The Black Death and Jewish People
The Great Plague or Black Death in Europe is regarded as one of the worst disasters to occur in the history of man. It occurred in an estimated period of between the 1300-1500 centuries (Halsall, 6). During this period there were economic difficulties arising from lack of arable land and an unpredictable climate that proved to be harsh for cultivating crops. Agriculture was the main source of wealth during that period hence lack of land to till created a negative mood over the financial markets and the overall economic activity in Europe. The Great Plague was set off by three deadly diseases and was spread easily because the diseases were easily communicable to humans from rodents and fleas and from humans to humans. The three diseases were namely the bubonic plague, the pneumonic plague and the septicemic plague (Halsall, 14).
The bubonic plague is carried by rats and spread by fleas. Pneumonic plague is characterized by coughs and fever and is a combination of the bubonic plague and respiratory complications making it communicable by coughing and sneezing (Halsall, 18). The septicemia plague assaults the bloodstream making it communicable by blood. The transfer of septicemia was aided by the fleas, which attacked humans thus aiding the fast communication of the diseases (Halsall, 22). The plagues are said to have originated from the Asian prairies. The fast transfer of the plague was aided by the presence of a laidback lifestyle that the medieval Europe offered. Such lifestyles were characterized by the presence of adequate food, which was the main attraction for the rats. The medieval societies were also marked by the presence of large houses or villas and castles, which had ample room to host large numbers of rats (Halsall, 24). It is estimated that during the plague more than a third of the population in Europe was wiped out by the plague.
Giovanni Boccaccio describes the plague as one of the worst human disasters he lived to witness. He attributes the cause of the disease to supernatural forces or God as an act of retribution for the sins the people have committed in his eyes. The disease came from East in the prairie lands of Asia and spread to the West. The plague left a devastating effect in its wake by managing to wipe out more than a third of the total population in Europe. Giovanni gives the perspective from an Italian perspective, despite the presence of wise men and scholars who could have devised ways of averting the spread of the disease, no man in the entire of Italy could give reasons for the spread of the disease (Halsall, 28).
The disease manifested itself by the presence of blood oozing from different parts of the body, which was a clear indication that the sufferer was nearing his demise. In addition, the ill had visible lumps and sores in pubic parts of their body coupled by the presence of fever and coughs. The lumps and sores spread rapidly throughout the body from large few sores to small but numerous sores in the body. The disease did not find a cure because it was either resistant to the treatment being offered by the physicians at that point in time or the physicians themselves were inadequate in skill because many a physician claimed to be skilled physicians yet they lacked even the basic knowledge of medicine. The disease was so vicious that it claimed people’s lives without even the slightest sign that they were about to die such as the presence of fever and oozing blood.
However, Giovanni did no manage to witness such events because of the fear of being infected but had such evidence form credible witnesses such that he had to put it in writing even if such claims could not be substantiated. He adds that the disease was very communicable such that if an animal dared to touch the garments of a dead person or the corpse of a dead person infection would creep into the animal resulting in death. People resorted to abhorring and avoiding all contact with people they considered as infected by the plague (Halsall, 37).
Some developed new communities that were made up of healthy people only and they resorted to sharing everything they had as their possession had been left behind because they had been infected by the plague. Others were of a different opinion and resorted to drinking without measure and mingling without caution in a period ravaged by an epidemic. They contravened the laws of the land because they lived with total disregard for such laws due to lack of people to enforce the rule of law. People were either bedridden or deceased and there were no people responsible for the offices that were in charge of upholding the law. Another group of people exercised adequate restraint from mingling with the sick but did not seclude themselves from the world entirely such that they had access to supplies that were necessary for their comfortable existence and exercised caution in moving around the city that was laden with dead people (Halsall, 49).
The sensible among the survivors sought to leave the city because there was no medicine that could cure the plague. Giovanni states that if the cause of the plague was as a result of God’ retribution for the sinful deeds of the people moving far away from the city was just an effort in futility as there was no place that God would not follow them and execute his punishment. The plague did not spare any individual but consumed all female and male, nobles, commoners alike, lords, paupers, kings, and all in his office. Giovanni presents no bias in his writing and clearly illustrates the effect of the disease. People of all origins in Italy were affected by the disease and those who were left behind in the wake of the plague had to deal with the task of rebuilding their homes, empires and villages (Halsall, 52).
The author of the Jewish History sourcebook begins with a clear illustration of the tribulations that the Jewish community endured during the troubling plague. They were victimized because of claims that they had instigated a plague whose aim was to poison the Christendom. The Jews endured persecution from the Swiss people and its ruling class and from the Germany and its populace. The persecution began after people were forced into confessing that the Jews were behind the origin of the disease. This set the stage for mass killings of people in the cities on claims that they were poisoning others (Halsall, 54). There were claims that the Jews had organized a conspiracy to wipe out the Christendom using the plague. People were arrested and were tortured into claiming that the Jewish populace indeed had hatched a plot to kill the Christendom and its populace. This must have been a conspiracy behind a claimed conspiracy to finding means for eradicating the Jewish community. In addition, the Jews had become entirely powerful, as they were involved in different types of commerce, which were thriving amidst the economic downturn that was fueled further by the famine, and dry cold spells that rendered lands that were considered arable became unusable (Halsall, 58).
Agimet was a Jew from the Metropolis of Toleus in Switzerland who was tortured into claiming that the Jews were solely responsible for the plague. After continuous torture by Amadeus’ subjects, Agimet claimed that he was sent to poison all water sources that were often used by the Christians by his religious master Rabbi Peyret. Contradiction arises when Agimet claims that all the events were contained in the books of Moses as well as the scrolls of Moses, which are identical. This is a clear indication that the Jew was forced into making such claims such that the Count of Savoy Amadeus and his noble friends could find sufficient reason to persecute the Jews who posed a threat to their roles in their respective communities. In addition, it is impossible for Agimet to have traveled to the named places to put the poison to kill the people in such a short period, which were the Mediterranean Sea, the city of Toulouse in south of France, the Rhine river in Germany and river in central of Venice in Greece. Moreover, he could not have gone to Asia, which he did not state as one of the places that he had put the claimed poison. Hence, if he had put poison in the said places then he could as well have put poison in Asia where the disease originated (Halsall, 60).
It might have been that Agimet was under pain and agony, which led him into a state of delusion onto believing that the Jews were responsible for the existence of the plague. When subjected to torture people tend to give information that will help them to stop the torture from going on regardless of whether the claims are true or false (Halsall, 64). Agimet’s claims were untrue because evidence shows that the plague spanned in the whole of the European continent. The spread of the disease was aided by the trade that was performed between numerous countries sin Europe. This raises the question as to how the Jews could have managed to poison the whole continent of Europe and Asia as well yet Asians were not Christians but practiced their own religions. This shows that the claims that the Jews had hatched a conspiracy were in itself a conspiracy to wipe out the Jews (Halsall, 69).
The conspiracy against the Jews was because of the rapid growing influence of the Jews in commerce and in the political field. Natives of the lands where the Jews had settled were angered by the immense influence that the Jews had in their own country while they remained peasants tilling land for them. The Jews during their persecution were stripped off their wealth and the wealth divided among the Lords who had instigated the persecution. The nobles also advocated for the butchering and the burning of the Jews because they were indebted to the Jews who financed their trade. Trade was the source of income for the nobles, but due to the difficult financial times, the nobles were not able to make sufficient sales from their trade. This left them with inadequate finances to service the loans given by the Jews who mostly in the business of giving loans for interest. The deaths of the Jews were an ultimate solution that would leave the nobles without any loans to pay. The nobles and the ruling elite relied on the support of the commoners who did the butchering and burning of the Jews without themselves getting involved in the heinous acts. Some Jews who got wind of what was going on opted to kill themselves rather than to be put on trail for allegations that they considered as false (Halsall, 74).
The two authors come to a consensus on the deaths of the people because of the plague. The deaths of the Jewish community were mainly attributed to the persecution by the people who viewed them as enemies due to their growing influence. The Jewish community continued to make tidy sums of money amidst a financial meltdown that characterized the period. The nobles did no make adequate sales because there were no people to make purchases as they were deceased, either had relocated to further places fleeing the disease or had become bedridden after the illness had taken a toll on their health. In contrast to the claims made by Agimet, Giovanni shows that the Jews were not the cause of the diseases but suffered the same fate as other people in their communities (Halsall, 76).
The disease might have been as part of God’s retribution depending on one’s own belief in acts of God and it might as well have spread because of the presence of incompetent physicians who did not know how to treat the disease (Halsall, 79). The disease originated from the East according to Giovanni, so how did the people in the East prevent further spread of the plague among them and prevent catastrophes because of deaths of the populace. The answer would lie in the presence of good physicians who had vast knowledge passed on to them by their trainers who oversaw them grow into physicians as they watched in detail the treating process as apprentices. The death of the Jews would have resulted in huge wealth being left unattended which the natives wand the nobles happily claimed as theirs. Hence, it is sufficient to conclude that the Jews were merely butchered, burnt and tortured in other inhumane acts as a sign that they were becoming ever powerful by each passing day. Some were of the opinion that they were charging them exorbitant interest, which led to their growth in influence in commerce, and the thought of the Jews becoming political bigwigs was unbearable for those in power during that period (Halsall, 84).
Halsall, Paul. Medieval Sourcebook: Boccaccio: The Decameron – Introduction. Fordham University. January 1996. Web. March 14 2012 http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/boccacio2.asp
Halsall, Paul. Jewish History Sourcebook: The Black Death and the Jews 1348-1349 CE Fordham University. July 1998. Web. March 14 2012 http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/jewish/1348-jewsblackdeath.asp