In his relation of these black years, the Strasbourg chronicler, Michael Kleinlawel, wrote:
“In this time when the plague was rife
In all countries, far and near,
Ah yes, throughout all of Christianity,
This thing appeared very clear,
The Jews of the crime were guilty,
As it was said everywhere,
Poisoning the wells even in this time,
As under the question they confessed
For certain (who were mentioned)
Having done themselves,
And therefore, with no mercy,
In many places were burnt.”
The extorsion of confessions by blackmail and torture allowed the appearance of a judicial basis to be given to the antisemite persecutions. A good example is furnished in the minutes of a trial of “poisoners” held at Chillon in September 1348:
“The Jew Balavignus, surgeon and inhabitant of Thonon, although he was arrested in Chillon, having been discovered inside the castle, was only put on the rack for a short time, and after being taken off, confessed after a very long moment that, around six weeks beforehand, Master Jacob, who since Easter was living in Chambery, on certain orders, which came from Toledo, had sent to him from Thonon, by the intermediary of a young Jew, some poison in an eggshell; it was a powder contained in a thin leather sack, with a letter that obliged him, under threat of being disowned, according to their law, to place this same poison in the wells, big and small, of this town, in sufficient quantity to poison the people who came there to fetch water, and to reveal this to no-one under threat of the aforementioned punishment. Also, in this same letter, it was told him to transmit this order to several other places, by order of rabbis or masters of their law; and he confessed that he had one evening placed in secret the prescribed quantity of poison in the well situated under a stone, on the bank of the lake near Thonon.”
As for the Jews to whom their lives had been promised in exchange for their conversion, they were very rare not to prefer death to the renunciation of their faith. However, in the Oriental lands where they had been converted by the Teutonic Knights, their fate was hardly more enviable…
One fact, it is true, had been noticed by the populations: during the epidemic, the Jews avoided drinking well water. The real reason for this attitude had not escaped certain scholars in favour of equity and objectivity. The Swiss chronicler, Tschudi, made this sensible observation as early as 1349:
“A lot of sensible people think that the Jews are not guilty of having poisoned the water, and that they only confessed it under excessive torture, but attribute the poisoning to a great earthquake which happened in January of last year, 1348; this provoked the rupture of the Earth’s crust and permitted bad and toxic vapours to penetrate the wells and sources, at the same time making the air bad. This, the Jews, a great proportion of whom were doctors and scholars, had learned from their art and kept it in mind, and consequently avoided wells and sources, and in many places warned people about them.”
If the seismic explanation proposed by the chronicler appears today to be rather fantastic, it is no less true that certain waters, notably dormant waters, have always favorised the propagation of epidemics.
But the homicidal furor unchained by the inhabitants of the European cities against the Jews during the great plague, did not enter into religious considerations. Their extermination had the advantage, for the debitors of Jewish lenders, of extinguishing their debts, and for the others, permitting the pillage of their goods in complete impunity. The Church was not the least, in many cases, to benefit from it…
Princes, prelates and aediles did, however, save Christianity’s honour by refusing to lend themselves to the collective hysteria. Apart from Clement VI’s firm declaration, we could cite the example given by the municipality of Cologne in a letter addressed in 1349 to that of Strasbourg:
“If we must now institute in the big cities trials and executions of Jews (which in our city we will not permit as long as we can prevent them, so convinced are we that the Jews are innocent of the odious acts of which they are accused), such a disposition could engender great disorder and have serious consequences. And if we are asked to express our opinion on this great plague, we must confess that we see in it a punishment from God, and consequently, we do not admit that the Jews should be brought to trial in our city because of these rumours, but we will protect them, just as they were loyally protected by our fathers.”
Over and above anti-judaism, or any search for a fault, the great plague of 1349 engendered a movement of philosophical and religious, as well as political, thought: death struck without segregation. Indistinctively striking princes and serfs, prelates and middle-classes, the pandemic developed, principally in Germany, a strong sense of equality nourished by apocalyptic themes. Even if the poor were globally touched more than well-off people, the decrepitude of lodgements, the crowding of inhabitants and mediocre hygiene favorising the propagation of the epidemic, the death of important people like the King of the Romans Gunther (1349), the Bishop of Paris Foulques de Chanac (1349), the King of Castille Alphonse XI (1350), the two half-brothers of King Magnus of Sweden (1350), the wife and daughter of King Peter of Aragon, Queen Jeanne of France and her daughter-in-law, Bonne de Luxembourg, Queen Jeanne of Navarre, daughter of Louis X, or the Grand-Duke of Russia Simeon (1352), shook the legitimacy of the established order, in the minds of the people. The representations of danses macabres, where Death led by the hand kings, bishops, pretty women, rich middle-class people and miserable villains, reflect this consciousness. Like the order of doctors, the clergy suffered heavy losses by attending the sick population. However, latent anticlericalism found new strength in these dramatic circumstances.
To be continued.