Carcassonne, medieval anti-Semitism and the Black Death


The medieval town of Carcassonne in the south of France is stunning. Miles of walls, perforated by towers and gates enclose a beautiful town of narrow cobbled streets. Even if some of the restoration work leaves a little to be desired, it is still one of the most evocative late medieval fortified towns in Europe. However its picturesque architecture hides it’s dark past. Carcassonne witnessed one of the earliest anti-Semitic pogroms of the Black Death which saw hundreds of Jews burned to death.

This article also includes a full gallery of pictures from medieval Carcassonne


Carcassonne at night.

Anti-Semitism in late medieval Europe.

Late medieval European society was deeply anti-Semitic. In 1095 before the first crusade had even left Europe, there were widespread massacres of Jews. The 1320s witnessed horrific pogroms in the region surrounding Carcassonne most notably in nearby Albi.

While Carcassonne’s Jewish population escaped this violence of the 1320s, they were among the first to suffer when the plague broke out in 1348.

Carcassonne9The plague or great mortality as it was known broke out in Carcassonne in early 1348 with death rates reaching somewhere between 30% and 50%. As religion and medicine failed to explain the catastrophe, the population fell back on anti-Semitic folk tales which placed the Jews at the heart of a conspiracy to spread the plague. The most infamous of these tales emerged from a German torture chamber. After interrogation  on the rack a Jewish physician, Balavignus claimed the plague was being spread by the work of a rabbi in Toledo.

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Supposedly this rabbi distributed bags of infected powder which were used to poison wells. This and other theories blaming the Jews erupted into violence, beginning in Carcassonne. In late spring and early summer of 1348 the towns long established Jewish community along with the Jews of the neighbouring city of Narbonne were burned to death by their Christian neighbours.

Despite the fact that the Papacy and the leading universities of the day condemned the ludicrous claims that accused Jews, massacres persisted. Even though Jews died in equal numbers from the pestilence, this violence which began in these streets of Carcassonne followed the disease across Europe. It reached horrific levels in the Rhine valley and Switzerland where all too many towns saw Jewish populations massacred.

What happened in Ireland?

My primary interest in terms of my upcoming book on the Black Death is Ireland. I am curious as to whether there is any evidence  similar events happened in Ireland and if not why not.

DeathThe plague reached Dublin and Drogheda around six months after it broke out in Carcassonne in the late summer of 1348. There is no evidence that there was a surge in violence like that witnessed across Europe. Friar John Clyn who wrote a detailed account of plague in Ireland doesn’t mention any such events.

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Why such little reaction in Ireland?

There was never any possibility of antisemitic violence in Ireland when the Black Death broke out in Dublin and Drogheda. By 1348 there were very few, if any Jews in Ireland. While there is scant evidence of any late medieval Jewish communities on the island what few there were, would have been subject to Edward I’s expulsion of Jews from his dominions in 1290.

There was however another fault line in Irish society which had the potential to erupt into violence.  This was the long running tensions between the Anglo-Normans colonists and the Gaelic Irish who were widely discriminated against since the Norman Invasion. Indeed the preceding decades prior to 1348 were marked by numerous massacres as violence had erupted frequently. To prime this already tense situation even further the plague seemed to affect people along ethnic lines in 1348.

During that first year of plague those who lived in the Norman Colony were infected to a far greater degree than the Gaelic Irish who lived outside colonial territory. This was largely due to geographical factors; the Gaelic Irish tended to occupy hilly and mountainous terrain where the disease could not thrive. Nevertheless given the complete lack of understanding of the plague and the brutally irrational responses such as those seen in Carcassonne it would not have been surprising had such attacks against the Gaelic Irish broken out. This did not happen however.

I think (this needs more research) the reason comes down to fear rather than, as some historians have argued, a stoicism peculiar to Ireland. Long gone were the days when the colonists had enjoyed unchallenged supremacy over the Gaelic Irish. Indeed by 1348 the colonist were in no position to lash out against the Gaelic Irish. They were losing territory in every province to resurgent Gaelic lords and in some areas they were struggling to survive.

To make matters worse the leaders of colonial society had little respect for central authority further weakening their ability to defend themselves let alone attack the Gaelic Irish. This dire situation was best symbolised by men like the Earl of Desmond, Maurice Fitz Thomas. Despite being an Earl and a scion of the one of Islands most powerful families he operated as a law unto himself, leading a life of pillage, murder and treason.

With such leadership combined with a general Gaelic resurgence left the Normans feeling weak and vulnerable and goes along to explain the relatively peaceful reactions to the outbreak of the Black Death in Ireland.

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