Finding a Scapegoat: Religious Persecution During the Great Mortality

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Finding a Scapegoat: Religious Persecution During the Great Mortality

By the mid-fourteenth century, much of Europe had heard of a plague which ravished central Asia decades prior. Rumors of awful pestilence and death spread though the continent, yet most would not be able to fathom the awaiting catastrophe. Between 1347 and 1351, the mysterious force of the Black Plague was estimated to have killed off one-third to one-half of Europe’s entire population. Although there is now a medical explanation for the occurrence of the plague , religious fanaticism, ignorance, and superstition pervaded the consciousness of Europe’s population. Those attributes, mixed with a great unrelenting plague of unknown origin, led to the inevitable search for a scapegoat.

As soon as the plague, referred to interchangeably as the “Great Mortality”, “Great Pestilence”, or the “Great Plague”, began to strike hard, people began to ask why it has happening. The main consensus was that of the wrath of god, but why would god be angry with a primarily Christian Europe? Many blamed the corruption within the church itself for god’s unleashing of the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse -- pestilence. Others blamed the divisiveness within the church itself. The church’s papacy was split between Rome and Avignon during the present Great Schism and the papal states were in a nearly constant state of unrest. Others said god’s punishment was caused by the failed Crusades. By the inception of the Black Death, Christians had little to no chance of evicting the Muslims from the holy land and the idea of having another crusade was out of the question. Additionally, England and France were locked in a war that will take nearly 100 years to complete. To the medieval mind, these were valid reasons for the plague to transpire. These thoughts continued to persist until a more earthbound idea spread among the christian masses; the great death ravaged their lands because they allowed the Jews to live among them.

First hand accounts reported that the Jews died in far less percentages than the christian population, therefore arousing suspicion and hatred. If indeed true, this could be easily explained by the jewish practices of sanitation and burial. According to Jewish law, one is required to wash one’s hands many times a day. Hand washing was required before any meal, upon using the toilet, or after any intimate human contact. One would also have to bathe at least once a week for sabbath and could not pray near an open latrine or in an area of fowl odors. Most importantly, Jewish law compelled the people to care for the ill and instructed that the bodies of those who perished were to be washed and buried in a timely manner. In contrast, the general population’s sanitation was poor, leading to the compounded spread on the plague. As opposed to the Jews, a member of the general populace could go half of their life without washing their hands or bathing. Additionally, sewage disposal was commonly a primitive open pit channeled through the middle of the street. To make conditions worse, bodies of plague victims were often not buried or moved from a city’s streets for long periods of time.

Violence against the jews was not a new concept. Throughout the middle ages, hatred and violence was often directed toward jews and action was routinely brought on the week of Easter as a vengeance for the jewish “complicity” with the death of Jesus Christ. The present form of anti-semitism, compounded with the catastrophe of the plague, led to an unprecedented situation of violence. On the night of Palm Sunday, April 13, 1348, one of the first of many ‘pogroms’ took place in the city of Toulon. Angry mobs took to the city streets and brought violence to the Jewish citizens of the city. Windows were smashed, furniture was broken, homes were burned, and all were dragged from their homes in the middle of the night. By the morning, the damage was all too clear. Dozens of men,...
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