Lake Geneva, September 1348
ON A SEPTEMBER MORNING IN 1348, AS THE LITTLE VILLAGES OF southern England died in an autumn rain, a small vessel glided across the silvery blue surface of Lake Geneva. In the morning light, the sweeping expanses of sky, sea, and mountain around the boat looked like a backdrop for the Ride of the Valkyries, but there were no great-bodied Norse goddesses on the lake today, just some sleepy local burghers fortifying themselves against the morning chill with a flask of wine—and a surgeon named
Balavigny, who sat alone at the prow of the boat in a funnel-shapedJudenhut,a Jew’s hat.
The Great Mortality occasioned one of the most vicious outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence in European history. The first pogroms in southern France in April 1348 had been traditional acts of Holy Week violence, but during the summer, as the pestilence swept across Europe with unbroken might, the attacks changed character. With fear and unreason everywhere, the Jews, accused of every other sin, were now accused of fomenting the pestilence. By mid-September, when surgeon Balavigny was arrested in the lakeside town of Chillon, the well-poisoning accusation had grown into a conviction—and the conviction into an international Jewish conspiracy, complete with a mastermind, a sinister Spanish rabbi named Jacob; an army of secret agents; and a goal so evil, it filled every Christian heart with fear and trepidation. The Jews were contaminating the wells because they sought world domination.
Over the summer, the conjunction of anti-Semitism, paranoia, and medieval detective work had produced a detailed description of the plot and of the Jewish poison distributed by Rabbi Jacob’s agents, including its packaging and the way it worked. According to one plotter, “if anyone suffering the effects of the poison comes into contact with someone else, especially while sweating, the other person will be infected.” In Chillon, where Balavigny was interrogated after his arrest, local authorities had also obtained information about the agents distributing the poison and the letter Rabbi Jacob sent to coconspirators. According to another plotter, the letter commanded the recipient, “on pain of excommunication and by the obedience he owed the Jewish law, to put the poison in the larger public wells . . .”
When the particulars of the plot were described to him at his first interrogation on September 15, surgeon Balavigny must have felt like Alice upon stepping through the looking glass, though Alice was never “put to the question.” The phrase was a medieval euphemism for torture, and the interrogators at Chillon seemed to have regarded their work with Balavigny as a particularly outstanding example of the torturer’s art. A note on the surgeon’s transcript boasts that after only being “briefly put to the question” on the fifteenth, the surgeon confessed freely and fulsomely to complicity in the well poisonings, and that at a subsequent interrogation on the nineteenth, Balavigny disclosed the names of his coconspirators without being “put to the question” at all.
It is unclear how long after his interrogation the surgeon was taken across Lake Geneva to Clarens, the destination of this morning’s boat ride, but not more than a week could have elapsed. Clearer is the purpose of the trip: earlier in the summer Pope Clement VI had vigorously denounced the persecution of the Jews. “Recently,” he declared, “. . . it has been brought to our attention by public fame—or, more accurately, infamy—that numerous Christians are blaming the plague . . . on poisonings carried out by the Jews at the instigation of the devil, and that out of their own hotheadedness they have impiously slain many Jews, making no exception for age and sex.” In such an atmosphere, Balavigny’s jailers probably felt it prudent to acquire physical evidence of the surgeon’s guilt. So thus it came to pass that on this brilliant September morning, while rainy London awaited the mortality, Friar Morellet counted the dead in Paris, and Matteo Villani wept bitter tears for his plague-dead brother Giovanni in Florence, surgeon Balavigny and his sleepy burgher guards set sail for Clarens in search of imaginary evidence for an imaginary crime.
One can only guess at Balavigny’s thoughts as he sat huddled at the prow of the boat, watching the sun lick away the last of the morning mist like frosting from a cake, but the surgeon’s state of mind cannot have been very different from Primo Levi’s on arriving at Auschwitz on a desolate Polish morning seven hundred years later. “No human condition is more miserable than this,” wrote Levi. “. . . They have taken away our shoes, our clothes, even our hair; if we speak they will not listen . . . [and] if they listen they will not understand.” In the camps, Levi discovered that when a man lost everything, he often ended up “losing himself.” If a measure of losing yourself is embracing the dementia of your tormentors, by the time surgeon Balavigny disembarked at Clarens, he had stepped through the looking glass. When asked if a village spring looked familiar, Balavigny replied, yes, “this is the spring where I put the poison.” And when one of the burghers, a sharp-eyed notary named Henri Gerard, found a rag near the spring, the surgeon “confirmed that it was the . . . cloth in which the poison had been enclosed.”
Three weeks after losing himself, the surgeon lost his life. In early October, Balavigny was burned at the stake.
Do not ask: where?
We have been told to go
From the days of fathers’ fathers
Abram went, Jacob went,
They all had to go,
Go to a land, go from a land,
All of them bent
Over the full path of the farer . . .
The millenia-long wanderings of the Jews began as they ended, in holocaust. Between a.d. 66, when the Jews of Palestine rose against Rome in the Great Revolt, and a.d. 70, when the victorious imperial standard was planted atop the ruins of the Temple Mount, 1,197,000 Jews were slain or sold into slavery, according to Tacitus. Indeed, for a time after the Revolt, it is said that it was cheaper to buy a Jew than a horse in Rome. In a.d. 128 “nearly all of Judea was laid waste” again. For the second uprising, the historian Dio Cassius puts the butcher’s bill at 985 villages and towns and 50 forts destroyed, 580,000 Jews killed in battle, and “countless numbers of others destroyed by starvation, fire and sword.” Dio and Tacitus probably exaggerated Jewish losses, but not egregiously. The sixty years between a.d. 70 and a.d. 130 tore the heart out of Jewish Palestine. Visiting Jerusalem in the fourth century, St. Jerome found that the memory of those years still hung heavy upon the land. Of the Jewish remnant, Jerome wrote, “a sad people . . . decrepit little women and old men encumbered with rags and years, showing both in their bodies and dress, the wrath of the Lord.”
Seven hundred years later, Benjamin of Tudela, a peripatetic gem merchant with a taste for adventure, picked up the story of the Diaspora. In 1183, Benjamin began a three-year odyssey through the Jewish communities of Europe and the Near East. He visited Constantinople, where he found that no Jew, no matter how wealthy, was allowed to ride a horse, “except for Rabbi Solomon, the Egyptian, who is the King’s doctor.” In Spain, Benjamin found Jews not only rode horses, but rode them with knightly panache, dressed like emirs in exquisite silks and many-gemmed turbans, served as ambassadors and administrators, and became renowned physicians, scholars, and philosophers. At Crisa on Mount Parnassus, the gem merchant came across a colony of straw-hatted Jewish farmers sweating under the Mediterranean sun; in Aleppo, Jewish glass blowers with exaggerated cheek muscles; in Brindisi, dyers with stained hands; and in Constantinople, tanners who polluted the streets of the Jewish quarter with the effluvia of their work. But on the whole, the Diaspora communities that Benjamin described in hisBook of Travelswere mercantile in character and often quite small.
In the general population collapse of the early Middle Ages, the Jews suffered disproportionately. From eight million in the first century—roughly 10 percent of the Roman Empire—their numbers fell to a million and a half by Benjamin’s time.* Spain, home to the largest and most prosperous Jewish community in medieval Europe, may have had between a hundred and a hundred and fifty thousand Jews; but the devout and fierce Ashkenazi community of Germany barely numbered twenty-five thousand. However, wherever they lived, the Jews of the Diaspora were usually more prosperous and better educated than their Christian neighbors.
InWorld on Fire,a recent book on globalization, Yale scholar Amy Chua notes that in many modern third world countries, a small, skilled, nonnational elite often acts as a go-between to the global economy. In modern Southeast Asia, the overseas Chinese play this role; in modern sub-Saharan Africa, the Lebanese. In the early Middle Ages, when Christian literacy and numeracy rates were close to zero, the comparatively well educated Jews played an analogous role in Europe. “By virtue of their experience in commerce and superior knowledge in commodities, markets and monetary transactions, their versatility in languages and the dispersion of their coreligionists, Jews occupied a preeminent position in international trade,” write scholars Mordechai Breuer and Michael Graetz. Indeed, so preeminent was the Jewish commercial role in the first half of the Middle Ages that many writs of privilege and ordinances contained the formulationjudaei et ceteri mercatores—“Jews and other merchants.”
In the ninth and tenth centuries, Jewish merchants could be found in the pepper markets of India, the silk markets of Samarkand and Baghdad, the slave markets of Egypt (where they sold pagan slaves called “Canaties”), and on the vast, empty expanses of the Silk Road, atop camels laden with jewels and spices. In a letter to his famous philosopher brother Moses, the merchant David Maimonides described the death of one these intrepid Jewish trader-travelers. “The greatest misfortune that has befallen me during my entire life, worse than anything else, was the death of [my colleague],” wrote David. “May his memory be blest; [he] drowned on the Indian Sea carrying much money belonging to me, to him and to others. . . . He was well versed in the Talmud, the Bible and knew [Hebrew] grammar well and my joy in life was to look at him.”
If a trader’s life could be hazardous, it could also be quite lucrative. In the first millennium, Jewish living standards were so far above the European norm, “the term ‘dark early Middle Ages’ . . . has as little applicability for the Jewish medieval period as for the Byzantine Empire,” note scholars Breuer and Graetz. Commerce made some Jews not merely wealthy but fabulously rich. When Aaron of Lincoln died, a special branch of the English Exchequer (Treasury) had to be established to tabulate his fortune, and a French Jew named Elias of Vesoul, anticipating the Rothschilds, built a far-flung banking and commercial empire as early as the eleventh century. However, even men like Aaron and Elias lived the anxious, uncertain existence of outsiders. Upon Aaron’s death, the English Crown seized most of his fortune; from Abraham of Bristol, another wealthy English Jew who was imprisoned in 1268, the Crown extracted one tooth a day until Abraham agreed to deposit ten thousand silver marks in the royal coffers.
The anti-Semitism that cost Abraham his teeth was grounded, first of all, in theology. The early Church fathers held the Jews culpable of so many sins that between the third and eighth century, a new literary genre,Adversus Judaeos,was created to describe them all. An early example of the genre,An Answer to the Jews,accused the Jewish people of forsaking God and worshipping false images; another early example,Rhythm Against the Jews, of trading God the Father for a calf and God the Son for a thief. Other works in theAdversus Judaeostradition includedOn the Sabbath, Against the Jews,which accused the Jews of grossness and materialism;Eight Orations Against the Jews,which likens the Jew to a stubborn animal spoiled by kindness and overindulgence; andDemonstration Against the Jews,which equates Jerusalem with Sodom and Gomorrah.Homilies Against the Jewsdeclares uncircumcised Gentiles the new Chosen People, a point also made byBooks of Testimonies Against the Jews,though the latter work makes the point with more literary grace. Using the parable of Jacob and his two wives,Testimoniespresents the elder wife Leah, with her defective eyes, as the embodiment of the synagogue, and the beautiful young wife Rachel as the symbol of a Church Triumphant.Contra Judaeosalso uses biblical imagery, although in this case to get at the core of the theological argument with the Jews.Contrapresents Cain as the symbol of the Jewish people, and Abel, the brother he slew, as the symbol of Christ.
In its mildest form, early medieval Christianity expressed its theological grievances against the Jews as a complaint: the Jewish people rejected Christ, the Light and the Way. In a sterner formulation, the grievances acquired the menace of accusation: although recognizing Christ’s divinity, the Jews rejected Him because He was poor and humble. And in their most vitriolic form, the grievances became a bill of indictment for murder: Jews were Christ killers.
Political and social factors have also helped to fuel anti-Semitism through the ages. Thus, in the decades after Christ’s death, Christian Jews, eager to separate their new religion from its temple roots, launched an attack on their orthodox counterparts, an attack that grew increasingly more expansive as the decades passed. Thus, in Mark, the earliest gospel, written around a.d. 68, Satan is associated with the scribes. In Luke, written ten years later, the “evil one” becomes affiliated with a wider segment of Jewish society, but the target is still individual groups like “the chief priests and the captains of the temple.” But by the time John writes, around the year a.d. 100, Satan’s allies have become simply “the Jews.” The phrase “the Jews” appears seventy-one times in John, compared to a total of sixteen times in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
The Jewish faithful often responded to Christian Jews in kind. “May theminim[the heretics] perish in an instant; may they be effaced from the Book of Life and not be counted among the just,” goes theShemoneh Esreiprayer. The orthodox establishment also disparaged Christ as the illegitimate child of a Roman solider named Panthera, denounced His miracles as tricks and the Resurrection as a hoax.
As Christianity became non-Jewish, religious rivalry replaced intragroup conflict as an engine of anti-Semitism. During the early Middle Ages especially, Church authorities became alarmed at the number of Christians who were attracted to Jewish teachings. John Chrysostom, hammer of the “Judaizers”—Christians attracted to Jewish teachings—declared, “I know that many people hold a high regard for the Jews and consider their way of life worthy of respect at the present time. This is why I am hurrying to pull up this fatal notion by the roots. . . . A place where a whore stands on display is a whorehouse. What is more, the synagogue is not only a whorehouse and a theatre; it is also a den of thieves and a haunt of wild animals.” Another seminal anti-Semite, the ninth-century bishop Agobard of Lyon, believed Christians who broke bread with Jews risked spiritual seduction. Agobard lived just long enough to see one his most paranoid fantasies realized. On a trip to Rome in the 820s, Bodo, father-confessor to Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son and successor, fled to Spain, converted to Judaism, and married a Jewess.
Of the impious Bodo, Agobard’s successor at Lyon, the dyspeptic Archbishop Amulo, thundered, “Now he lives in Spain, . . . his bearded figure squats in the synagogues of Satan and joins with other Jews in blaspheming Christ in His Church.”
In the centuries leading up to the Black Death, anti-Semitism also became a useful tool for financiers and nation builders. In 1289 English-controlled Gascony expelled its Jews and seized their property. The following year, 1290, the English Crown turned on native Jews. Edward I, grandfather of Edward III, ordered the Jews of England expelled and their goods confiscated, although, having long been a favorite target of the English Exchequer, the Jews did not have much left to confiscate. In the mid-thirteenth century, when the treasury shook down Aaron of York, it got more than 30,000 silver marks; by the expulsion of 1290, together the Jews of eleven leading English towns could barely raise a third that sum.
In France, where feelings against Jews traditionally ran high, the monarchy used a policy of expulsion to win popular support and to enrich itself. Thrown out in 1306, the Jews were readmitted in 1315, expelled again in 1322, brought back again in 1359, and expelled again in 1394.
One day in the late fourth century, a woman stood on a pier in Carthage and, “wild with grief,” watched as a ship slipped over the horizon, taking with it everything she loved and ever would love. The woman’s name was Monica, and there was more than a touch of the domineering matriarch about her. It would be an exaggeration to say that St. Augustine would never have become St. Augustine without the overbearing, suffocating Monica, but had she not been so inescapable and controlling, the dissolute young pagan might have wallowed in the fleshpots of Milan for another decade before embracing Christianity in 387.
Like Churchill, another man with a difficult mother, Augustine was also a nonstop talker; his words, recorded by an ever-present staff of copyists, grew to fill nearly a hundred books, including two works of historic importance. These are the autobiographicalConfessions,where the sound of a personal voice can be heard for one of the few times in the Middle Ages—“I closed her eyes and a great sorrow surged through me,” Augustine wrote of his mother’s death—andCity of God,which helped to define Christian policy toward the Jews for nearly a millennium. When the eighteenth-century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn exclaimed that, without Augustine’s “lovely brainwave, we [Jews] would have been exterminated long ago,” he was referring toCity of God.
WhileCity,and Augustine’s other “Jewish” writings, rehearse all the familiar arguments of Christian anti-Semitism, including the Jews’ unwillingness to recognize the divinity of Christ, Augustine’s novelty was to add a “but” at the end of the traditional indictment. In Augustine’s vision, the Jews had a divinely appointed role; God intended them to “bear witness” to a Christianity Triumphant.* And since the Jews had to remain Jews to fulfill the role, the Augustinian “but” amounted to a ticket to survival—the only such ticket early Christianity issued to a dissident minority. As Jacob Neusner has noted, “Judaism endured in the West for two reasons. First, Christianity wanted it to endure and, second, Israel, the Jewish people, wanted it to. The fate of paganism in the fourth century shows the importance of the first of the two factors.”
During the nearly seven-hundred-year ascendancy of the Augustinian “but,” the virus of anti-Semitism remained in an attenuated form. Even vicious anti-Semites like Agobard of Lyon rarely talked of mass conversion, mass expulsion, or mass extermination. The ninth and tenth centuries were a period of relative peace and prosperity for European Jews, particularly in Spain and Germany, where immigrants from northern Italy established the first Ashkenazi settlements. Indeed, Louis the Pious, leader of the Carolingian Empire, the largest empire of its day, was renowned as a friend of the Jews, as was his father Charlemagne. However, the human mind can only hold two contradictory thoughts for so long. Consequently, after the turn of the millennium, the complex Augustinian formulation, “Hate the Jews, respect the Jews” gave way to the simpler formulation, “Hate the Jews.” In 1007 there were persecutions in France, and in 1012 forced conversions in Germany; then, in 1096, an apocalypse. For centuries afterward the names of the Jews slaughtered during the Crusader pogroms* of 1096 would be read aloud in European synagogues on Saturday mornings.
The pogroms originated in Rouen. Shouting, “We depart to wage war against the enemies of God, while here in our very midst dwell the . . . murderers of our Redeemer,” a group of Crusaders ran through the streets of the town, slaying Jews. In Speyer and Cologne, resolute action by a local bishop managed to avert wholesale slaughter, but in Mainz, which had a weak bishop and an unsympathetic citizenry, the carnage was terrible. As a Crusader force breached the town wall, the local Jewish community gathered in the courtyard of the bishop’s palace. Rabbi Solomon bar Simson describes what happened next. “In a great voice, they all cried, ‘We need tarry no longer, the enemy is already upon us. Let us hasten to offer ourselves as a sacrifice before God. . . . The women girded their loins with strength and slew their own sons and daughters and then themselves. Many men also mustered their strength and slaughtered their wives and children and infants. The most gentle and tender of women slaughtered the child of her delight. [Then] they all arose, men and women alike, and slew one another. . . . Let the ears hearing this and its like be seared, for who has heard or seen the likes of it . . .” In Worms, the Jewish community recited the ancient Shema prayer: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is One,” as they fell beneath the Crusader swords. Afterward the dead were stripped naked and dragged away.
In Trier, where the Torah was defaced and trampled, a pretty young Jewess taunted the marauding Crusaders. “Anyone who wishes to cut off my head for fear of the Rock, let him come and do so.” To emphasize the point, the young woman stuck out her neck in defiance. Earlier, two local Jewish leaders had been killed for a similar taunt. But, according to a Jewish chronicler, the young woman “was comely and charming . . . and the uncircumcised ones did not wish to touch her.” The taunter was told she would be spared if she agreed to convert, but, fierce in her faith, like the Jews of Mainz, she chose a suicidal martyrdom.
The pogroms in Mainz, Worms, and Trier were an early expression of a new, more militant Christianity. TheCivitas Dei—or God State—grew out of the wave of intense pietism that swept through Europe in the Central Middle Ages. The new state’s controlling metaphor was the body: just as its various limbs fit together into an organic whole, so, too, does—or should—Christian society. Inspired by this corporatist vision, the angry sword of orthodoxy struck out at dissident minorities, such as the Albigensian heretics of southern France and the Jews. Many aspects of modern anti-Semitism date from the period of theCivitas Dei.
For example, the menacing figure of the hook-nosed Jew, whom Chaucer described as “hateful to Christ and all his company,” first appears in twelfth-century paintings of the Crucifixion. The blood libel accusation, another famous anti-Semitic canard, is also a twelfth-century creation. Two days before Passover 1144, the body of a skinner’s apprentice named William was found horribly mutilated in a wood outside Norwich in East Anglia. Upon hearing that William, whose head had been shaved and “punctuated with countless stabs,” was last seen alive entering the house of a Jew, his mother, Elvira, accused the local Jewish community of the murder. Two village girls who worked for local Jewish families then stepped forward to offer corroborating evidence. The girls said a group of Jews had seized William after synagogue, gagged him, pierced his head with thorns, and bound him to a cross.
Slowly, a legend began to grow up around the unfortunate William, who was quickly sainted for his services to Christianity. First in East Anglia, next in England, then throughout Christendom, stories circulated about the ritual murder of Christian children during Passover. In most versions of the rumor, the killings were said to be a reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion, but in one particularly strange iteration the Jews were alleged to kill Christian children to relieve hemorrhoidal suffering. Supposedly, all Jews had suffered from hemorrhoids since they called out to Pilate, “His blood be upon us and our Children.” And according to Jewish sages, the only known relief for the condition was Christian blood.
A few years after William’s death, an apostate Jew named Theobald of Cambridge added a new charge to the blood libel accusation, one that would resonate though the pogroms of the Black Death and beyond. William, said Theobald, was the victim of an international Jewish conspiracy. “It was laid down by [the Jews] in ancient times, that every year they must sacrifice a Christian in some part of the world . . . in scorn and contempt of Christ.” Anticipating another aspect of the Black Death pogroms, Theobald also placed the powerful Spanish rabbinate at the heart of the conspiracy. “Wherefore the leaders and rabbis of the Jews who dwell in Spain assemble together [each year] . . . they cast lots for all the countries which the Jews inhabit . . . and the place whose lot is drawn has to fulfill the duty [of killing a Christian child].” In 1934 the Nazi publicationDer Stürmerwas still recycling the blood libel accusation. The magazine devoted an entire issue to the ritual murder of Christian children.
The early thirteenth century saw another important anti-Semitic landmark. At the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, Church authorities decreed that “Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times shall be marked off . . . from other people through the character of their dress.” From this measure emerged the yellow badge of the French Crown, which became the yellow star of the Nazi state; the Judenhut of surgeon Balavigny, which looked like an upside-down saucer; the pointed green hat of Polish Jews; and the tablet-shaped cloth strips that English Jews wore across the chest.*
As anti-Semitism intensified, petty degradations became a daily occurence for many Jews. In Turin, Jews caught on the street during first snowfall were pelted with snowballs unless they paid a ransom of twenty-five ducats. In Pisa, students celebrated the Feast of St. Catherine by capturing the fattest Jew they could find and making the local Jewish community pay his weight in sweets.
Historian Norman Cantor thinks incompetent internal leadership may have added to the woes of the Jews. “That the Jews were victims is clear,” says Professor Cantor. “That the leadership of their intellectual elite might have made things worse has been underinvestigated.” Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham could serve as exhibit A of Professor Cantor’s point about incompetent leadership.
Rabbi Solomon’s particular bête noire was Maimonides, the greatest Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages. In the rabbi’s view, Maimonides’Guide for the PerplexedandMishneh Torah(a code of Jewish law) were full of Aristotelian notions, and Aristotle, the rabbi fervently believed, was bad for the Jews. Agreeing, the conservative Ashkenazi rabbinate of northern France supported Solomon’s denunciation of Maimonides. However, in Provence and Spain, regions with traditions of toleration and cosmopolitanism, the rabbinate sided with Maimonides.
According to contemporary accounts, Rabbi Solomon was so aggrieved by the stance of the Mediterranean liberals that he turned to leaders of the Inquisition, the Church arm that enforced Christian orthodoxy, for assistance. Beyond this, the story grows murky. One Mediterranean liberal claims that, feeling aggrieved, Solomon handed over Maimonides’ works to the Inquisitors for inspection. “Behold,” the rabbi is supposed to have told the Inquisitors, “most of our people are unbelievers and heretics, for they were led astray by the words of Rabbi Moses of Egypt [Maimonides] who wrote heretical books. Now, while you are exterminating the heretics among you, exterminate our heresies as well.’”
However, the liberal was probably trying to discredit Rabbi Solomon. The rabbi may have had an “uncircumcised heart,” as one critic charged, but he was not stupid. There is no evidence that he handed over Maimonides’ works to a hostile Church body. Nevertheless, there is an element of truth in the “spirit” of the liberal’s accusation. Intrigued by the rabbi’s complaints about Maimonides, the Inquisitors began to peruse other Jewish religious works. Predictably, it did not take them long to find an offensive one.
In 1240, eight years after the Maimonidean controversy, a second confrontation occurred; this time, however, it was over a central text of Judaism, the Talmud, and the confrontation was between Christian and Jew. The two central figures in the affair were Nicholas Donin, a converted Jew turned Franciscan,* who brought the overlooked Talmud to the attention of the Vatican, and Rabbi Yehiel ben Joseph, who defended the book in a famous disputation with Donin in 1240.
In most accounts of the event, Rabbi Yehiel emerges as a skilled and wily advocate. In one exchange, Donin asks, Is it not true that the Talmud insults Jesus? Yes, replies Rabbi Yehiel. The Talmud disparagesaJesus, but then, referring to the reigning French monarch, Louis IX, he adds, “not every Louis born in France is the king of France. Has it not happened that two men were born in the same city, had the same name and died in the same manner? There are many such cases.”
Rabbi Yehiel also had to concede Donin’s point that the Talmud forbade Jews to mix with Christians. But, again, he was able to outmaneuver his opponent. He reminded the officials overseeing the disputation that Christian law also discouraged intercourse between the Christians and Jews. Moreover, added the rabbi, despite such injunctions, in daily life the two groups often intermingled freely. “We [Jews] sell cattle to Christians, we have partnerships with Christians, we allow ourselves to be alone with them, we give our children to Christian wet nurses.” Although the Talmud could not have had a more clever advocate, two years after the disputation, in 1242, the work was convicted of heresy and publicly burned in a Paris square.
During the Central Middle Ages, as knowledge about Judaism grew, Christian attitudes began to harden. Now the Jews were not merely “obstinate in their perfidy,” an old charge; they also threatened “injury to the Christian Faith.” This was a new charge, and with its suggestion of subversion it opened the door to policies the Augustinian “but” had helped to keep in check.
Over the next half century, there were mass expulsions of the Jews in England and France, forced conversions, and mass exterminations.
One would be accusing God of cruelty if one thought that the Jews’ steadfast bearing of suffering could remain unrewarded.
. . . The Jews are oppressed with the heaviest taxes, as if each day they had to buy anew the right to live . . . if they want to travel, they have to pay sums to gain . . . protection . . . [and they] cannot own fields or vineyards . . . So the only profession open to them is that of usury, which only increases the Christians’ hatred of them.
The Middle Ages, the birthplace of the stereotypical Jewish nose, was also the birthplace of the stereotypical Jewish moneylender. InThe Treasure and the Law,a story about the signing of the Magna Carta, one of the central documents of the Middle Ages, Rudyard Kipling manages to squeeze almost every medieval cliché about the moneylender into a single sentence. “Doors shut, candles lit,” Jewish moneylenders put off their rags and cringing and decide the fate of the world with their secret knowledge of that “mighty underground river,” gold. However, the desciption of Peter Abelard, father of Scholasticism and lover of Heloise, is far closer to the mark. Medieval Jews became moneylenders out of desperation, not out of a desire to run their hands through “mighty underground rivers” of gold.
During the economic boom of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Jews’ near-monopoly on mercantile and financial skills began to dissolve, and with it, their dominance in traditional “Jewish” professions. Increasingly, international trade wore an Italian face, especially an avaricious Venetian and Genoese one, while at home commerce and finance became the province of Flemings, Florentines, Germans, and Lombards, whose reputation for unscrupulousness was legendary. For a people in need of a new profession, moneylending offered many attractions. It required neither travel nor land ownership—activities restricted for Jews. And money, being a highly mobile commodity, could easily be transported in case of expulsion. Most important of all, in the matter of interest, medieval law actually favored the Jew. Though Christians often subverted the ban, it was against canon law to loan money for a profit, but not against Judaic law. Usury was permitted as long as the client was a non-Jew.
For a people under economic pressure, moneylending also promised the relief of handsome profits. In Burgundy a lender could charge up to 87 percent interest; in other parts of France, more than 170 percent. Thus, a loan of 140 florins taken out in 1334 by Guillaume, Lord of Drace, earned his moneylender 1,800 florins by the time it was paid off. A few Jews saw high interest rates as a way to strike back at a hated oppressor as well as to make money. “One should not benefit an idolater . . . [but] cause him as much damage as possible without deviating from the path of righteousness,” declared Levi ben Gershom. However, most of the men who became moneylenders did so out of the need to make a living. “If we are condemned to live in the midst of nations, and cannot earn our living in any other manner except by money dealings with them; therefore the taking of interest is not prohibited,” declared one medieval Jewish scholar.
Moneylending personalized anti-Semitism in a way Church doctrine never could; it brought hatred of the Jew into the home and made it intimate, personal, and vicious.* The average peasant farmer or rustic knight knew little about Agobard of Lyon, but he knew about 90 and 100 percent interest rates and what a lien on his cattle would do to him; he also knew from rumors that if he missed a loan payment the moneylender would sell his wife into prostitution. Though many of the things said about moneylenders were clearly slanderous, loan collection is not an activity designed to bring out the best in any people. According to historian Norman Cohn, “Jewish moneylenders often reacted to insecurity and persecution by deploying a ruthlessness of their own.”
As the Christian world grew increasingly hostile, the Jews turned to princes, kings, bishops, and city councils for protection, but these alliances had a Faustian element. Frequently a ruler, loath to raise taxes, would use the local Jewish community to “sponge” the populace. Jewish moneylenders would be allowed to charge a high interest rate and to use royal courts to collect nonperforming loans, but then the “protector” would confiscate the profits, leaving the Jews to face the resentment of the populace. Often, the alliances also had the unhappy effect of making the Jews a surrogate for the local authority. Thus, while some anti-Semitic attacks were motivated by anger over high interest rates, others were expressions of anger at a local bishop or prince who was too powerful to attack directly. As populist anti-Semitism grew, physical violence became a daily occurrence. In Speyer a mob attacked a Jewish woman named Minna, cutting off her lips and thumbs; in eastern France Jacob Tam was wounded five times on the head to atone for the wounds the Jews had inflicted on Christ.
Pogroms also became more common. There were major outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence in 1146, 1189, 1204, 1217, 1288, 1298, and 1321. The last of these, the pogrom of 1321, was notable for being a kind of dress rehearsal for the anti-Semitic violence of the Black Death. Many of the characteristics that marked the pogroms of 1348 and 1349 were also present in 1321. There were the same whispers about an anti-Christian international conspiracy and the same torch-bearing Holy Week mobs. The two pogroms also began similarly. In both cases they were ignited by accusations of well poisoning, and in both cases at first the accusations were directed not at the Jews, but at another fringe element in medieval society—lepers, criminals, and vagrants, even the English.
For one French chronicler, the year 1321 was noteworthy mostly for remarkable meteorological events. There was a great snowfall in February, another before Lent, and later in the spring, a great rainfall. Almost parenthetically, as if such things were part of the natural order, the chronicler added that between the first and the second snowfall, the lepers of France were exterminated.
An account by a Dominican Inquisitor, Bernard Gui, is more forthcoming. The exterminations were provoked by the discovery of a lepers’ plot to overthrow the French Crown. “You see how the healthy Christians despise us sick people,” a coup leader is alleged to have said when the plotters met secretly in Toulon to elect a new king of France and appoint a new set of barons and counts. It is not entirely clear how the plot first came to light, but by Holy Week 1321 nearly everywhere in southern France one heard the same story; the lepers, “diseased in mind and body,” were poisoning local wells and springs. Alarmed, Philip V, “the Long One,” ordered mass arrests. Lepers who confessed complicity in the plot were to be burned at the stake immediately; those who professed innocence, tortured until they confessed, then burned at the stake. Pregnant lepers were allowed to come to term before being burned, but no such stays were offered to lepers with children. In Limoges a chronicler saw leprous women tearing newborns from their cribs and marching into a fire, infants in arm.
Almost immediately, the populace concluded that the Jews were also involved in the plot. This popular verdict was based on guilt by association. Like the lepers, who wore a gray or black cloak and carried a wooden rattle, Jews were required to dress distinctively. Additionally, both groups were considered deceitful. As an inscription at Holy Innocents cemetery in Paris reminded the unwary: “Beware the friendship of a lunatic, of a Jew, of a leper.” The two groups were also hated, although after the recent Great Famine the Jews were probably hated more because of their moneylending. There was another important connection, though no bill of indictment mentioned it: wealth. The Jews, who, despite their vulnerable economic position, still sat on a substantial amount of private capital, and the leper asylums, whose treasuries were flush with contributions and endowments, made lucrative targets. For the mobs, it seemed like that rare opportunity to do well while also doing good. In early June, even before the mass arrests of the lepers began, the populace struck out at the Jews. One chronicler reports that on a summer morning, a group of 160 Jews marched into a fire near Toulon, singing “as if marching to a wedding feast.” Near Vitry-le-François forty Jews slit their own throats rather than fall into Christian hands. In Paris the local Jewish community had to pay 150,000 livres in protection money; some Parisian Jews were murdered anyway.
The French Crown was brought into the pogroms later in the summer by the alarming “discovery” of a secret covenant between the Jews, the Muslims, and the lepers. The compact first came to light at the end of June, during a solar eclipse in Anjou and Touraine. For a period of four hours on the twenty-sixth, the afternoon sun appeared swollen and horribly engorged, as if bursting with blood; then, during the night, hideous black spots dimpled the moon, as if the craters on its acned face had turned inside out. Certain that the world was coming to end, the next morning the populace attacked the Jews. During the rampage, a copy of the secret covenant was discovered inside a casket in the home of a Jew named Bananias. Written in Hebrew and adorned with a gold seal weighing the equivalent of nineteen florins, the document was decorated with a carving of a Jew—though the figure could have been a Muslim—defecating into the face of the crucified Christ.
On reading a translated copy of the covenant, Philip V was horrified. The Muslim ruler of Jerusalem, through his emissary, the viceroy of Islamic Granada, was extending to the Jewish people the hand of eternal peace and friendship. The gesture was occasioned by the recent discovery of the lost ark of the Old Testament and the stone tablets upon which God had etched the Law with His finger. Both were found in perfect condition in a ditch in the Sinai Desert and had awoken in the Muslims, who discovered them, a desire to be circumcised, convert to Judaism, and return the Holy Land to the Jews. However, since this would leave millions of Palestinian Muslims homeless, the King of Jerusalem wanted the Jews to give him France in return. The guilty homeowner Bananias told French authorities that after the Muslim offer, the Jews of France concocted the well-poisoning plot and hired the lepers to carry it out.
After reading the translation and several corroborating documents, including a highly incriminating letter from the Muslim King of Tunisia, Philip ordered all Jews in France arrested for “complicity . . . to bring about the death of the people and the subjects of the kingdom.” Two years later, any Jewish survivors of the royal terror were exiled from the country.
The pogroms of 1348 were also fed by rumors of well poisoning and secret cabals, and, as in 1321, it took some time for the rumors to attach themselves to the Jews.
The first pogrom of the Black Death, on April 13, 1348, was a traditional act of Holy Week violence aggravated by the pestilence. Medieval Europeans knew that whenever bad things happened to Christians, the Jews were to blame. On the night of the thirteenth, several dozen Jews were dragged from their homes in Toulon* and murdered amid the glare of torchlight and the sound of heavy-footed tramping through the town. The next morning, as the mutilated bodies of the dead lay drying in the spring sun, rumors about plague poisons were already circulating through southern France, but as yet, the rumors had not attached themselves to the Jews. On April 17, in a letter to Spanish officials, who had written requesting information about the pestilence, Andre Benezeit, the vicar of Narbonne, asserted that the plague had two causes: unfavorable planetary alignments and poisonings. Around Narbonne, the vicar said, beggars and vagrants and the “enemies of the Kingdom of France”—in other words, the English—were helping to spread the plague with secret potions.
A week earlier, French officials had given Pedro the Ceremonious, King of Aragon, similar information. The officials claimed that the plague, which had not yet reached Spain, was spread by a poison sprinkled in water, food, and “the benches on which men sit and put up their feet.” In this iteration of the rumor, the poisoners were described as men posing as pilgrims and friars, not beggars and vagrants. Given the panicky atmosphere in southwestern Europe that spring, it is not surprising that musician Louis Heyligen had heard similar rumors in Avignon. At the end of the month, Heyligen wrote to friends in Flanders that “some wretched men were found in possession of certain powders and [whether justly or unjustly, God knows,] were accused of poisoning the wells with the result that anxious men now refuse to drink the water. Many are burnt for this and are being burnt daily.”
Later in the spring, whenY. pestisentered Spain, a new round of pogroms erupted. In Cervera, eighteen people were killed, and in Tarrega, “on the tenth day of the month of Av,” a Christian mob yelling, “Death to the traitors!” murdered three hundred Jews. On May 17, two months after the plague arrived in Barcelona, twenty Jews died in a bizarre street brawl. After some thatch from the roof of a Jewish building fell on a passing funeral, the angry mourners attacked the building and killed several of the occupants. Despite fifteen thousand plague dead in Barcelona, in Spain as in southern France, Jews were killed for the sin of being Jews, not for contaminating wells. “Without any reason they [the Christians] injure, harass, and even kill the Jews,” concluded a 1354 report on the pogroms in Aragon.
But north of the Pyrenees, the whispers continued.
. . . rivers and fountains
That were clear and clean.
They poisoned in many places.
During the spring and early summer, several groups were auditioned for the role of poisoner, but history had already ordained who would get the role. Despite the allure of lepers, the charm of beggars, and the novelty of the English and the pilgrims, some tropism in the European soul always brought it back to the Jews.
In July the pestilence, the Jews, and the well-poisoning accusations finally joined hands in Vizille, a little market town just beyond the eastern borders of medieval France. Early in the month, nine Jews, possibly the sons and daughters of refugees who had fled to Vizille after the French Crown banned its Jews in 1322, were tried for contaminating local wells. The fate of the defendants is unknown, but that summer several other Jews in eastern France were burned at the stake for poisoning wells.
On July 6, in a papal bull, Clement VI pointed out that “it cannot be true that the Jews . . . are the cause . . . of the plague . . . for [it] afflicts the Jews themselves.” However, with death coming up every road and through every door, few people were in a mood to listen to reason. Europe desperately needed a villain—someone it could snatch by the throat and throttle in retaliation for all its weeping mothers and dead children, for the squalid, rain-soaked plague pits and the tortured cities. From Vizille the pogroms spilled northeastward across the somber French countryside toward Switzerland. In many places, rumors of the well poisonings arrived months before the plague, but that did nothing to dim their power. Marrying the Jews to the well poisonings gave people a sense of empowerment. Increasingly, in villages and forest clearings, men and women told one another: Perhaps if we kill all the Jews, the plague won’t come to our village. Even if the plague did come, with the Jews dead, at least debts to Jewish moneylenders would be canceled. Later, after the violence subsided, one chronicler would write that the “poison which killed the Jews was their wealth.”
A few resolute leaders defended their Jewish communities, but others, fearing the population would turn on them, stepped aside and allowed the crowd to vent its fear and rage.
Amadeus VI, ruler of Savoy, the region around Lake Geneva, took a middle course. Amadeus did not want angry mobs tossing Jews down wells in Savoy, as the mobs were doing in eastern France; on the other hand, he did not want to appear unsympathetic to popular feeling. Amadeus resolved his dilemma with a traditional bureaucratic maneuver—he ordered an investigation. In the late summer of 1348, eleven local Jews, including the surgeon Balavigny and a woman called Belieta, were arrested and interrogated in the Lake Geneva town of Chillon.
A transcript of Belieta’s interrogation—or, rather, interrogations, since there were two—still exists. On October 8, when she was first questioned, Belieta admitted a knowledge of, but not complicity in, the plot. At “midsummer last,” she told her interrogators, a conspirator had given her a packet of poison, but she had disobeyed his order “to put the poison into the springs,” giving it instead to a “Mamson and his wife for them to do it.”
At her second interrogation on October 18, Belieta was more forthcoming. This time she confessed that she had indeed done “as she was told”; she put poison in the “springs so that people [who] used the water would fall sick and die.” Like Bona Dies, a Jew from Lausanne, who was “racked” for four nights and four days, Belieta may have been tortured beyond endurance. The transcript of her first interrogation says she was only “briefly put to the question,” but the transcript of her second contains no such qualifiers. It is also possible that Belieta was trying to protect her son, Aquetus, another alleged “conspirator,” who was not standing up well under questioning. She may have hoped that if she confessed, the authorities would spare Aquetus; they did not.
Broken in mind and body, after being “put to the question to a moderate degree,” a few days later a distraught Aquetus told his interrogators “that by his soul, the Jews richly deserved to die, and that, indeed, he had no wish to live, for he too richly deserved to die.”
The interrogations at Chillon were an important turning point in the pogroms. Though “documentary evidence” about the well poisonings had already begun to circulate in Germany and Switzerland, both largely plague-free in the early fall of 1348, a sizable segment of educated opinion remained skeptical. Echoing Clement’s papal bull, the doubters asked, “If the Jews are poisoning wells and springs, why do they die of the plague like everyone else?” Whoever prepared the transcripts of the Chillon prisoners’ “confessions”—and the confessions were transcribed, and the transcripts widely circulated—was a master propagandist. Crisp, cogent, and richly detailed, they contained the kind of human moments and details likely to convince a sophisticated medieval reader. For example, after poisoning a spring in his home village of Thonon, surgeon Balavigny supposedly comes home and “expressly forbids his wife and children from using the spring without telling them why”: just the kind of behavior one would expect of a conscientious husband and father.
Describing a recent visit to Venice, another plotter from the Lake Geneva region, a silk merchant named Agimetus, recalls the quality of the water where “he scattered some poison.” It was “a well or cistern of fresh water near the house of the . . . Germans.” Agimetus was also given the busy schedule of an international conspirator. After leaving Venice, he hurries south to Calabria and Apulia to poison wells, then on to Toulouse for more poisonings.
The notion of conspiracy is underlined by the repetition of certain names and places in the transcripts. There are, for example, several references to meetings outside the “upper gate in Villeneuve,” a town near Montreux, where “the leading members of the Jewish community always discuss matters,” and to a bullying secret agent named Provenzal, who tells one timid conspirator, “You’re going to put the poison . . . into that spring or it’ll be the worse for you.” Another recurring character is the gentle Rabbi Peyret, who tells Agimetus, as he is about to leave for Italy, “It has come to our attention that you are going to Venice to buy merchandise. Here is a satchel of poison. . . . Put a little in the wells.”
The plot’s mysterious mastermind, Rabbi Jacob of Toledo, remains a shadowy presence in the transcripts, but, thanks to a thousand years of Christian teaching, every reader already knew what he looked like. Hooked-nosed, bent-shouldered, black-bearded, when the rabbi spoke of his plan for Jewish world domination, the “mighty underground river” of gold echoed in his voice.
In German-speaking Europe, reaction to the Chillon transcripts—and other incriminating documents—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.
A few weeks later the Jews of Constance were “led into the fields at sunset. . . . [S]ome proceeded to the flames dancing, others singing, the rest weeping.” In Brandenburg, the Jews were burned on a grill like meat. “These obstinate Jews . . . heard the sentence with laughing mouths and greeted its execution with hymns of praise,” recalled an eyewitness, who says that “not only did they sing and laugh on the grill, but, for the most part, jumped and uttered cries of joy, and, thus . . . suffered death with great firmness.” In Erfurt, where the pogroms were carried out with less resoluteness, a leader named Hugk the Tall had to admonish slackers, “Why are you standing around? Go . . . look for the Jews and beat them nicely.” In Nordhausen, Landgrave Frederick of Thuringia-Meisen also had to steel the weak. “For the praise and honor of God and benefit of Christianity,” the landgrave admonished a wavering city council, burn the Jews immediately.
According to Canon Truchess, “once started, the burning of the Jews went on increasingly. . . . They were burnt on 21 January  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.”
The Canon was more optimistic than Jizchak Katzenelson, who, before his murder in Auschwitz on April 29, 1944, wrote a poem called “Song of the Last Jew”:
Not a single one was spared. Was that
just ye heavens? And were it just, for whom?