In a lesson surveying the roots of anti-Semitism, we watched an Imperial War Museum video which noted that the superstitions and myths about Jews which had been believed through the centuries included them being blamed for the Black Death in the Fourteenth Century.
In 1347, the Black Death was a bubonic plague that swept through Europe. Estimates of how many died from the plague vary. It is believed that the pandemic devastated the nations of Europe, that it killed between a third and two-thirds of the population between 1347 and 1351. Even the Great Wars of the Twentieth Century brought no comparable loss of life.
It is hard to imagine what terror the Black Death induced in the minds of those who survived. If millions of people, including family, friends and neighbours, could be swept away in such a short time, what might the future hold? People would have asked what explanation there could be for such awful suffering. They would have wondered what sin had been committed for such a fate to befall them.
In a time when literacy was rare, (and material to read even rarer), when rumours, stories and superstitions took a vice like grip on people’s lives, memories of the Black Death would have left everyone living in a state of constant uncertainty, the slightest infection would have brought fear and terror on a community. The “fake news” of the Twenty-First Century is mild in its influence compared with the superstition which gripped the imaginations of the people of medieval Europe.
To blame the Jews would have offered the Church an answer to questions for which it had no answer. The Church would have tolerated no public expression of doubt. In such times, to have questioned one’s faith, or to have questioned the Church would have brought down the charge of heresy upon one’s head and the prospect of being burned at the stake. Yet, privately, individually, there would have been people who would have grown up with questions about the nature of the world in which they lived, questions about the God of whom the Church spoke.
“Why do you think the Jews were blamed?”
The answers were immediate. “Because if they didn’t have someone to blame, then people might starting questions about the stuff the church told them.”
“But what would happen if they asked questions?”
“They might get executed. But even if they didn’t say anything they could still think it.”
Against the background of the anti-Semitic lies and myths that still circulate, such critical thinking is an encouragement.