercy on all sinners. Meanwhile the worshippers kept up the tempo and their spirits by chanting the Hymn of the Flagellants. The pace grew. The Brethren threw themselves to the ground, then rose again to continue the punishment; threw themselves to the ground a second time and rose for a final orgy of self-scourging. Each man tried to outdo his neighbour in pious suffering, literally whipping himself into a frenzy in which pain had no reality. Around them the townsfolk quaked, sobbed and groaned in sympathy, encouraging the Brethren to still greater excesses.

Such scenes were repeated twice by day and once by night with a benefit performance when one of the Brethren died. If the details of the ceremonies are literally as recorded then such extra shows must have been far from exceptional. The public wanted blood and they seem to have got it. Henry of Herford18 records: ‘Each scourge was a kind of stick from which three tails with large knots hung down. Through the knots were thrust iron spikes as sharp as needles which projected about the length of a grain of wheat or sometimes a little more. With such scourges they lashed themselves on their naked bodies so that they became swollen and blue, the blood ran down to the ground and bespattered the walls of the churches in which they scourged themselves. Occasionally they drove the spikes so deep into the flesh that they could only be pulled out by a second wrench.’

But though, gripped as they were by collective hysteria, it is easy to believe that they subjected their bodies to such an ordeal, it is impossible to accept that they could have repeated the dose two or three times a day for thirty-three days. The rules of the Brotherhood precluded bathing, washing or changes of clothing. With no antiseptics and in such grotesquely unhygienic conditions, the raw scars left by the spikes would quickly have become poisoned. The sufferings of the Brethren would have become intolerable and it seems highly unlikely that any Flagellant would have been physically capable of completing a pilgrimage. The modern reader is forced to the conclusion that, somewhere, there must have been a catch. Possibly the serious blood-letting was reserved for gala occasions, such as that witnessed by Henry of Herford. Possibly two or three victims were designated on each occasion to attract the limelight by the intensity of their sufferings. The Flagellants were not fakes but some measure of restraint there must have been.

Certainly there was little in their chanting intrinsically likely to lead to total self-abandonment. The celebrated Ancient Hymn of the Flagellants, even in the Latin or vernacular German, was a pitiful little dirge; as remote from ecstatic excitement as a Women’s Institute Choir’s rendering of ‘Abide With Me’:

Whoe’er to save his soul is fain,

Must pay and render back again.

His safety so shall he consult:

Help us, good Lord, to this result …

– Ply well the scourge for Jesus’ sake

And God through Christ your sins shall take …

Woe! Usurer though thy wealth abound

For every ounce thou makest, a pound

Shall sink thee to the hell profound.

Ye murderers and ye robbers all,

The wrath of God on you shall fall.

Mercy ye ne’er to others show,

None shall ye find, but endless woe.

Had it not been for our contrition

All Christendom had met perdition …19

A slightlier livelier refrain is quoted by Nohl:

Come here for penance good and well,

Thus we escape from burning hell,

Lucifer’s a wicked wight,

His prey he sets with pitch alight.

but even this lacks something as a stimulant.

The Flagellant Movement, at first at least, was well regulated and sternly disciplined. Any new entrants had to obtain the prior permission of their husband or wife and make full confession of all sins committed since the age of seven. They had to promise to scourge themselves thrice daily for thirty-three days and eight hours,20 one day for each year of Christ’s earthly life, and were required to show that they possessed funds sufficient to provide 4d. for each day of the pilgrimage to meet the cost of food. Absolute obedience was promised to the Master and all the Brethren undertook not to shave, bathe, sleep in a bed, change their clothes or have conversation or other intercourse with a member of the opposite sex.

The entrance fee ensured that the poorest members of society were barred from the Brotherhood; the strict rules, at first at any rate conscientiously observed, kept out the sensation-mongers who wished only to draw attention to themselves or to give unbridled scope to their passions. In these conditions, the public were generally delighted to receive the visits of the Flagellants and, at a small charge, to meet their simple needs. Their arrival was an event in the drab lives of the average German peasant; an occasion for a celebration as well as for the working off of surplus emotion. If the plague was already rife then the visit offered some hope that God might be placated, if it had not yet come then the penance of the Flagellants was a cheap and possibly useful insurance policy. Without at first being overtly anticlerical the movement gave the villager that satisfaction of seeing his parish priest manifestly playing second fiddle if not actually humiliated. Ecclesiastics had no pre-eminence in the movement; indeed, in theory, they were forbidden to become Masters or to take part in Secret Councils, and the leaders of the movement prided themselves upon their independence from the church establishment.

So bourgeois and respectable, indeed, did the movement at first appear that a few rich merchants and even nobles joined the pilgrimage. But soon they had reason to doubt their wisdom. As the fervour mounted the messianic pretensions of the Flagellants became more pronounced. They began to claim that the movement must last for thirty-three years and end only with the redemption of Christendom and the arrival of the Millenium. Possessed by such chiliastic convictions they saw themselves more and more, not as mortals suffering to expiate their own sins and humanity’s, but as a holy army of Saints. Certain of the Brethren began to claim a measure of supernatural power. It was commonly alleged that the Flagellants could drive out devils, heal the sick and even raise the dead. Some members announced that they had eaten and drunk with Christ or talked with the Virgin. One claimed that he himself had risen from the dead. Rags dipped in the blood they shed were treated as sacred relics. All that was lacking to give the movement the full force of a messianic crusade was a putative Messiah. Such a figure had appeared in the thirteenth century but though there may have been one or two local claimants, no major figure emerged on this occasion to lead the Brethren of the Cross into the Millenium.

As this side of the movement’s character attracted more attention, so a clash with the Church became inevitable. Already the claim of the Masters to grant absolution from sins infringed one of the Church’s most sacred and, incidentally, lucrative prerogatives. A number of dissident or apostate clerics began to secure high office in the movement and these turned with especial relish on their former masters. The German Flagellants took the lead in denouncing the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, ridiculing the sacrament of the eucharist and refusing to revere the host. Cases were heard of Flagellants interrupting religious services, driving priests from their churches and looting ecclesiastical property. Other heretics – the Lollards, the Beghards and the Cellites – made common cause with them in contesting the authority of the Catholic Church.

The parallel between the Pilgrimage of the Flagellants and the preceding ‘People’s Crusades’ became more apparent. According to John of Winterthur, the people were eagerly awaiting the resurrection of the Emperor Frederick who was expected to massacre the clergy and break down the barriers between rich and poor.21 This delectable vision fused in the popular mind with the apocalyptic ambitions of the Brethren. The movement took on a revolutionary character and began to direct the hostility of its audiences as much against the rich layman as the cleric. What was left of the merchants and nobles now deserted the movement in disgust, leaving the extremists free to direct its passions as they wished.

The loss of its bourgeois members in itself would probably have mattered little to the Flagellant Crusade. But as they trekked from plague centre to plague centre, often bearing infection with them to those whom they were supposed to succour, it was inevitable that many of their older members should perish, including the responsible leaders who had set the standards for the rest. To make up numbers, pilgrims were recruited less remarkable for their piety or their dour asceticism than for their failure to fit into any regular pattern of life. Bandits too discovered that a convenient way to enter a guarded town was to tack themselves on to the tail of a Flagellant procession. Little by little the more respectable citizens of Europe began to look with diminished favour on their turbulent visitors.

Up to the middle of 1349, the Flagellants had things pretty much their own way. Central and southern Germany was their favoured hunting ground but they spread freely over Hungary, Poland, Flanders and the Low Countries. In March they were in Bohemia; April, Magdeburg and Lübeck; May, Würzburg and Augsburg; June, Strasbourg and Constance; July, Flanders. Their numbers were formidable and their needs often strained the resources of their hosts. A single monastery in the Low Countries had to provide for 2,500 pilgrims in a matter of six months; in two and a half months 5,300 Flagellants visited Tournai; when the crusade arrived at Constance it was even claimed that there were 42,000 men in the company. If anyone opposed them their reaction was ferocious. Mendicant friars in Tournai who objected to their pretensions were dismissed as scorpions and Antichrists and, near Meissen, two Dominicans who tried to interrupt a meeting were attacked with stones and one of them killed before he could escape.

From the start, however, a few doughty spirits had declined to be intimidated. The magistrates of Erfurt refused entry to the Flagellants and neither from the Brethren themselves nor from the citizens was there any attempt to defy their ruling. Archbishop Otto of Magdeburg suppressed them from the start. In Italy they made little impression; perhaps the example had not been forgotten of Uberto Pallavicino of Milan who, in 1260, hearing that a Flagellant procession was on the way, erected three hundred gibbets outside his city. The hint was taken and the pilgrims never came. In France they were beginning to gather popular support when Philip VI, showing unusual determination, prevented their penetrating beyond Troyes.

According to Robert of Avesbury they arrived in London in May (or possibly September) 1349,22 but Walsingham, who also records the visit, puzzlingly delays it to 1350, by which time the movement had long been on the wane.23 ‘… there came into England,’ wrote the latter, ‘certain penitents, noblemen and foreigners, who beat their naked bodies very sharply until the blood ran, now weeping, now singing. Yet, as was said, they did this too unadvisedly, since they had no licence from the Apostolic See.’ Robert of Avesbury puts their numbers at more than six score, ‘for the most part coming from Zealand and Holland’. They are only known to have held one ceremony in London, on the open plot in front of St Paul’s. They seem to have met with indifference or even hostility and were rapidly deported as unwanted guests.

But the turning point came with the declaration of war by the Church. In May 1348 Pope Clement VI had himself patronized ceremonies involving public flagellation within the precincts of his palace at Avignon but he took fright when he saw that he could not control the movement which he had encouraged. Left to himself he would probably have turned against them sooner, but members of the Sacred College prevailed on him to hold his hand. In mid-1349, the Sorbonne was asked for its opinion and sent to Avignon a Flemish monk, Jean da Fayt, who had studied the phenomenon in his homeland. It seems that his advice was decisive. Shortly after his arrival, on 20 October 1349, a papal Bull was published and dispatched to the Archbishops. This was followed by personal letters to the Kings of France and England. The Bull denounced the Flagellants for the contempt of Church discipline which they had shown by forming unauthorized associations, writing their own statutes, devizing their own uniforms and performing many acts contrary to accepted observances. All prelates were ordered to suppress the pilgrimages and to call on the secular arm to help if it seemed necessary.

That the Pope meant business was shown when a party of a hundred Flagellants arrived in Avignon from Basle. Clement promptly interdicted public penance and prohibited their pilgrimages under threat of excommunication. Emboldened by his example, the rulers of Europe turned on the Brethren. Manfred of Sicily threatened to execute any Flagellant who appeared in his lands;24 Bishop Preczlaw of Breslaw made threats reality and had a Master burned alive. The German prelates took up the attack with especial relish. The Flagellants were denounced from the pulpit as an impious sect and harsh penalties were threatened against any who failed to return humbly to the bosom of the Church. Even those who obeyed were likely to find themselves in trouble if they had played a prominent part in the movement and hundreds were incarcerated, tortured or executed. In 1350 many Flagellants were in Rome enjoying a busman’s penance by being beaten in front of the High Altar of St Peter’s.

The Brethren of the Cross ‘vanished as suddenly as they had come, like night phantoms or mocking ghosts.’25 The movement did not die, indeed it was still to be encountered in the fifteenth century, but, as a threat to society or an additional headache to those grappling with the problems of the Black Death, it had effectively ceased to exist.

It is easy to poke fun at these misguided fanatics. Their superstitions were ridiculous, their practices obscene, their motivation sometimes sinister. But before condemning them one must remember the desperate fear which drove the Flagellants into their excesses. These were men who put themselves to great pain and inconvenience; in part, certainly for the sake of their own souls and their own glory, but in part also in the hope that their sacrifice might induce God to lift from his people the curse that was destroying them. There were few saints among them but, on the whole, they were not bad men. And it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for the person who, when disaster threatens, tries to do something to oppose it, however futile, instead of waiting, in abject despair, for death to strike him down.

They did achieve something. In some at least of the towns they visited they brought about a spiritual regeneration, ephemeral, no doubt, but still real while it lasted. Adulterers confessed their sins, robbers returned stolen goods. They provided some diversion at the places along their route and left behind them a fleeting hope that their pain might bring an end to the greater sufferings of the plague-stricken. But when the Flagellants had passed, often leaving new centres of infection in their wake; when the miracles did not happen, the sick did not recover, the plague did not pass; then the condition of those they left behind them must have been even worse than before they came. On the whole they probably did more harm than good.

One thing at least it is hard to forgive. In his Bull condemning them, Pope Clement VI complained that ‘most of them … beneath an appearance of piety, set their hands to cruel and impious work, shedding the blood of Jews, whom Christian piety accepts and sustains’. The persecution of the Jews during the Black Death deserves special attention. The part which the Flagellants played in this repugnant chapter was only occasionally of the first importance but it was nonetheless barbarous for that.


When ignorant men are overwhelmed by forces totally beyond their control and their understanding it is inevitable that they will search for some explanation within their grasp. When they are frightened and badly hurt then they will seek someone on whom they can be revenged. Few doubted that the Black Death was God’s will but, by a curious quirk of reasoning, medieval man also concluded that His instruments were to be found on earth and that, if only they could be identified, it was legitimate to destroy them. What was needed, therefore, was a suitable target for the indignation of the people, preferably a minority group, easily identifiable, already unpopular, widely scattered and lacking any powerful protector.

The Jews were not the only candidates as victims. In large areas of Spain the Arabs were suspected of playing some part in the propagation of the plague. All over Europe pilgrims were viewed with the gravest doubts; in June 1348 a party of Portuguese pilgrims were said to be poisoning wells in Aragon and had to be given a safe conduct to get them home.26 In Narbonne it was the English who were at one time accused.27 But it was the leper who most nearly rivalled the Jew as popular scapegoat. The malign intentions of the leper had long been suspected by his more fortunate fellows. In 1346 Edward III declared that lepers were no longer to enter the City of London since:

… some of them, endeavouring to contaminate others with that abominable blemish (that so, to their own wretched solace, they may have the more fellows in suffering) as well in the way of mutual communication, and by the contagion of their polluted breath, as by carnal intercourse with women in stews and other secret places, detestably frequenting the same, do so taint persons who are sound, both male and female, to the great injury of the people dwelling in the city …

But it is one thing to try to infect others with one’s own disease for the sake of the extra companionship, another to spread the plague out of sheer devilry. When in Languedoc, in 1321, all the lepers were burnt on suspicion of poisoning wells, it was claimed that they had been bribed to do so by the Jews who, in their turn, were in the pay of the King of Granada.28 There were one or two cases, notably in Spain, where lepers suffered during the Black Death on suspicion of complicity but there do not seem to be any where the Jews were not accorded the leading role and the lepers cast as the mere instruments of their wickedness.

One reason for this was that nobody had cause for envying the lepers or economic reason for wishing them out of the way. It was very different with the Jews whose popular image was that of the Prioress’s Tale:

… sustened by a lord of that contree

For foule usure and lucre of vileynye,

Hateful to Christ and to his compaignye.*

In Germany, and to some extent also in France and Spain, the Jews provided the money-lending class in virtually every city – not so much by their own volition as because they had been progressively barred from all civil and military functions, from owning land or working as artisans. Usury was the only field of economic activity left open to them; an open field, in theory at least, since it was forbidden to the Christian by Canon Law. In cities such as Strasbourg they flourished exceedingly and profited more than most during the economic expansion of the thirteenth century.29 But the recession of the fourteenth century reduced their prosperity and the increasing role played by the Christian financiers, in particular the Italian bankers, took away from them the cream of the market. In much of Europe the Jew dwindled to a small money-lender and pawnbroker. He acquired a large clientele of petty debtors so that every day more people had cause to wish him out of the way. ‘It can be taken for granted,’ wrote Dr Cohn, ‘that the Jewish money lenders often reacted to insecurity and persecution by deploying a ruthlessness of their own.’30It is fair to criticize the medieval Jews for exacting exorbitant rates of interest from their victims but it is also only fair to remember the extreme precariousness of their business, dependent on the uncertain protection of the local ruler and with virtually no sanctions at their disposal to enable them to recover their money from a reluctant debtor. To ensure their own safety the luckless Jews were forced to pay ever larger bribes to the authorities and, to raise the money for the bribes, they had to charge higher interest and press their clients still more harshly. Animosity built up and, by the middle of the fourteenth century, Shylock had been born. The Jew had become a figure so hated in European society that almost anything might have served to provoke catastrophe.

But though the economic causes for the persecution of the Jews were certainly important it would be wrong to present them as the only, or even as the principal reason for what now happened. The Jew’s role as money-lender predisposed many people to believe any evil which they might hear of him but the belief itself was sincere and had far deeper roots. The image of the Jew as Antichrist was common currency in the Middle Ages. It seems to have gained force at the time of the First Crusade and the Catholic Church must accept much of the responsibility for its propagation. The vague enormity of such a concept was quickly translated into terms more comprehensible to the masses. In particular the more irresponsible priests spread rumours that the Jews kidnapped and tortured Christian children and desecrated the host. They were represented as demons attendant on Satan, portrayed in drama or in pictures as devils with the beards and horns of a goat, passing their time with pigs, frogs, worms, snakes, scorpions and the horned beasts of the field. Even the lay authorities seemed intent on fostering public belief in the malevolence of the Jews; in 1267, for instance, the Council of Vienna forbade purchases of meat from Jews on the ground that it was likely to be poisoned.

Today such fantasies seem ludicrous. It is hard to believe that sane men can have accepted them. And yet Dr Norman Cohn31 has drawn a revealing parallel between anti-Semitism in the fourteenth century and under the Third Reich. On 1 May 1934 Der Stürmerdevoted a whole issue to alleged murders of Christian children by the Jews; illustrating its text with pictures of rabbis sucking blood from an Aryan child. Most Germans were no doubt revolted by such vicious propaganda but Buchenwald, Auschwitz and Belsen live vividly enough in the memory to save this generation from any offensive sense of superiority to its ancestors. Nor do the still more recent Chinese accusations that American airmen, in 1952, showered the countryside around Kan-Nan Hsien with voles infected with Pasteurella pestis, the bacillus of bubonic plague, suggest that man’s infinite capacity for thinking ill of man is in any way on the wane.32

The Black Death concentrated this latent fear and hatred of the Jews into one burning grievance which not only demanded vengeance but offered the tempting extra dividend that, if the Jews could only be eliminated, then the plague for which they were responsible might vanish too. There was really only one charge levelled against the Jews; that, by poisoning the wells of Christian communities, they infected the inhabitants with the plague. The Polish historian, Dlugoss, claimed that they also poisoned the air33but this view does not seem to have been at all widely shared. Some of the more fanciful reports alleged that the Jews were working under the orders of a conspiratorial network with its headquarters in Toledo; that the poison, in powdered form, was imported in bulk from the Orient, and that the same organization also occupied itself in forging currencies and murdering Christian children. But these were decorative frills, the attack on the sources of drinking water was the central issue.

The emphasis on this accusation is surprising. With the exception of the Faculty of Medicine at Paris, which suggested that a minor contributory cause of the epidemic might be the pollution of the wells as a result of earthquakes, none of the contemporary experts seem to have tried to link infection with the drinking of tainted water. There were other ways of spreading the plague which must have seemed at least as plausible to medieval man. Alfonso of Cordoba’s vision of the infection of air by the release of a ‘certain confection’ into a ‘strong, slow wind’ has already been mentioned34 and in subsequent epidemics Jews were accused of passing around clothes taken from the dead or smearing walls and windows with an ointment made from the buboes of plague victims.

A partial explanation may be that many wells in built-up areas were polluted by seepage from nearby sewage pits. The Jews, with their greater understanding of elementary hygiene, preferred to draw their drinking water from open streams, even though these might often be farther from their homes. Such a habit, barely noticed in normal times, would seem intensely suspicious in the event of plague. Why should the Jews shun the wells unless they knew them to be poisoned and how could they have such knowledge unless they had done the poisoning themselves? This theory is supported by Tschudi who, in the Helvetian Chronicle, records not only that the Jews knew the wells to be contaminated by ‘bad, noxious moistures and vapours’ but also that, in many places ‘they warned the people against them.’35 If they did, the warnings seem to have gone unheeded and certainly those who received them were little disposed to feel gratitude to the Jews for their consideration.

There can be little doubt that the majority of those who turned on the Jews believed in the literal truth of the accusations against them. It might be thought that this certainty would have been shaken by the fact that Jews died as fast as Christians; probably faster, indeed, in their crowded and unhealthy ghettoes. But the Christians seem simply to have closed their eyes to reality. Since the Jews caused the Black Death it was ridiculous to suppose that they could also suffer from it. Any appearance to the contrary was merely further evidence of their consummate cunning:

Judée la honnie

La maulvaise, la desloyal

Que bien net et aime tout mal

Qui tant donne d’or et d’argent

Et promis a crestienne gent

Que puis, rivières et fonteines

Qui estoient dares et seines

En pluseurs lieus empoissonèrent.36

But though such crude suspicions might have been acceptable to the mob, they can hardly have been taken seriously by the intelligent and better educated. Dr Guerchberg has analysed the attitude of the leading plague tractators.37 The most remarkable feature is how few references there are to the guilt or innocence of the Jews. Konrade of Megenberg brusquely dismissed the accusations: ‘Some say that this was brought about by the Jewish people, but this point of view is untenable.’ In his Buch der Natur he cites as evidence Jewish mortality in Vienna which was so high that a new cemetery had to be constructed. Gui de Chauliac was equally categoric. Alfonso of Cordoba considered that, by all the rules of planetary action, the Black Death should only have lasted a year and that any subsequent extension must be the result of a wicked plot. But he did not specifically accuse the Jews of being responsible. The ‘Five Strasbourg Physicians’ warned against poisoned food and water but it is doubtful whether they believed that the poisoning was done deliberately by man.38 No other tractator paid any attention to the possibility that some human agency was involved in the spread of the plague, still less that such villains must be identified as the Jews.

On the whole this reticence on the part of the tractators must be taken to indicate that they did not believe the accusations. It is impossible that they did not know what had been suggested and, if they had really thought that a principal cause of the plague was the poisoning of the wells by Jews, then they could hardly have failed to say so in their examination of the subject. Their silence might imply that they thought the idea too ridiculous to mention but it is more likely that they shrank from expressing publicly an unpopular view on an issue over which people were dangerously disturbed.

For it took considerable moral courage to stand up for the Jews in 1348 and 1349 and not many people were prepared to take the risk. The first cases of persecution seem to have taken place in the South of France in the spring of 1348, and, in May, there was a massacre in Provence. Narbonne and Carcassone exterminated their communities with especial thoroughness. But it is possible that the madness might never have spread across Europe if it had not been for the trial at Chillon in September 1348 of Jews said to have poisoned certain wells at Neustadt and the disastrous confessions of guilt which torture tore from the accused.39 Balavignus, a Jewish physician, was the first to be racked. ‘After much hesitation’, he confessed that the Rabbi Jacob of Toledo had sent him, by hand of a Jewish boy, a leather pouch filled with red and black powder and concealed in the mummy of an egg. This powder he was ordered, on pain of excommunication, to throw into the larger wells of Thonon. He did so, having previously warned his friends and relations not to drink the water. ‘He also declared that none of his community could exculpate themselves from this accusation, as the plot was communicated to all and all were guilty of the above charges.’ Odd scraps of ‘evidence’ were produced, such as a rag found in a well in which it was alleged that the powder, composed largely of ground-up portions of a basilisk, had been concealed. Ten similar confessions were racked from other unfortunates and the resulting dossier sent to neighbouring cities for their information and appropriate action.

So incriminating a confession settled the doubts or perhaps quietened the consciences of many who might otherwise have felt bound to protect the Jews. On 21 September 1348 the municipality of Zurich voted never to admit Jews to the city again. In Basle all the Jews were penned up in wooden buildings and burned alive.40 ‘In the month of November began the persecution of the Jews,’ wrote a German chronicler.41 Henry of Diessenhoven  has recorded the movement of the fever across his country. In November 1348 the Jews were burnt at Solothurn, Zofingen and Stuttgart; in December at Landsberg, Burren, Memmingen, Lindau; in January, Freiburg, Ulm and Speyer. At Speyer the bodies of the murdered were piled in great wine-casks and sent floating down the Rhine. In February it was the turn of the Jews at Gotha, Eisenach and Dresden; in March, Worms, Baden and Erfurt.

In most cities the massacres took place when the Black Death was already raging but in some places the mere news that the plague was approaching was enough to inflame the populace. On 14 February 1349, several weeks before the first cases of infection were reported, two thousand Jews were murdered in Strasbourg; the mob tore the clothes from the backs of the victims on their way to execution in the hope of finding gold concealed in the lining. In part at least because of the anti-Semitism of the Bishop, the Jews of Strasbourg seem to have suffered exceptionally harshly. A contemporary chronicle puts the grand total of the slaughter at sixteen thousand42 – half this would be more probable but the Jewish colony was one of the largest of Europe and the higher figure is not totally inconceivable.

From March until July, there was a lull in the persecution. Then the massacre was renewed at Frankfurt-am-Main and, in August, spread to Mainz and Cologne. In Mainz, records one chronicler, the Jews took the initiative, attacked the Christians and slew two hundred of them. The Christian revenge was terrible – no less than twelve thousand Jews, ‘or thereabouts’, in their turn perished.43 In the North of Germany, Jewish colonies were relatively small, but their insignificance was no protection when the Black Death kindled the hatred of the Christians. In the spring of 1350 those Jews of the Hansa towns who had escaped burning were walled up alive in their houses and left to die of suffocation or starvation. In some cases they were offered the chance to save themselves by renouncing their faith but few availed themselves of the invitation. On the contrary, there were many instances of Jews setting fire to their houses and destroying themselves and their families so as to rob the Christians of their prey.

Why the persecutions died down temporarily in March 1349 is uncertain. It could be that the heavy losses which the Black Death inflicted on the Jews began to convince all those still capable of objectivity that some other explanation must be found for the spread of the infection. If so, their enlightenment did not last long. But the blame for the renewal of violence must rest predominantly with the Flagellants. It is difficult to be sure whether this was the work of a few fanatics among the leaders or merely another illustration of the fact that mass-hysteria, however generated, is always likely to breed the ugliest forms of violence. In July 1349, when the Flagellants arrived in procession at Frankfurt, they rushed directly to the Jewish quarter and led the local population in wholesale slaughter. At Brussels the mere news that the Flagellants were approaching was enough to set off a massacre in which, in spite of the efforts of the Duke of Brabant, some six hundred Jews were killed.44 The Pope condemned the Flagellants for their conduct and the Jews, with good reason, came to regard them as their most dangerous enemies.

On the whole the rulers of Europe did their best, though often ineffectively, to protect their Jewish subjects.45 Pope Clement VI in particular behaved with determination and responsibility. Both before and after the trials at Chillon he published Bulls condemning the massacres and calling on Christians to behave with tolerance and restraint.46 Those who joined in persecution of the Jews were threatened with excommunication. The town-councillors of Cologne were also active in the cause of humanity, but they did no more than incur a snub when they wrote to their colleagues at Strasbourg urging moderation in their dealings with the Jews. The Emperor Charles IV and Duke Albert of Austria both did their somewhat inadequate best and Ruprecht von der Pfalz took the Jews under his personal protection, though only on receipt of a handsome bribe. His reward was to be called ‘Jew-master’ by his people and to provoke something close to a revolution.47

Not all the magnates were so enlightened. In May 1349 Landgrave Frederic of Thuringia wrote to the Council of the City of Nordhausen telling them how he had burnt his Jews for the honour of God and advising them to do the same.48 He seems to have been unique in wholeheartedly supporting the murderers but other great rulers, while virtuously deploring the excesses of their subjects, could not resist the temptation to extract advantage from what was going on. Charles IV offered the Archbishop of Trier the goods of those Jews in Alsace ‘who have already been killed or may still be killed’ and gave the Margrave of Brandenburg his choice of the best three Jewish houses in Nuremberg, ‘when there is next a massacre of the Jews’.49 A more irresponsible incitement to violence it would be hard to find.

Nor were those rulers who sought to protect the Jews often in a position to do much about it. The patrician rulers of Strasbourg, when they tried to intervene, were overthrown by a combination of mob and rabble-rousing Bishop. The town-council of Erfurt did little better while the city fathers of Trier, when they offered the Jews the chance to return to the city, warned them quite frankly that they could not guarantee their lives or property in case of further rioting. Only Casimir of Poland, said to have been under the influence of his Jewish mistress Esther, seems to have been completely successful in preventing persecution.

An illustration of the good will of the rulers and the limitations on their effective power comes from Spain. Pedro IV of Aragon had a high opinion of his Jewish subjects. He was therefore outraged when the inhabitants of Barcelona, demoralized by the Black Death and deprived, through the high mortality and the flight from the city of the nobles and the rich, of almost any kind of civil authority, turned on the Jews and sacked the ghetto. On 22 May 1348 he sent a new Governor to the city and gave orders that the guilty were to be punished and no further incidents allowed.50A week later he circularized his authorities throughout the kingdom ordering them to protect the Jews and prevent disturbances.51 By February 1349 the new Governor of Barcelona had made no progress in his search for those responsible. King Pedro grew impatient and demanded immediate action. In a flurry of zeal a few arrests were made, including Bernal Ferrer, a public hangman. But the prosecution in its turn was extremely dilatory. Six months later no judgement had been passed and, in the end, it seems that Ferrer and the other prisoners were quietly released.

Meanwhile, in spite of the King’s injunctions, anti-Jewish rioting went on in other cities of Aragon. There was a particularly ugly incident in Tarragona where more than three hundred Jews were killed. Here again Pedro demanded vengeance and sent a commission to investigate. The resulting welter of accusation and counter accusation became so embittered that virtual civil war ensued. In the end this prosecution too was tacitly abandoned. But the King did at least ensure that a new ghetto was built and intervened personally on behalf of several leading Jews who had been ruined by the loss of their houses and documents. When the next epidemic came in 1361 the Jews appealed to the King for protection and an armed guard was placed at the gates of the ghetto.

Flanders was bitten by the bug at about the same time as the Bavarian towns. ‘Anno domini 1349 sloeg men de Joden dood’52 is the chronicler’s brutally laconic reference to massacres that seem to have been on a scale as hideous as those in Germany. In England there were said to be isolated prosecutions of Jews on suspicion of spreading the plague but no serious persecution took place. It would be pleasant to attribute this to superior humanity and good sense. The substantial reason, however, was rather less honourable. In 1290, King Edward I had expelled the Jews from England. Such few as remained had little money and were too unobtrusive to present a tempting target. Some small credit is due for leaving them in peace but certainly it cannot be held up as a particularly shining example of racial tolerance.


The persecution of the Jews waned with the Black Death itself; by 1351 all was over. Save for the horrific circumstances of the plague which provided the incentive and the background, there was nothing unique about the massacres. The Jews had already learned to expect hatred and suspicion and the lesson was not one which they were to have much opportunity to forget. But the massacre was exceptional in its extent and in its ferocity; in both, indeed, it probably had no equal until the twentieth century set new standards for man’s inhumanity to man. Coupled with the losses caused by the Black Death itself, it virtually wiped out the Jewish communities in large areas of Europe. In all, sixty large and one hundred and fifty smaller communities are believed to have been exterminated and three hundred and fifty massacres of various dimensions took place. It led to permanent shifts of population, some of which, such as the concentration of Jews in Poland and Lithuania, have survived almost to the present day. It is a curious and somewhat humiliating reflection on human nature that the European, overwhelmed by what was probably the greatest natural calamity ever to strike his continent, reacted by seeking to rival the cruelty of nature in the hideousness of his own man-made atrocities.


1 Lechner, Das Grosse Sterben in Deutschland, Innsbruck, 1884, p.26.

2 ‘Continuatio Novimontensis’, Mon. Germ., IX, p.675.

3 G. Rath, CIBA Symposium, III, 1956, p.195.

4 G. Sticker, Die Geschichte der Pest, Giessen, 1908, p.68.

5 ‘Kalendarium Zwetlense’, Mon. Germ., IX, p.692.

6 ‘Continuatio Novimontensis’, op. cit., p.675.

7 Crawfurd, Plague and Pestilence, op. cit., p. 125.

8 L. Porquet, La Peste en Normandie, Vire, 1898, pp.18–19.

9 Hierarchia catholica, Vol. 1, Münster, 1913, cit. Campbell, p.134.

10 Historia Suevorum, Bk II, pp.309–10.

11 H. Reincke, ‘Bevölkerungsverluste der Hansestödte durch den Schwarzen Tod’, Hansische Geschichtsblätter, Vol. 72, 1954, p.88.

12 F. Graus, Histoire des paysans en Bohême, Prague, 1957; cit. Carpentier, ‘Autour de la Peste Noire’, p.1089.

13 The best recent account of the Flagellant movement is that of G. Leff, Heresy in the Later Middle Ages, Vol. II, Chap. VI, Manchester, 1967.

14 J. McCabe, The History of Flagellation, Girard, Kansas, 1946.

15 Lea, History of the Inquisition, Vol. II, pp.382–3.

16 J. Nohl, Schwarze Tod, op. cit., p.303.

17 See, in particular, Matthew of Neueburg (Matthiae Neuewen-burgensis), Fontes Rerum Germanicarum, ed. Boehmer, Stuttgart, Vol. IV, 1868, pp.266–7.

18 Henry of Herford, Liber de rebus memorabioribus, ed. Potthast, Göttingen, 1859, p.281.

19 The translation is Babington’s from Hecker’s Black Death, p. 65.

20 Certain authorities prefer thirty-three and a half days.

21 Mom Germ., NS., III, p.280.

22 R.S. 93, pp.407–8.

23 Historia Anglicana, R.S. I, p.275.

24 R. Hoeniger, Der Schwarze Tod in Deutschland, Berlin, 1882, p.14.

25 Henry of Herford, op. cit., p.282.

26 A. Lopez de Meneses, ‘Documentos acerca de la Peste Negra en los dominion de la Corona de Aragon’, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, Vol. VI, 1956, p.301.

27 G. Sticker, Die Geschichte der Pest, op. cit., p.59.

28 Lea, op. cit., Vol. II, p.380.

29 H. Dubled, ‘Aspects économiques de la vie de Strasbourg aux XIHe et XIVe siècles’, Archives de l’Église dAlsace, N.S., Tome VI, 1955, pp.23–56.

30 N. Cohn, Pursuit of the Millenium, London, 1957, p.124.

31 Ibid, p.387.

32 Ilza Veith, ‘Plague and Polities’, Bull. Hist Med., Vol. XXVIII, 1954, p.409.

33 cit. Hecker, p.38.

34 p.21 above.

35 cit Nohl, p.252.

36 Guillaume de Machaut Jugement du Roy de Navarre.

37 S. Guerchberg, ‘La controverse sur les prétendus semeurs de la Peste Noire’, Revue des Études Juives, N.S., Tome VIII, 1948, pp.3–40.

38 E. Wickersheimer, ‘La Peste Noire à Strasbourg’, Proc. 3rd Int. Cong. Hist. Med., Antwerp, 1923, p.54.

39 Text of confessions quoted by Hecker, op. cit., pp.70–74.

40 Matthew of Neueburg, op. cit., p.262.

41 Heinricus de Diessenhoven, Fontes Rerum Germanicarum, Vol. IV, p.68.

42 Michael Kleinlawel, Strassburgische Chronik., cit. Nohl, p.242.

43 Heinrici Rebdorfensis, ‘Annales Imperatorum’, Fontes Rerum Germanicarum, Vol. IV, p.534.

44 ‘Aegidii Li Muisis’, De Smet, op. cit., Vol. II, pp.342–3.

45 See, in particular, R. Hoeniger, Der Schwarze Tod in Deutschland, Berlin, 1882, pp.9–11.

46 4 July and 26 Sept 1348, Raynaldus, Annales eccles. ed. Mansi, Vol. VI, 1750, p.476.

47 Hecker, op. cit., p.42.

48 Haeser, op. cit., Vol. III, p.181.

49 J. Parkes, The Jews in the Mediaeval Community, London, 1938, p.118.

50 A. Lopez de Meneses, ‘Una consecuencia de la Peste Negra en Cataluña: el pogrom de 1348’. Sefarad, XIX, 1959, p.92.

51 ‘Documentos acerca de la Peste Negra en los dominios de la Corona de Aragon’, Consejo superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, Vol. VI, 1956, p.298.

52 L. Bertrand, ‘Contribution à l’Étude de la Peste dans les Flandres’, Proc. 2nd Int. Cong. Hist. Med., Evreux, 1922, p.43.

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