Christians despised Jews for their lack of conviction in Jesus Christ. The official church policy was to protect Jews because Jesus was born into the Jewish race. But in reality Jews were targets of Christian loathing. As the plague swept across Europe in the mid-14th century, annihilating nearly half the population, Jews were taken as scapegoats, likely because they were affected less than other people. Accusations spread that Jews had caused the disease by deliberately poisoning wells.
The first massacres directly related to the plague took place in April 1348 in Toulon, France, where the Jewish quarter was sacked, and forty Jews were murdered in their homes, then in Barcelona. In 1349, massacres and persecution spread across Europe, including the Erfurt massacre (1349), the Basel massacre, massacres in Aragon, and Flanders. 2000 Jews were burnt alive on 14 February 1349 in the "Valentine's Day" Strasbourg massacre, where the plague had not yet affected the city. While the ashes smouldered, Christian residents of Strasbourg sifted through and collected the valuable possessions of Jews not burnt by the fires. Many hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed in this period. Within the 510 Jewish communities destroyed in this period, some members killed themselves to avoid the persecutions. In the spring of 1349 the Jewish community in Frankfurth-am-Main was annihilated. This was followed by the destruction of Jewish communities in Mainz and Cologne. The 3000 strong Jewish population of Mainz initially defended themselves and managed to hold off the Christian attackers. But the Christians managed to overwhelm the Jewish ghetto in the end and killed all of its Jews.
At Speyer Jewish corpses were disposed in wine casks and cast into the Rhine. By the close of 1349 the worst of the pogroms had ended in Rhineland. But around this time the massacres of Jews started rising near the Hansa townships of the Baltic Coast and in Eastern Europe. By 1351 there had been 350 incidents of anti-Jewish pogroms and 60 major and 150 minor Jewish communities had been exterminated. All of this caused the eastward movement of Northern Europe's Jewry to Poland and Russia, where they remained for the next six centuries. King Casimir of Poland enthusiastically gave refuge and protection to the Jews. The motives for this action is unclear. The king was well disposed to Jews and had a Jewish mistress. He was also interested in untapping the economic potential of the Jewry.
There are many possible reasons why Jews were accused to be the cause for the plague. One reason was because there was a general sense of anti-Semitism in the 14th century. Jews were also isolated in the ghettos, which meant in some places that Jews were less affected. Additionally, there are many Jewish laws that promote cleanliness: a Jew must wash his or her hands before eating bread and after using the bathroom, it was customary for Jews to bathe once a week before the Sabbath, a corpse must be washed before burial, and so on.
In many cities the civil authorities either did little to protect the Jewish communities or actually abetted the rioters. Pope Clement VI (the French born Benedictine, Pierre Roger) tried to protect the Jewish communities by two papal bulls (the first on July 6, 1348 and another 26 September 1348) saying that those who blamed the plague on the Jews had been "seduced by that liar, the Devil" and urging clergy to protect the Jews. In this Clement was aided by the researches of his personal physician Guy de Chauliac who argued from his own treatment of the infected that the Jews were not to blame. Clement's efforts were in part undone by the newly elected Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor making property of Jews killed in riots forfeit, giving local authorities a financial incentive to turn a blind eye.
As the plague waned in 1350, so did the violence against Jewish communities. In 1351 the plague and the immediate persecution was over, though the background level of persecution and discrimination remained. Ziegler (1998) comments that "there was nothing unique about the massacres." 20 years after the Black Death the Brussels massacre (1370) wiped out the Belgian Jewish community.
Though told for nearly 350 years, there were no written accounts of the Black Death through Jewish tales until 1696, by Yiftah Yosef ben Naftali Hirts Segal Manzpach in the Mayse Nissim. Yuzpa Shammes, as he frequently was referred to, was a scribe and shammash of the Worms community for several decades. Although his stories tell of Jews avenging themselves on their oppressors by setting fires and killing members of the city council, recent findings have shown these "wishful thoughts" were merely tales representing the view that "Jews were not always 'led as lambs to slaughter.'" His neo-lachrymose view has intent to show that the Jews were not idle but that they took action against inevitably becoming the scapegoat. Yet, as it may seem that the Jews fought against the massacres, there are contradicting accounts that explain that there was no evidence of "armed resistance." These contradicting tales display the effect of oral tradition being manipulated to fit certain circumstances. Because they were not written down for many centuries, these tales might not convey the original story or message set forth by Yuzpa.
"Ordinary folk hated the Jews because they had served the merchants and aristocrats, and with their loans and with their capital, helped establish urban economy and the city's governing political and territorial independence. Further, the Jews had exploited artisans 'with loans at usurious rates.'" These reasons gave the "ordinary folk" the motive to kill the Jews because they were gaining political and social standings. Breuer also included that "others ... saw the massacres as the revenge of impoverished debtors against privileged elite of Jewish creditors." They used their crediting and loaning endeavors as a platform for earning revenue and gaining social, as well as, political status. A result of this was jealousy and an increase in anger towards the Jews because the common folk had an existing hatred for the Jews as it was.
However, Jews regularly ritually washed and bathed, and their abodes were slightly cleaner than their Christian neighbors'. Consequently, when the rat and the flea brought the Black Death, Jews, with better hygiene, suffered less severely ...