The medieval town of Carcassonne in the south of France is stunning. Miles of walls, punctuated by towers and gates, enclose a beautiful town of narrow, cobbled streets. Even if some of the 19th-century 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 a dark past. Carcassonne witnessed one of the earliest anti-Semitic pogroms of the Black Death era. Here, hundreds of Jews were burned to death.
This article also includes a full gallery of pictures from medieval Carcassonne
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.
Medieval European society was deeply anti-Semitic. Beginning in 1095, before the first crusaders had even left Europe, there were widespread massacres of Jews. And in the 1320s, the region surrounding Carcassonne witnessed horrific pogroms – most notably in Albi. Carcassonne’s Jewish population escaped this bout of violence, but they were among the first to suffer when the plague broke out in early 1348.
The “Great Mortality,” as it was known, swept through Carcassonne, 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 and rumours that placed the Jews at the heart of a conspiracy to spread the contagion.
The most infamous of these tales had emerged from a German torture chamber. There, after interrogation on the rack, a Jewish physician named Balavignus had claimed that the plague was being spread by the work of a rabbi in Toledo. Supposedly, this rabbi had distributed bags of infected powder that were used to poison wells.
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This – and other theories blaming the Jews – caused violence to erupt, beginning in Carcassonne. In the late spring and early summer of 1348, the town’s long-established Jewish community, along with the Jews living in the nearby 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 the Jewish population, the massacres persisted. And even though Jews were dying in equal numbers from the pestilence as their Christian neighbours, the violence that began on the streets of Carcassonne followed the disease across Europe. It reached horrific levels in the Rhine Valley and Switzerland, where all too many towns saw their Jewish populations murdered.
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.
The plague reached Dublin and Drogheda about 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 the Black Death in Ireland, doesn’t mention any such events.
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Why such little reaction in Ireland?
There was never any possibility of anti-Semitic violence in Ireland when the Black Death broke out in Dublin and Drogheda. While there is scant evidence of any medieval Jewish communities on the island, what few there were would have been subject to Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews from his dominions in 1290. So by 1348, there were very few, if any, Jews left.
However, there was another fault line in Irish society with the potential to erupt into violence. This was the long-running tension between the Anglo-Norman colonists and the Gaelic Irish, who had been widely discriminated against since the Norman Invasion. Indeed, the decades prior to 1348 were marked by numerous massacres and frequent violence.
To prime this already tense situation even further, the plague seemed to affect people along ethnic lines. During the first year of the plague, those who lived in the Norman colony were infected to a far greater degree than the Gaelic Irish, who lived outside the colonial territory. This was due largely 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. However, this did not happen.
I need to conduct more research, but I think the reason for this is fear, rather than a stoicism peculiar to Ireland, as some historians have argued. Long gone were the days when the colonists had enjoyed unchallenged supremacy over the Gaelic Irish. Indeed, by 1348, the colonists were in no position to lash out. 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 the 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 symbolized by men such as the Earl of Desmond, Maurice FitzThomas. Despite being an earl and a scion of one of the island’s most powerful families, he operated as a law unto himself, leading a life of pillage, murder and treason.
Such leadership, combined with a general Gaelic resurgence, left the Normans weak and vulnerable, thus explaining the relatively peaceful reactions to the outbreak of the Black Death in Ireland.
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