The black plague (also called black death) that erupted in Europe in 1347 would prove to be the deadliest plague ever. It ended in 1352 when herd immunity was achieved at the cost of death to more than thirty percent (some say as much as fifty percent) of the European population.
In the fourteenth century, there was no scientific understanding of how the plague arose or was transmitted. Instinctively, healthy people avoided infected victims (partial social distancing) and disposed of bodies quickly, but few other precautions were in place beyond those.
European cities in the Medieval centuries and into the Renaissance era were notorious for filth, understood today as breeding grounds for disease. For the vast majority of peasants and commoners, personal hygiene ranged from primitive to non-existent. Most bathed occasionally, others never; often the same water was used by entire families. Social distancing and isolation were not possible for most of the poor population, who lived in crowded extended-family environments. The rich could flee to their country estates for fresh air, relative social distancing, and clean environments.
Because the plague predated the understanding that germs caused disease (introduced by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century), it is not surprising that strange explanations for the outbreak flourished. These included the wrath of God, demonic forces, and other conspiracy theories, which alleged that the plague was not a natural event but an unnatural one inflicted intentionally for punishment or retribution.
One of the most popular conspiracy theories charged that the Jews were responsible for the plague. That made sense to the Christian Medieval European population, which was consumed with virulent anti-Semitism. After all, if the Jews, as was believed, kidnapped and killed Christian children to use their blood for making Passover matzo (the blood libel), the notion that they "poisoned the wells" to set off the black death did not seem far-fetched. Moreover, anecdotal reports declared that far fewer Jews than Christians fell victim to the plague. How could that be, many asked, unless the Jews initiated the plague?
When that conclusion swept through Europe, Jews were viciously attacked and slaughtered. According to Jewish History.org "in January 1349, the entire Jewish community in the city of Basel was burned at the stake. The Jewish communities of Freiburg, Augsburg, Nurnberg, Munich, Konigsberg, Regensburg, and other centers, all were either exiled or burned." Two other brutal massacres among the many throughout Europe documented in blackdeathfacts.com report that 2,000 Jews were burned to death in Strasbourg (now modern France) and 12,000 were murdered in Mainz, Germany.
Although there is no historical evidence that Jews fared better than Christians during the black plague, there is reason to believe that this may well be true. As part of religious rituals, Jews practiced public health measures that society as a whole would not adopt for at least another four hundred years. They washed their hands at least three times a day before praying and often before and after other activities. Ritual bathing (the mikvah) was another practice that contributed to cleanliness.
Ironically, since it was commonplace throughout Europe in Medieval times for Jews to be confined to separate quarters even before the first walled lockdown ghetto was established in Venice in 1516-- they lived apart from the Christian population, whose environments, public and private, were Petri dishes for disease.
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