Website accessibility
Show or hide the menu bar

Barbara Tuchman on origin of false accusations against the Jews

Notes from

A Distant Mirror: the calamitous 14th century

Barbara W. Tuchman (1978)

 [p. 109] On charges that they were poisoning the wells with intent "to kill and destroy the whole of Christendom and have lordship over all the world," the lynchings began in the spring of 1348 on the heels of the first plague deaths. The first attacks occurred in Narbonne and Carcassonne, where Jews were dragged from their houses and thrown into bonfires. While Divine judgement was accepted as the plagues's source, people in their misery still looked for a human agent upon whom to vent the hostility that could not be vented on God. The Jew, as the eternal stranger, was the most obvious target. He was the outsider who had separated himself by choice from the Christian world, whom Christians for centuries had been taught to hate, who was regarded as imbued with unsleeping malevolence against all Christians. Living in a distinct group of his own kind in a particular street or quarter, he was also the most feasible target, with property to loot as further inducement.

The accusation of well-poisoning was as old as the plague of Athens, when it had been applied to the Spartans, and as recent as the epidemics of 1320-21, when it had been applied to the lepers. At that time the lepers were believed to have acted at the instigation of the Jews and the Moslem King of Grenada, in a great conspiracy of outcasts to destroy Christians. Hundreds were rounded up and burnt throughout France in 1322 and the Jews heavily punished by an official fine and unofficial attacks. When the plague came the charge was instantly revived against the Jews:

...rivers and fountains
That were clean and clear
They poisoned in many places...

wrote the French court poet Guillaume de Machaut.

The antagonism had ancient roots. the Jew had become the object of animosity, because the early Church, as an offshoot of Judaism striving to replace the parent, had to make him so. His rejection of Christ as Saviour and his dogged refusal to accept any new law of the Gospel in place of the Mosaic law made the Jew a perpetual insult to the newly established Church, a danger who must be kept distinct and apart from the Christian community. This was the purpose of the [p. 110] edicts depriving Jews of their civil rights issued by the early Church councils in the 4th century as soon as Christianity became the state religion. Separation was a two-way street since, to the Jews, Christianity was a dissident sect, then an apostasy, with which they wanted no contact.

The theory, emotions and justification of anti-Semitism were laid at that time -- in the canon law codified by the Councils; in the tirades of St. John Chrysostom, patriarch of Antioch, who denounced the Jews as Christ-killers; in the judgement of St. Augustine, who declared the Jews to be "outcasts" for failing to accept redemption by Christ. The Jews' dispersion was regarded as their punishment for unbelief.

The period of active assault began with the age of the crusades, when all of Europe's intramural antagonisms were gathered into one bolt, aimed at the infidel. On the theory that the "infidel at home" should likewise be exterminated, massacres of Jewish communities marked the crusaders' march to Palestine. The capture of the Holy Sepulchre by the Moslems was blamed on the "wickedness of the Jews," and the cry "HEP! HEP!" for Hierosolyma est Perdita (Jerusalem is lost) became the call for murder. What man victimises he fears; thus the Jews were pictured as fiends filled with hatred of the human race, which they secretly intended to destroy.

The question whether Jews had certain human rights under the general proposition that God had created the world for all men, including infidels, was given different answers by different thinkers. Officially the Church conceded some rights: that the Jews should not be condemned without trial, their synagogues and cemeteries should not be profaned, their property not be robbed with impunity. In practice, this meant little, because, as non-citizens of the universal Christian state, Jews were not allowed to bring charges against Christians, nor was Jewish testimony allowed to prevail over that of Christians. Their legal status was that of serfs of the king, though without reciprocal obligations on the part of the overlord. The doctrine that Jews were doomed to perpetual servitude as Christ-killers was announced by Pope Innocent III in 1205 and led Thomas Aquinas to conclude with relentless logic that "since Jews are the slaves of the Church, she can dispose of their possessions." Legally, politically and physically, they were totally vulnerable.

They maintained a place in society because as moneylenders they performed a role essential to the kings' continual need of money. Excluded by the guilds from crafts and trades, they had been pushed into petty commerce and moneylending, although theoretically barred from dealing with Christians. Theory, however, bends to convenience, [p. 111] and Jews provided Christians with a way around their self-imposed ban on using money to make money.

Since they were damned anyway, they were permitted to lend at interest rates of 20 percent and more, of which the royal treasury took the major share. The increment to the crown was, in fact, a form of indirect taxation; as its instruments, the Jews absorbed an added measure of popular hate. They lived entirely dependent upon the king's protection, subject to confiscations and expulsions and the hazards of royal favour. Nobles and prelates followed the royal example, entrusting money to the Jews for lending and taking most of the profits, while deflecting popular resentment upon the agent. To the common man the Jews were not only Christ-killers, but rapacious, merciless monsters, symbols of the new force of money that was changing old ways and dissolving old ties.

As commerce swelled in the 12th and 13th centuries, increasing the flow of money, the Jews' position deteriorated in proportion as they were less needed. They could not deal in the great sums that Christian banking houseds like the Bardi of Florence could command. Kings and princes requiring ever larger amounts now turned to the Lombards and wealthy mercahnts for loans and relaxed their protection of the Jews or, when in need of hard cash, decreed their expulsion while confiscating their property and the debts owed to them. At the same time, with the advent of the Inquisition in the 13th century, religious intolerance waxed, leading to the charge of ritual murder against the Jews and the enforced wearing of a distinctive badge. 

The belief that Jews performed ritual murder of Christian victims, supposedly from a compulsion to re-enact the Crucifixion, began in the 12th century and developed into the belief that they held secret rites to desecrate the host. Promoted by popular preachers, a mythology of blood grew in a mirror image of the Christian ritual of drinking the blood of the Saviour. Jews were believed to kidnap and torture Christian children, whose blood they drank for a variety of sinister purposes, ranging from sadism and sorcery to the need, as unnatural beings, for Christian blood to give them a human appearance. Though bitterly refuted by the rabbis and condemned by emperor and pope, the blood libel took possession of the popular mind most rabidly in Germany, where the well-poisoning charge too had originated in the 12th century. The blood libel formed the subject of Chaucer's tale of a child martyr told by the Prioresse and was the ground on which many Jews were charged, tried and burned at the stake. [...]

[p. 112] Throughout the [13th] century the Church multiplied decrees designed to isolate Jews from Christian society, on the theory that contact with them brought the Christian faith into disrepute. Jews were forbidden to employ Christians as servants, to serve as doctors to Christians, to intermarry, to sell flour, bread, wine, oil, shoes or any article of clothing to Christians, to deliver or receive goods, to build new synagogues, to hold or claim land for non-payment of mortgage. The occupations from which guild rules barred them included weaving, metalworking, mining tailoring, shoemaking, goldsmithing, milling, baking, carpentry. To mark their separation, Innocent III in 1213 decreed the wearing of a badge, usually in the form of a wheel or circular patch of yellow felt, said to represent a piece of money. Sometimes green or red-and-white, it was worn by both sexes beginning between the ages of seven and fourteen. [...] The 13th century Church imposed the same badge on Moslems, on convicted heretics and [...] on prostitutes. A hat with a point rather like a horn, said to represent the Devil, was later added to further distinguish the Jews. [...]

[p. 115] In every town the entered the flagellants rushed for the Jewish quarter, trailed by citizens howling for revenge upon the "poisoners of the wells." In Freiburg, Augsburg, Nuernberg, Munich, Regensburg and other centres the Jews were slaughtered with a thoroughness that seemed to seek the final solution. At Worms in March 1349 the Jewish community of 400, like that of York, turned to an old tradition and burned themselves to death inside their own houses rather than be killed by their enemies. [...]

[p. 116] By the time the plague had passed few Jews were left in Germany or the Low Countries.

Go to Notanant menuWebsite accessibility

Access level: public

This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you agree to our use of cookies: OK