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
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Within days, the pogrom spread to neighboring villages. In some, the jewish residents were offered conversion, but many would rather, and often did, choose death. In some instances, entire populations in jewish towns committed suicide. One chronicler of the time said “Mothers would throw their children into the flames rather them risking them being baptized and then would hurl themselves into fire... to burn with their husbands and children” During the peak years of the plague, more than 200 Jewish communities were wiped out, mostly within the countries of France, Germany, and England. In some places, the Jewish population was driven out, while in most occurrences, riots of christians brought mass destruction to communities. Frankfurt, for instance, had a population of over nineteen-thousand jews in the year 1300. By the end of the century, all of the jews had been killed or fled the city entirely.

During the summer of 1348, as the plague moved eastward through France, Germany, and Switzerland, the rumors continued to spread that the Great Mortality was indeed a Jewish plot. Rumors went from vague accusations to more complex and detailed stories. By the autumn of 1348, it was universally understood that the plague was
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