As early as 1319, allegations of well-poisoning had been levelled at leper communities in Europe, in an attempt to demonize and ostracize this group of society. In France and Spain in 1321, the "leper's plot" developed into a widespread conspiracy, claiming that leper communities were acting on the orders of the Jews or Spanish Moors, poisoning water supplies in an attempt to spread disease among Christians. Under royal decrees, many lepers were then tortured into confessing to these acts, and were subsequently burnt at the stake (although this was often carried out by vigilante mobs before it could be done by the courts). After the initial hysteria in 1321, the involvement of lepers was quickly dismissed, and a papal bull was introduced to grant protection to leper communities in France; this however did not dispel the myths surrounding the Jews' involvement in the conspiracy, and the issue emerged again a few decades later.
Why the Jews were blamed
When the bubonic plague made its way to Europe, many were eager to find a scapegoat on whom they could blame their misfortune. The "well-poisoning" accusations were quickly raised again against Jewish communities in France and Spain, and also across the German states. Historians point to several reasons why Jews were blamed for the Black Death; namely, because many Jews lived in separate communities and did not use the same common wells, and Jewish religious practices promote bathing and hand-washing; both of these factors meant that the plague spread differently and at a different rate among Jews than it did among the general population. Modern historians also point to the fact that Jews were often moneylenders, and many of their debtors used the plague as an opportunity to expunge their debts; Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV also forfeited the property of Jews who were killed in the pogroms, giving further impetus to these mobs.
The first reported pogroms took place in Toulon in 1348, before the violence then spread across the rest of Western Europe. Over the next three years, hundreds of Jewish communities were attacked and exterminated, with the majority taking place in the German states. A number of larger communities, such as those in Cologne and Mainz, were destroyed completely; resulting in the deaths and forced conversions of thousands of Jews. Pope Clement VI introduced two papal bulls in 1348, which granted the church's protection to Europe's Jews. He also urged the clergy and nobility to take measures that protected Jews in their local areas, although most sources show that authorities were apathetic or complicit in the actions of the mobs. There is even evidence that authorities orchestrated several of the pogroms; such as in Strasbourg, where authorities led the city's Jewish community to a newly-built house outside the city, but when they arrived, any Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were then burned alive inside the house.
Many of the sources present different versions of events, with death tolls ranging from one hundred to several thousand in some cases, while some sources also claim that Jews set fire to their own homes rather than convert. It is impossible to confirm the exact sequence of events, or the actual number of deaths resulting from these pogroms, however, the limited sources available do provide a brief foundation for the modern understanding of medieval anti-Semitism and the destruction inflicted upon the Jews during the plague. It is also important to note that these pogroms were not unique to the Black Death's outbreak, and there is evidence of numerous massacres of Jewish communities in the centuries that followed. The demographic impact of the massacres was that there was a mass exodus of Jews from west to Eastern Europe, to countries such as Poland (where they were actually welcomed by authorities). The consequences of this demographic shift would be most felt six centuries later, when millions of Jews across Eastern Europe were exterminated at the hands of the Nazi regime during the Holocaust.
Estimated number of Jews murdered in select pogroms in European cities during the outbreak of the Black Death in the mid-14th century
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a "pogrom" as an organized, officially tolerated, attack on any community or group and one that is especially applied to those directed against the Jews.
*This data was compiled from a variety of resources, namely the Jewish Encyclopedia, Plague: How the Black Death changed the World, by Rudolf Schlossberg (2020), Beit Hatsfutot, and several other texts.
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Various sources. (May 4, 2020). Estimated number of Jews murdered in select pogroms in European cities during the outbreak of the Black Death in the mid-14th century [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved October 05, 2022, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1114361/black-death-jewish-murders-in-plague-outbreak/
Various sources. "Estimated number of Jews murdered in select pogroms in European cities during the outbreak of the Black Death in the mid-14th century." Chart. May 4, 2020. Statista. Accessed October 05, 2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1114361/black-death-jewish-murders-in-plague-outbreak/
Various sources. (2020). Estimated number of Jews murdered in select pogroms in European cities during the outbreak of the Black Death in the mid-14th century. Statista. Statista Inc.. Accessed: October 05, 2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1114361/black-death-jewish-murders-in-plague-outbreak/
Various sources. "Estimated Number of Jews Murdered in Select Pogroms in European Cities during The Outbreak of The Black Death in The Mid-14th Century." Statista, Statista Inc., 4 May 2020, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1114361/black-death-jewish-murders-in-plague-outbreak/
Various sources, Estimated number of Jews murdered in select pogroms in European cities during the outbreak of the Black Death in the mid-14th century Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1114361/black-death-jewish-murders-in-plague-outbreak/ (last visited October 05, 2022)