To give a better background of the persecutions of Jews in Germany in 14th century, it is necessary to discuss causes and the history of antisemitism.1 Moreover examining the life of Jews in Germany and their disputes and issues with the Catholic Church in the Medieval period. Furthermore, what were the reasons that led to the pogroms of Jews in 14th century in Germany.
The prejudice towards Jews did not start in the 14th century, but early in the medieval period. The Church was concerned about Jews having influence over Christians, so the papacy started spreading the doctrine that Jews were responsible for Jesus’s death. Additionally, the church represented Jew as a demonic figure. Many welcomed this doctrine and antisemitism.
The first primary source is The Changing Face of Antisemitism: from Ancient Times to the Present Day by Walter Zeev Laqueur. Laqueur is a German/Polish/Jewish historian and a political commentator. In his work that was published in 2006, Laqueur offers an extensive history of anti-Semitism, where he tracks the development from a predominantly religious anti-Semitism to the middle ages and then to a racial anti-Semitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.2 This work is relevant because it presents all necessary facts to understand the causes and effects of anti-Semitism. Some might argue that the work is biased knowing the fact that Laqueur is a Zionist.
The second primary source is Jews in the Medieval German Kingdom by Alfred Haverkamp. Alfred Haverkamp is a German historian who focuses on medieval history. The work covers the period from the late-ninth to the early-sixteenth centuries where he discusses attitudes and actions among the Christian majority towards Jews in the German Kingdom. This work has value because it was written by a German historian that had access to German documentation and could understand and investigate it. The limitation is that persecutions of Jews happened over 600 hundred years ago, which could lead to many documentation missing or being falsified.
To give a better overview of the persecutions of the Jews in Germany it is necessary to touch upon the centuries prior to the 14th century and to explain in detail how and what affected the persecutions.
First and the greatest reason for the persecutions of Jews in the Medieval period was antisemitism.3 Simply explained by Oxford dictionaries antisemitism is hostility to or prejudice against Jews.4 This term is very often used today, because the discrimination against the Jews is still present. However, discrimination of Jews today, differs from the one in the Medieval period. To have a better background of the persecutions in Germany in the 14th century, it is necessary to understand the causes and development of antisemitism in Europe.
Anti-Judaism is a term for itself, one must understand the difference between prejudice against Jews as a whole, and prejudice against Judaism, their religion. A theistic Jew lives under the rule of a lord name Yahweh, who created morality and the law. The laws are made to lead its followers, and give them the eternal beatitude. Judaism for this reason made human laws at some time hard to follow. With such an idea of his Torah, the Jew could not accept the laws of strange nations; nor could he think of submitting to them; he could not abandon the divine laws, eternal, good and just, to follow human laws.5 At first this was not a problem, Jews were facing sympathy from their neighbours. It was not until the thirteenth century that the Jews were radically and officially separated from the Christians, by ghettos and by symbols of infamy.6 This showed the first public signs of anti-Judaism and antisemitism.
Till then, there were no laws imposed on Jews that were separating them from the rest of the population. The Catholic Church was extremely concerned that Judaism is spreading where in fact, Christianity was the religion that grew and influenced Europe. It is significant to emphasize that antisemitism in medieval period had a traditional and religious viewpoint, whereas antisemitism in the 19th century was based on the biological racism, that eventually led to massacres of Jews in the World War Two.7 Up until the fourth century the Jewish community was large and more dominant than the Christian. Jews were open opponents of the Christian assertion to be proclaiming the true religion.8 The main religious clause that the Catholic Church advocated, was that Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus. In fact, in Roman literature, the Jewish religion is constantly described as a form of superstition.9 For solely this reason, the antisemitism rose and it led to one of the worst massacres in the 14th century.
The blame clause that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’s death, difficulties following human laws and the title of the chosen nation separated Jews from the rest of the population.10 They were facing discrimination everywhere in Europe. Eventually, the discrimination formed prominent antisemitism that was one of the causes of the persecutions in Germany in the 14th century.
Jews lived for centuries in Germany. In fact, they came as early as the first century with the Roman armies that pressed up into the northern Gaul.11 Jews set themselves in little communities along the Rhine frontier, with the largest of them in the fortified outpost of Cologne.12 They were farmers, traders, artisans, and physicians, and they lived at peace with their neighbours such as Romans, Franks etc.13 Jews had no conflicts with Christianity until it became the state religion, and the state worked accordingly to Papacy and the Church.14 It is highly important to mention the life of Jews in Germany because it gives a better overview of how they functioned in the society. Furthermore, how their life gradually changed under the pressure of laws and antisemitism from the papacy and the Catholic Church.
Christianity commenced to be forced upon the Jews. In the 596, the synagogue of Clermont was destroyed by a mob, and the Jews who rejected baptism were exiled from the city.15 Jews did not feel protected anymore. It was a hard and harassed life that the Jews in Germany lived amid the coarseness and violence after the 6th century, however, Judaism made life somewhat bearable.16 The end of the Migration period meant a brief peace, freedom and protection in the minds of Jewish people.17
In Germany, the main occupation open to Jews was commerce. A large number of Jewish communities were set along the Rhine; Cologne, Mayence, Worms, Speyer, and Strasbourg. However, the minority still managed to work in the intellectual line, where they performed in sciences and philosophy. They were mathematicians, astronomers and they practiced medicine.
Gradually, Jews were forced out of the trade, rejected by the craftsmen’s guilds and prohibited from owning land. Later, Jews were mostly permitted only one occupation which was the lending of money.18 Money-lending was the new economic prospect of trade and it was open to Jews that had smaller economic resources. If there was no Jew money-lender, the public had to rely on Christian lenders and Christian system, but more often people preferred Jews.19 While Jews retained an official citizenship, their equality and rights gradually changed. It started firstly with the preventions of occupations and activities that soon enough led to restrictions upon their private and family lives and even upon their services in the synagogue.20
To understand the persecutions of Jews it is essential to accentuate the word “gradually”. This word perfectly describes the involvement of Catholic Church in Jewish life in the Medieval period. The Catholic church was the government and it slowly and negatively but effectively alternated Jewish society. Jews gradually lost their place and honour in the Christian society. Having an insight into Jewish life gives a better perspective to why and what led to persecutions in the 14th century.
The Catholic Church viewed Jews as an enemy responsible for the death of their leader Jesus Christ. The New Testament of the Bible contemplates mercy, love and peace. Unfortunately, the Church and the Papacy ignored the message of God that they so strongly worshiped. The Church fathers cherry-picked verses from the Bible that were relevant to their ideology. Thus, the first conflict between Jews and Christians was a conflict about the interpretation of the same Scriptures. 21
In the mid of the Medieval period, Church represented a Jew as a dark, demonic figure – possessing attributes of both devil and witches.22 Jews were not the only ones to be demonized by the church: witches, sorcerers and various heretics were also included but the Jews usually took the place at the top.23 The Church accused Jews of killing Cristian children to use their blood in preparation for the Passover.24 Jews were also charged with blaspheming the Christian faith and religion. Altogether, there have been about 150 recorded cases of Blood libels and thousands of rumours that harmed Jewish communities.25 These Blood libels and rumours as well as accusations of poisoning resulted in the whole communities of Jews being burned or killed in the most gruesome ways. Their property would be confiscated and their synagogues would be destroyed or burned.
The myths surrounding these false accusations were not an obstacle between some Jews and Christians to engage socially. In fact, many Bishops and Church fathers protected Jews and did not agree with anti-Semites and false allegations.26 They refused to endorse the accusations of ritual murders because there was no evidence that Judaism tolerates such practices. The Pope Innocent IV appointed a committee to study the issue in 1247, and it was established that there was no truth to these allegations (ritual murders) – and because Jewish law strictly forbid the consumption of blood.27 Further, Jews feared the forced conversion, because usually denying the baptism would mean getting burned or killed. Several put their children to death or precipitated them from the tops of houses and mountains.28 In Strasburg, February 14, 1349, 1800 people were placed on a wooden platform at the Jewish burial ground and were burnt because they refused baptism.29
With time the Church became more forceful and violent because Church fathers feared Jewish influence. The Church created legislation that prevented Jews from occupying positions which allegedly gave them influence over Christians.30 Majority of the prohibitions served to prevent Jews from being a part of the political and domestic power. Jewish communities turned inwards and formed their own closed worlds where Jews flourished under oppression.31
The situation of the Jews was dominated at every level by the attitude of the Catholic Church.32 Whoever ruled in the Kingdom of Germany at the time, had to obey the laws of Holy Roman Empire that were issued by the papacy. Some Christian historians have stressed that the later Middle Ages were a time of great political and social tensions.33 It was a struggle of power between the papacy and the secular rulers, between central power and the towns.
The church’s policies were expressed in the third and fourth Lateran Councils of 1179 and 1215. The church re-enacted all the Roman legislation which prohibited Jews and Christians from socially engaging. A Jew could not have a Christian nurse or a servant, a Christian could not lodge in the Jewish quarters, and these legislations laid the foundations for the official establishment of ghettos.34 Ghettos then became a place where Jews were an open target to antisemitism. The Dominicans gave themselves right to enter the Ghetto synagogues, and then insulting the sermon, usually by an apostate from Judaism.35 In the fourth council Pope Innocent III strengthened these regulations and added more. Jews could not have authority over Christians. Crusader was not obligated to pay usury to a Jew. Jew that converted was forbidden to have any social interaction with those that professed Judaism.36
The most significant law made in 1215 was that Jews had to wear a distinguishing badge on their clothes. The badges were endorsed, but were different colours in different parts of Europe. In Germany Jews had to wear a peculiar shaped hat, and the distinguishing clothing items.37 It was exposing Jews identity and it meant that they were an easy target to the prejudice against their religion. Alfonso X of Castile was responsible for the law that forbid Jews to appear in public on certain days. These civil laws expounded and inspired the religious orders.
The Medieval period was a dark period for individuals who opposed Christianity or did not practice it. Christianity became the most influential religion that committed one of the greatest crimes. To understand the persecutions that occurred in the 14th century, it is necessary to understand how the Church gradually manipulated and developed their anti-Semitic doctrine. Furthermore, which anti-Semitic laws Church imposed.
Between 12th and mid-14th century, the pogroms of Jews such as “Rintfleisch” and “Armleder” movements happened in smaller towns rather than the metropolitan areas.38 After the Crusades in the 12th century that affected the whole Jewish society, persecutions of the Jews in Germany were local. Nonetheless, Jews did not feel protected, especially after the prohibited laws by Catholic Church in the 13th century, and confined life in the ghettos. Antisemitism was at its highest point, and Jews were aware of the antagonism.
At the beginning of the 14th century, new rumours started to spread through Germany. Jews were put in difficult and almost impossible conditions where they had less and less freedom, protection and rights. Masses started to believe that Jews had intentions of poisoning the large part of the Christendom, and the claim was invented by anti-Semites. Some Jews were extensively harassed, that special oaths were invented in order to protect their lives. In 1301 Magdeburg, the Jews were plundered, and several of them were murdered. In 1303 Jews were killed in Meissen and Weissensee.39 Forced conversations were more frequent and Jews saw this as outright terror. After 1337 attack in Deggendorf where many Jews lost their lives, Bavaria followed its example. People in Straubing used the extensive cruelty while carrying out the massacres. Closer to the period of the Black death pogroms became more constant.
The German Kingdom was seen as the “land of persecution”.40 For Jews the relocation was a slow process, beginning in the 1350s. Jews preferred to settle themselves in the larger towns. They could live more anonymously and undisclosed. The ghettos in the smaller communities and cities were an easy target for discrimination. Historians argue that one of the key reasons that led to the persecutions of Jews in the 14th century were economic reasons. The economic reason that led to people seizing and stealing Jewish property. However, Jewish victims were from all classes of the society, poor and rich and further the spoils were not divided between peasants and workers but between rich and privileged elites.41
As the pogroms were decreasing more privileged wanted to provide security for Jews. In 1352 Duke Ludwig offered Jews protection in Bavaria.42 The new concept of appealing to Jews started. Speyer and the archbishop of Mainz offered special incentives to attract Jews back to their decimated communities.43 Such concept and idea continued till 1372 in some areas of Germany. The peaceful interactions continued through Germany until 16th century where the old allegations and fiction came back to haunt the Jews once again.
At the beginning of the 14th century pogroms would happen sporadically, but mostly Jews were unharmed. Pogroms of the Jews that were happening until around the mid-14th century, were possible to evade. Although anti-Semitic pogroms were very much present most of the them were caused for the economic benefit of the persecutors. The pogroms turned into persecutions in 1348, and were one of the worst terror Jews had ever experienced.
Unlike earlier persecutions, those in the time of the Black Death 1348-1349 were the extermination of the Jewish population. The persecutions were carried out systematically by the city councils. The massacres started in northern Spain, coming all the way to Bavaria, then the Rhine in 1349, on to Breslau, then to Magdeburg and Berlin, and lastly Erfurt and Nuremberg.44 The Jewish persecutions reached the culmination in the mid-14th century. Jews were put under strict laws that forbid them to enter and leave ghettos, they had no freedom of movement. The councils enacted laws and endorsed discrimination and persecutions of the worst kind. Mass killings, terrors and humiliation. To protect themselves some wealthy Jews paid emperors, princes, and bishops, but unfortunately, the majority of Jews did not possess that luxury.45
The pandemic known as Black Death lasted approximately four years. It was a plague striking almost every part of Europe. The pandemic gave rise to mass movements and extreme forms of violence. Rather than focusing on economic and political problems, society targeted those outside hierarchy – Jews and poor.46 The superficial and false allegations that Jews are poisoning wells in order to kill Christians were widely accepted.47 Pope Clement VI promulgated Sicut Judeis in 1348 where he argues that Jews have been dying from the plague in the same number as Christians.48 To say that Jews are sacrificing themselves and their children in order to kill Christians made no sense.
The accusations and the charging of the crimes would be upon the whole Jewish community, never just upon an individual. Even though accusations were affecting poor as well, Jews were the majority. The widespread panic, the deadly plague and convincing fictional stories resulted in the second worst persecutions of Jews after Holocaust taking the first place. The political influence and the struggle for the crown had a strong influence on persecutions, and in many cases riots were used to enforce political aims.49 In Nuremberg, Strasbourg, and Erfurt, groups who revolted against the municipal council wanted governmental changes.50 When the groups succeeded to make governmental changes, the new council would continue with the burnings and killings of Jews. Between 1348 and 1351 almost half of the Jewish population was either killed, burned or died from the plague.51
The horrific methods of torture would be used to get confessions out of Jews. In an attempt to save their lives, Jews were confessing the allegations. Some of the victims were not asked for confessions, but got locked in the houses or quarters and set on fire. In Basel, without any trial 130 children were taken away from their parents and forcibly baptized, while they burned 600 adults.52 It is estimated that more than two hundred communities were annihilated.53 In Germany, councils dominated and created more tensions because the guilds were in insurgency with the councils. Jews were persecuted by guilds because they thought they were allies of the council.54
After the Black Death ended, and for about thirty years the ghettos were not assaulted.55 The outbreak of the persecutions started again in 1390. It was a shock for the generations that survived the time of the Black Death. The first Jews that were affected by evictions were Jews in Strasbourg and the Palatinate County on the Rhine, and it continued to spread throughout Germany.56 The pogroms after the Black Death differed from the religious persecutions in the mid-14th century. They showed signs to be economic and political motivation as well as class divisions.57 In 1384 Jews were rounded up in Augsburg, Nuremberg and surrounding small towns, and released only after payment of a sizeable ransom.58 However, there still was a certain extent of antisemitism behind the motivations.
These persecutions were not just massacres they were the extermination of anything that was associated with Jews and Judaism. Their religion and their identity were blamed for the economic, political religious problems. The Black Death is a significant event that shows the power of Catholic Church in the Medieval period and to what extent their disastrous decisions and false claims were accepted. The Papacy and the Church held the power and it was the reason behind the persecutions of Jews in Germany in the 14th century.