Jacob von Königshofen
Jacob von Königshofen
"The Cremation of Strasbourg Jewry, St. Valentine's Day, February 14, 1349—About the Great Plague and the Burning of the Jews"
Published in The Jew in the Medieval World, 1938
"The deputies of the city of Strasbourg were asked what they were going to do with their Jews. They 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."
B etween 1347 and 1351, Europe suffered one of the worst disasters of human history: the Black Death, sometimes known simply as the Plague. A disease carried by bacteria, or microscopic organisms, the Plague spread rapidly throughout the continent, killing between twenty-five and thirty-five million people out of a population estimated at 100 million. Victims usually died within four days of contracting the disease, but they were four days of horror. In the final hours, the victim turned purplish-black from lung failure; hence the name Black Death.
The medical causes of the Black Death are clear today, but medieval Europeans had no concept of bacteria. Instead, some blamed spiritual causes, while others found a different target: the Jews. For many years, a spirit of anti-Semitism (hatred of, or discrimination against, Jews) had been brewing in Europe, and many justified this hatred in religious terms, saying that the Jews had killed Christ.
As a result, Jews were forced into the fringes of society, and were only allowed to engage in certain jobs such as money-lending, which at that time was considered an evil profession. This created a vicious cycle: their financial undertakings made many Jews wealthy, and Europeans increasingly came to despise them for their wealth as well.
Jewish Sympathizers—A Rare Breed
Jacob von Königshofen is a little-known figure, but perhaps he should not be. He served as town historian for Strasbourg, a German-speaking city that is now just inside the French border, and he was a rare type in medieval Western Europe: a Christian who had sympathy for the Jews.
Jews were all too often the target of attacks from the 1000s onward, and this reached a new low during the Black Death, a massive outbreak of disease that killed between twenty-five and thirty-five million Europeans between 1347 and 1351. Desperate for someone to blame, many Europeans were all too willing to believe that Jews had poisoned wells, thus causing the disease.
From his account, it is clear that Königshofen considered the Jews victims, and not the cause of anyone's misfortune. This was a brave stance in a world where Jews were safe targets. Also brave were the city councilmen to whom he referred, men who stood up against the mobs calling for Jewish blood.
Finally, it is interesting to observe that Pope Clement VI (ruled 1342–52), along with other leaders of the Catholic Church, defended the Jews: some Church leaders have openly condemned people of the Jewish faith for what they believe to be the Jews' role in the death of Jesus Christ. In fact the Roman authorities of Palestine at the time of the crucifixion had much to do with Jesus' murder, and most Christians believe that all of humanity—not one group of people—was responsible for Christ's death. But most Christians in the Middle Ages did not believe this, or at least they were afraid to say so in the feverish climate of hatred directed against the Jewish people, and this makes the stance of Königshofen and the others all the more remarkable.
Anti-Semitism first boiled over during the First Crusade (1095–99), when European armies seized Palestine—the Jews' original homeland—from the Muslims who controlled it. Many other Europeans, too poor to go away and fight, decided they could still wage war on people who had rejected Christ, so they launched a series of attacks on the Jews in Europe. Some 150 years later, the Black Death provided an excuse for a whole new wave of anti-Semitism.
Things to remember while reading "The Cremation of Strasbourg Jewry, St. Valentine's Day, February 14, 1349"
- Jacob von Königshofen (KYOO-nigs-hahf-en; 1346–1420) served as town historian for Strasbourg (STRAHS-boorg), a German-speaking city in what is now France. Alsace (al-SAS), also mentioned in his account, is a region on the border between France and Germany. His chronicle refers to a number of Swiss cities: Berne, Zofingen (TSOH-fingen), and Basel (BAHL). These he calls "Imperial Cities" because they were part of the Holy Roman Empire, a collection of states based in what is now Germany. He also mentions the southern French cities of Marseilles (mar-SAY) and Avignon (AHV-in-yawn). Since 1309, the popes had ruled from the latter city rather than from their traditional seat in Rome.
- The term "Jewry" refers to Jews as a whole, and from his account, it is clear that Königshofen did not believe the accusations leveled against them. He even observed that many were killed simply for their money. When he wrote that some Jews had "admitted" to poisoning wells, he was referring to false "confessions" that had been extracted after hours of torture.
- The separation of Jews from Christians in medieval Europe continued after death; hence Königshofen referred to the Jews having their own cemetery. He also noted that some Jews escaped death by accepting baptism, a ritual that supposedly meant that they had converted to Christianity—though given the circumstances, it is hard to imagine that any of these conversions were genuine. It is interesting to note that the massacre described took place on the day honoring the patron saint of love, Valentine.
- There are several references to fire in Königshofen's report—in most cases, the fires in which Jews died. A wellknown method of execution during the Middle Ages was burning at the stake, in which a victim was bound to a pole and heaped with branches around their feet; the branches were then set on fire, burning the victim alive. But Königshofen also noted that the pope kept a fire burning in a room, probably intending this as a way of disinfecting the air and thus keeping the Plague away from him.
- Königshofen describes a conference attended by the deputies or city councilmen of several cities, who met to decide the fate of Jews arrested in their various jurisdictions. The Strasbourg deputies, at least, were prepared to free those who had been arrested, and defiantly demanded to know why the citizens of their town had closed all wells—suggesting that they did not believe the popular claim that the Plague had resulted from Jews' poisoning of the water supply. Unfortunately, it is clear from the text that the heroic Strasbourg deputies were overruled.
"The Cremation of Strasbourg Jewry St. Valentine's Day, February 14, 1349—About the Great Plague and the Burning of the Jews"
In the year 1349 there occurred the greatestepidemic that ever happened. Death went from one end of the earth to the other, on that side and this side of the sea…. In some lands everyone died sothat no one was left. Ships were also found on the sea laden withwares ; the crew had all died and no one guided the ship. The Bishop of Marseilles and priests and monks and more than half of all the people there died with them. In other kingdoms and cities so many people perished that it would be horrible to describe. The pope at Avignon stopped all sessions of court, locked himself in a room, allowed no one to approach him and had a fire burning before him all the time. And from what this epidemic came, all wise teachers and physicians could only say that it was God's will. And as theplague was now here, so was it in other places, and lasted more than a whole year. This epidemic also came to Strasbourg in the summer of the above mentioned year, and it is estimated that about sixteen thousand people died.
In the matter of this plague the Jews throughout the world werereviled 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.
Epidemic: A widespread disease.
Plague: A disease or other bad thing that spreads among a group of people.
Nevertheless they tortured a number of Jews in Berne and Zofingen 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. Howeverin 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 [in] … Alsace, February 8, 1349. TheBishop of Strasbourg, all thefeudal lords of Alsace, and representatives of the three above mentioned cities came there. Thedeputies of the city of Strasbourg were asked what they were going to do with their Jews. They answered and said that they knew no evil of them. Then they [the deputies] asked the Strasbourgers why they had closed the wells and put away the buckets, and there was a greatindignation andclamor 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 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 tobaptize themselves were spared. 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-menproportionately. 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 andcremated themselves.
Bishop: A figure in the Christian church assigned to oversee priests and believers in a given city or region.
Feudal lords: Nobility or large landowners.
Deputies: City councilmen.
Indignation: Irritation or anger.
Clamor: Loud noise.
Baptize: Lowered into water as a symbol of death and rebirth; considered by some to be a necessary part of conversion to Christianity.
Cremated: Burned completely.
What happened next…
Königshofen wrote, "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 in the year 1368…."
Jewish life in Germany, however, did not fully recover until three centuries later, in the 1600s. Then, three centuries after that, European Jews suffered the worst wave of anti-Semitic murders in history, under the Nazi government of Adolf Hitler: during the years from 1933 to 1945, some six million Jews were killed by the Nazis.
Europe's recovery from the Black Death was much quicker than that of the Jewish population, though still quite painful. The disease had left so many people dead that the population did not return to its earlier levels until about 1500, and the economic loss that resulted from the deaths brought on more hardship and unrest.
Did you know …
- The Strasbourg town councilmen who stood up against the mob calling for Jewish blood were removed from office on February 9 and 10, 1349. A new city council agreed to the demands of their citizens, and began arresting Jews on February 13, the day before the massacre described by Königshofen.
- If a tragedy on the scale of the Black Death occurred in America today, it would be the same as if all the people in the six most populous states—California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois—died over a four-year period.
- The Black Death, combined with the struggle between forces who wanted the popes to rule from Rome and those who favored Avignon, helped bring about a massive loss of faith in the Catholic Church. This in turn paved the way for the Reformation (ref-ur-MAY-shun), the religious revolt that began in the 1300s that later created the Protestant branch of Christianity.
For More Information
Abrahams, Israel. Jewish Life in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1993.
Marcus, Jacob, editor. The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315–1791. New York: JPS, 1938.
"Beyond the Pale: The Middle Ages." [Online] Available http://www.friends-partners.org/partners/beyond-the-pale/english/06.html (last accessed July 28, 2000).
"Jewish History Sourcebook: The Black Death and the Jews 1348–1349 CE." Jewish History Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/jewish/1348-jewsblackdeath.html (last accessed July 28, 2000).