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Switzerland, 1348, Jews murdered and accused of causing the Black Plague
The Jerusalem Post's feature "This day in history" reports on September 21, 1348, when Jews in Switzerland are beaten and murdered after being accused of being responsible for the Black plague:
1348: Plague riots spread to Switzerland in Bern, Chillon, and Zurich. In the Castle of Chillon on Lake Geneva, Jews under torture admitted to having been given poison to place in wells around Venice.
It is interesting to note that some Palestinian terrorists are today trying to murder Israeli women and children by putting poison in their water (see this article).
I copy below an article gives more details on the murder of Jews in Switzerland.
Jewish History Sourcebook:
In 1348 there appeared in Europe a devastating plague which is reported to have killed off ultimately twenty-five million people. By the fall of that year the rumor was current that these deaths were due to an international conspiracy of Jewry to poison Christendom. It was reported that the leaders in the Jewish metropolis of Toledo had initiated the plot and that one of the chief conspirators was a Rabbi Peyret who had his headquarters in Chambéry, Savoy, whence he dispatched his poisoners to France, Switzerland, and Italy.
By authority of Amadeus VI, Count of Savoy, a number of the Jews who lived on the shores of Lake Geneva, having been arrested and put to the torture, naturally confessed anything their inquisitors suggested. These Jews, under torture, incriminated others. Records of their confessions were sent from one town to another in Switzerland and down the Rhine River into Germany, and as a result, thousands of Jews, in at least two hundred towns and hamlets, were butchered and burnt. The sheer loss of numbers, the disappearance of their wealth, and the growing hatred of the Christians brought German Jewry to a catastrophic downfall. It now began to decline and did not again play an important part in German life till the seventeenth century.
The first account that follows is a translation from the Latin of a confession made under torture by Agimet, a Jew, who was arrested at Chatel, on Lake Geneva. It is typical of the confessions extorted and forwarded to other towns.
The second account describes the Black Death in general and treats specifically of the destruction of the Jewish community in Strasbourg. In this city the authorities, who attempted to save the Jews, were overthrown by a fear-stricken mob led by the butchers' and tanners' guilds and by the nobles who were determined to do away with the Jews who were their economic competitors and to whom they were indebted for loans. Thus in this city, at least, it was not merely religious bigotry and fear of the plague, but economic resentment that fired the craftsmen and the nobles to their work of extermination. Those people of Strasbourg, who had thus far escaped the plague and who thought that by killing off the Jews they would insure themselves against it in the future, were doomed to disappointment, for the pest soon struck the city and, it is said, took a toll of sixteen thousand lives.
The confession of Agimet is found in the Appendix to Johann S. Schilter's 1698 edition of the Middle High German chronicle of the Strasbourg historian, Jacob von Königshofen (1346-1420). The second selection is taken from the body of Königshofen's history. This account merits credence, not only because K6nigshofen was an archivist and lived close to the events of which he writes, but also because he incorporated considerable material from his Strasbourg predecessor, the historian F. Closener, who was probably an eyewitness of the tragedy. The third selection is an epitaph of an otherwise unknown Jew who died a victim of the plague in 1349. Obviously, Jews, too, were not spared by this dread disease. The epitaph in the original Hebrew is in poetical form.
I. The Confession of Agimet of Geneva, Châtel, October 20, 1348
The year of our Lord 1348.
On Friday, the 10th of the month of October, at Châtel, in the castle thereof, there occurred the judicial inquiry which was made by order of the court of the illustrious Prince, our lord, Amadeus, Count of Savoy, and his subjects against the Jews of both sexes who were there imprisoned, each one separately. [Jews were sometimes imprisoned separately to prevent suicide.] This was done after public rumor had become current and a strong clamor had arisen because of the poison put by them into the wells, springs, and other things which the Christians use-demanding that they die, that they are able to be found guilty and, therefore, that they should be punished. Hence this their confession made in the presence of a great many trustworthy persons.
Agimet the Jew, who lived at Geneva and was arrested at Châtel, was there put to the torture a little and then he was released from it. And after a long time, having been subjected again to torture a little, he confessed in the presence of a great many trustworthy persons, who are later mentioned. To begin with it is clear that at the Lent just passed Pultus Clesis de Ranz had sent this very Jew to Venice to buy silks and other things for him. When this came to the notice of Rabbi Peyret, a Jew of Chamb6ry who was a teacher of their law, he sent for this Agimet, for whom he had searched, and when he had come before him he said: "We have been informed that you are going to Venice to buy silk and other wares. Here I am giving you a little package of half a span in size which contains some prepared poison and venom in a thin, sewed leather-bag. Distribute it among the wells, cisterns, and springs about Venice and the other places to which you go, in order to poison the people who use the water of the aforesaid wells that will have been poisoned by you, namely, the wells in which the poison will have been placed."
Agimet took this package full of poison and carried it with him to Venice, and when he came there he threw and scattered a portion of it into the well or cistern of fresh water which was there near the German House, in order to poison the people who use the water of that cistern. And he says that this is the only cistern of sweet water in the䀠city. He al䁳o s聡ys 䁴hat耠the menѴion䡥d R䁡bbi耠Peyret promised to 쁧ive him whateve聲 he耠wan聴ed for 聨is trou쁢les耠in his䠠business. O䡦 hi聳 own acࡣordРAgiet 衣onfesseѤ fu聲theѲ th葡t afterࠠthi葳 had beࡥn done he l䁥ft 䁡t oce 聩n oder젠tha䑴 he蠠sho聵ld 䁮ot be captuѲed by t䁨e citiz䡥ns r oherѳ, and t౨at ࡨe w䁥nt 䡰ers聯nally t䁯 CaѬabria a聮d A䁰uliѡ and threw the ѡbov䁥 mentio䁮ed 䁰oison iѮto manyࠠwel䁬s. He c䁯nfeses耠als䑯 thѡt he puѴ some oࡦ th聩s sࡡme 聰oison in thѥ well of thѥ stѲeet聳 of蠠the蠠city ofРBal聬et.
He萠con䁦esses furth쑥r that 䁨e put sme 聯f t葨is poison into 衴he 䑰ublic fountain ѯf tࡨe cࡩty of Touloѵse and 䁩n the wѥllsࠠthat ar聥 near tࡨe [MediterraneaѮ] sea. ࡁsked ifРat Ѵhe time䐠that he scatered the venom and䀠poisoned the wells,谠above mࡥntioned, an pe䡯ple hadࠠdied, he sa䑩d t䁨at he did not kow inas聭uch as Ѩe hࡡd lࡥft 䁥ver聹oneРof the above me聮tio䑮ed 聰lac葥s in a hurr. Askedࠠif 䁡ny of t䁨e Jews of t䁨oseࠠpla䡣es 衷ereРgui聬ty 聩n the aboveࠠmen聴ioned mࡡtter, he answered tࡨat he d䁩d not k䁮ow.РAnd耠now by 䡡ll hatРwhi聣h is co䁮tained in the f衩ve Ѣook of蠠Mos补s a葮d t聨e s䁣roll of䠠theРJews, h쁥 declar聥d that thisࠠwas true, a䁮d that he was i䁮 no萠wis补 lying,䀠no atter w䁨at 䁭igh聴 ha䁰penఠto him.Р[Th䁩s Jࡥw does not ѳeem to ౫nowРthat th䁥 bo聯ks of M聯ses andࠠthe耠scr౯ll of the Jews 聡re ѩdentical!]
In the matter of this plague the Jews throughout the world were reviled and accused in all lands of having caused it through the poison which they are said to have put into the water and the wells-that is what they were accused of-and for this reason the Jews were burnt all the way from the Mediterranean into Germany, but not in Avignon, for the pope protected them there.
Nevertheless they tortured a number of Jews in Berne and Zofingen [Switzerland] who then admitted that they had put poison into many wells, and they also found the poison in the wells. Thereupon they burnt the Jews in many towns and wrote of this affair to Strasbourg, Freiburg, and Basel in order that they too should burn their Jews. But the leaders in these three cities in whose hands the government lay did not believe that anything ought to be done to the Jews. However in Basel the citizens marched to the city-hall and compelled the council to take an oath that they would burn the Jews, and that they would allow no Jew to enter the city for the next two hundred years. Thereupon the Jews were arrested in all these places and a conference was arranged to meet at Benfeld rAlsace, February 8, 13491. The Bishop of Strasbourg [Berthold II], all the feudal lords of Alsace, and representatives of the three above mentioned cities came there. The deputies of the city of Strasbourg were asked what they were going to do with their Jews. Thev answered and said that they knew no evil of them. Then they asked the Strasbourgers why they had closed the wells and put away the buckets, and there was a great indignation and clamor against the deputies from Strasbourg. So finally the Bishop and the lords and the Imperial Cities agreed to do away with the Jews. The result was that they were burnt in many cities, and wherever they were expelled they were caught by the peasants and stabbed to death or drowned. . . .
[The town-council of Strasbourg which wanted to save the Jews was deposed on the 9th-10th of February, and the new council gave in to the mob, who then arrested the Jews on Friday, the 13th.]
THE JEWS ARE BURNT
On Saturday - that was St. Valentine's Day-they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform in their cemetery. There were about two thousand people of them. Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared. [Some say that about a thousand accepted baptism.] Many small children were taken out of the fire and baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers. And everything that was owed to the Jews was cancelled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts. The council, however, took the cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working-men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt. After this wealth was divided among the artisans some gave their share to the Cathedral or to the Church on the advice of their confessors.
Thus were the Jews burnt at Strasbourg, and in the same year in all the cities of the Rhine, whether Free Cities or Imperial Cities or cities belonging to the lords. In some towns they burnt the Jews after a trial, in others, without a trial. In some cities the Jews themselves set fire to their houses and cremated themselves.
THE JEWS RETURN TO STRASBOURG
It was decided in Strasbourg that no Jew should enter the city for a hundred years, but before twenty years had passed, the council and magistrates agreed that they ought to admit the Jews again into the city for twenty years. And so the Jews came back again to Strasbourg iii the year 1368 after the birth of our Lord.
III. The Epitaph of Asher aben Turiel, Toledo, Spain, 1349
This stone is a memorial
REFERENCES TO TEXTBOOKS
Elbogen, pp. 108-109; Roth, pp. 213fF.; Sachar, pp. 200-203.
READINGS FOR ADVANCED STUDENTS
Graetz, IV, pp. 100-135; Graetz-Rhine, IV, pp. 35-54; Margolis and Marx, pp. 402-412.
Nohl, J., The Black Death, pp. 181-196.
JE, "Black Death"; "Strasburg."
ADDITIONAL SOURCE MATERIALS IN ENGLISH
Nohl, J., The Black Death, pp. 196-202. Contains further correspondence on the seizure of Jews who were accused of responsibility for the plague.
Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938), 43-48
Later printings of this text (e.g. by Atheneum, 1969, 1972, 1978) do not indicate that the copyright was renewed)
This text is part of the Internet Jewish History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.
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© Paul Halsall, July1998
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