Holy Horrors: The Black Death

Fresco by an anonymous painter depicting ‘The Triumph of Death.’ Death as a skeleton rides a skeletal horse and picks off his victims. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Excerpt from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, by James A. Haught (Prometheus Books, 2002). Reprinted with permission from the author.

The Black Death

Religious hate easily turns into ethnic hate. Anti-Semitism that originated in a clash of creeds soon took on a life of its own. Jews had been spurned as religious pariahs, and they subsequently were blamed for Christian troubles not directly linked to religion.

When the bubonic plague stalked Europe in 1348, destroying nearly half the population, hysterical Christians concluded that it was caused by Jews poisoning wells. Massacres ensued in about 300 cities. Mobs raged through defenseless neighborhoods, murdering virtually all residents—except a few allowed to save themselves by accepting baptism.

At Speyer, Germany, Jewish bodies were piled into huge wine casks and sent floating down the Rhine. At Strasbourg, 2,000 Jews were herded like cattle into a large wooden barn, which was set afire. On a single day, August 24, 1349, an estimated 6,000 Jews were slaughtered by inflamed Christians at Mainz. In several northern German cities, Jews were walled up in their homes to suffocate or starve.

At Benfeld, some Jews were burned and others were drowned in a swamp. In Bavaria, Christian mobs with pitchforks and sickles slashed through eighty Jewish communities, killing a reported 10,000. At Basel, Switzerland, Christian leaders burned 600 Jews at the stake as well-poisoners, and 140 of their children were forcibly baptized and taken away to be raised as Christians. Thus the Jewish community of Basel was entirely erased.

The Flagellants were a roaming army of penitents who whipped themselves bloody to expiate their sins in hope of inducing God to lift the plague. When the Flagellants arrived in Frankfurt in July, 1349, they stormed the Jewish quarter in a gory massacre. At Brussels, the approach of a Flagellant march sent local Christians on a rampage that killed 600 Jews.

In some locales, emperors and dukes attempted to protect Jews from the mobs. In other places, nobles joined the horror. The prince of Thuringia announced that he had burned his Jews “for the honor of God” and urged, colleagues to do likewise.

Historian Philip Ziegler counted 350 separate massacres of Jews by Christians during three years of the Black Death. He observed sadly: “It is a curious and somewhat humiliating reflection on human nature that the European, overwhelmed by what was probably the greatest natural calamity ever to strike his continent, reacted by seeking to rival the cruelty of nature in the hideousness of his own man-made atrocities.”

Excerpted from Holy Horrors by James A. Haught. Copyright © James A. Haught, 2002. All rights reserved.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He is also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book is Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught has won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He is in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His website is haught.net.

Holy Horrors
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books (30 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 1573927783
ISBN-13: 978-1573927789

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