German Pogroms Before the Black Death, 1348-49

In German-speaking Europe, reaction to the Chillon transcripts [of “confessions” extracted by torture as the plague began to work its way north from the Mediterranean]—and other incriminating docurnents—was swift and furious. “Within the revolution of one year, that is from All Saints Day [November 1] 1348 until Michaelmas [September 29] 1349, all the Jews between Cologne and Austria were burnt and killed,” wrote Heinrich Truchess, Canon of Constance.

In November, barely a month after Balavigny, Belieta, her son Aquetus, and Agimetus were executed, the first pogroms broke out in Germany. The towns of Solden, Zofingen, and Stuttgart killed their Jews in November; and Reutlingen, Haigerloch, and Lindau killed theirs in December. As January 1349 dawned cold and bright along the Rhine, it was Speyer’s turn. The Jews who did not immolate themselves in their homes were hunted down in the winter streets and bludgeoned to death with pikes, axes, and scythes. This happened so frequently, unburied corpses became a public health problem. “The people of Speyer …,” wrote a chronicler, “fearing the air would be infected by the bodies in the streets … shut them into empty wine casks and launched them into the Rhine.” Farther down river in Basel, the city council made a halfhearted attempt to protect the local Jewish community, but when a mob protested the exile of several anti-Semitic nobles, the council lost its nerve. Basel spent the Christmas season of 1348 constructing a wooden death house on an island in the Rhine. On January 9, 1349, the local Jewish community was herded inside. Everyone was there, except the children who had accepted baptism and those in hiding. After the last victim had been shoved into the building and the door bolted, it was set afire. As flames leaped into the cobalt blue sky, the screams and prayers of the dying drifted across the river and into the gray streets of Basel.

In February, when the pogroms reached Strassburg, a bitter winter wind was blowing off the Rhine. The mayor, a tough patrician named Peter Swaber, was a man of conscience and resolve. If the Jews are poisoning wells, he told an angry crowd, bring me proof. The city council supported the mayor, and officials in Cologne sent a letter of encouragement, but in the end, all Swaber had to offer the people of Strassburg was the opportunity to act righteously, while his opponents could promise relief from Jewish debt and access to Jewish property. On February 9, a government more in tune with the popular will unseated Swaber and his supporters. Five days later, on February 14, under a dull winter sun, the Jews of Strassburg were “stripped almost naked by the crowd” as they were marched “to their own cemetery into a house prepared for burning.” At the cemetery gates, “the youth and beauty of several females excited some commiseration; and they were snatched from death against their will.” But the young and beautiful and the converts were the only Jews to see the sun set in Strassburg that Valentine’s Day. Marchers who tried to escape were chased down in the streets and murdered. By one estimate, half of Strassburg’s Jewish population—900 out of 1,884—were exterminated at the cemetery….

According to Canon Truchess, “once started, the burning of the Jews went on increasingly…. They were burnt on 21 January [1349] in Messkirch and Waldkirch … and on 30 January in Ulm, on 11 February in Uberlingen … in the town of Baden on 18 March, and on 30 May, in Radolfzell. In Mainz and Cologne, they were burnt on 23 August …

“And, thus, within one year,” wrote the Canon, “as I have said, all the Jews between Cologne and Austria were burnt. And in Austria they await the same fate for they are accursed of God …. I could believe that the end of the Hebrews had come if the time prophesied by Elias and Enoch were now complete, but since it is not complete, it is necessary that some be reserved.”

SOURCE: The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, by John Kelly (Harper Perennial, 2006), pp. 255-257

Despite all these “preventive measures” in the German lands, the plague rolled on in anyway, hard on the heels of the mass executions.

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