The Unfortunate Scapegoats of the Black Death Were Mainly Heretics, Jews and Witches

The Unfortunate Scapegoats of the Black Death Were Mainly Heretics, Jews and Witches

Shaina Lucas - November 4, 2018

During the period from 1348 to 1350, the scapegoats for the Black Death were mainly heretics and members of the Jewish faith. Lepers were also a part of the blaming game, but lesser than the latter. After the plague had died down, during the 17th century another rise of a different kind of plague appeared in Colonial America during the 1690’s. This was the plague of witchcraft. People were blamed for any anomaly during this time and the excuse was witchcraft. The most extreme case of witchcraft accusation coincides with the extreme case of the Black Death. This paper will explore the extremes of the Black Death, and compare it to the witchcraft craze during the 17th century mainly in the year 1692 during the Salem Witch Trials. The scapegoats of both the Black Death and the witch craze will also be noted and explored.

In 1348 the devastating plague from China and India reached Europe. The plague was ultimately reported to have killed twenty-five million people in Europe alone. There had been plagues before, specifically in England, before 1348 e.g. in 1087 and 1221. It cannot be determined whether or not these outbreaks were of the same nature as the Black Death. The plague as described by the Pope’s physician from Avignon says “that for the first two months the disease took the form of blood-spitting and fever from which people died within three days. During the remaining months, the symptoms were carbuncles under the arms and in the groin, fever and possibly blood-spitting, both forms being highly contagious.”

The Unfortunate Scapegoats of the Black Death Were Mainly Heretics, Jews and Witches
A medieval depiction of Jewish moneylenders, Wikimedia Commons.

The Jewish Were Blamed For The Black Death

By fall 1348 a rumor passed around Europe that members of the Jewish faith had an international conspiracy to poison Christians. Amadeus VI, Count of Savoy, ordered a number of Jews to be arrested and tortured to confess to anything their inquisitors suggested. These Jews living on Lake Geneva incriminated other Jews in order to end their torture. These accounts and records of confessions were sent to numerous towns in Switzerland and down the Rhine River into Germany. As a result of these circulating documents, thousands of Jews in at least two hundred towns and hamlets were butchered and burnt to death. After these accounts had happened Christian hatred of Jews declined and did not play an important German life role until the 17th century.

During the time of the Black Death, it was believed that Jews had created the plague. The Jews had poisoned the water supply in order to “punish” Christians. Around this time the major religious change from various religions (such as paganism) to Christianity was taking place. The Jews were the perfect scapegoat during this time because of the Christians hatred toward members of the Jewish faith. People of the Jewish religion were wealthier than most Christians. Jews were the Christians economic competitors, and many were indebted to the Jews with loans. It was not only the fear of the plague and religious bigotry but also economic resentment that fueled the hate the Christians harbored against the Jews. This fueled the Christians extermination of the Jews as well as the plague wiping them out. But obviously, Jews were also dying from the pestilence, proving it was not the Jews causing the plague. The primary account of Agimet of Geneva, Châtel on October 20th, 1348 shows a look at the idea of Jews poisoning the wells.

“Agimet took this package full of poison and carried it with him to Venice, and when he came there he threw and scattered a portion of it into the well or cistern of fresh water which was there near the German House, in order to poison the people who use the water of that cistern. And he says that this is the only cistern of sweet water in the city. He also says that the mentioned Rabbi Peyret promised to give him whatever he wanted for his troubles in this business. Of his own accord, Agimet confessed further that after this had been done he left at once in order that he should not be captured by the citizens or others, and that he went personally to Calabria and Apulia and threw the above-mentioned poison into many wells. He confesses also that he put some of this same poison in the well of the streets of the city of Ballet.”

The Unfortunate Scapegoats of the Black Death Were Mainly Heretics, Jews and Witches
A depiction of the 1349 burning of the Jews during the Black Death. Wikipedia.

Christians Burnt Jews Because of The Black Death

The greatest part of the epidemic occurred in 1349 where the Black Death spread from China across Asia and Europe eventually to reach Ireland and England. Jewish people were burnt from the Mediterranean into Germany, but not in Avignon for the Pope protected the Jews who lived there. On February 14th, 1349 the people of Strasbourg and of many other cities captured and burnt about two thousand Jews. In Basel, the city burnt the Jews then adopted a law that no Jew was to enter the city for the next two hundred years. But this law was eventually lifted and Jews were allowed back in the city in the year of our Lord 1368.

With the burning of the Jews on St. Valentine’s Day, many were offered baptism in order to save their lives. There is no exact number but it is said that about a thousand Jews accepted baptism. Many small children were also taken out of the fire during the burning and baptized against the will of the parents. After the burning, anything that was owed to the Jews was canceled and all cash was taken to be divvied up between the working-men respectively. Some Jews also set fire to their houses and cremated themselves and their families.

The Unfortunate Scapegoats of the Black Death Were Mainly Heretics, Jews and Witches
Drama at the Salem Witch Trials – Wikipedia

The Black Death Caused Problems For The 17th Century

Not only did Christians blame the Jews for the cause of the Black Death, but some of the Christian faith and even of other faiths turned to sorcery and astrology. This didn’t spread a massive witch hunt, but people turned to sorcery and astrology for help and answers to why, how and if the Black Death could be stopped. Astrology is actually a major feature in witchcraft, basing spells and any magickal deeds around the stars and Zodiac signs. An astrologer from the French court Geoffery de Meaux, based his ideas of the plague from the 1345 conjunction after the outbreak of the plague. Meaux stresses the malign role of Saturn and Mars rather than Jupiter who may be a possible contributor. Meaux also states that the alignment of Saturn, Mars and the Zodiac sign of Aquarius caused the Black Death and the exact symptoms experienced by the victims. There were instances of witchcraft before the Black Death, mostly during the 13th century but this may be the first instances of a massive witch craze before the dominant witch scare of the 17th century. Jews were not the only scapegoat for the Black Death but was one of the major victims of the blame game. Heretics were also blamed for the cause of the Black Death spreading across the world. Heretics were not blamed for the Black Death as much as the Jews were. Lepers were even less blamed for the Black Death than the Heretics. The definition of a Heretic is one who rejects doctrines from the church and their faith. Most examples are a person who was baptized a certain faith and then rejects that faith. Witches can technically be considered Heretics since most Wiccans and pagans are born and baptized a different faith such as Christianity or Judaism. The children pulled out of the fires and adults could also technically be considered Heretics since they have to reject their faith to be saved, even though it is against their will. Heretics were blamed for the Black Death for the reasons of God punishing them for rejecting their original faith.

The scare of the Black Death and the pointing of fingers significantly added to the problems in the future, specifically the 17th century. When problems arise and run awry its human nature to blame the outcasts of humanity. It was not until the 1500’s that the population and fertility rate began to significantly rise in order to replace the human life lost during the Black Death. At the beginning of the 16th century, the population began to rise even more and started to be at an even level with the population growth before the Black Death began. But because the population began to rise, and the world was now open to the New World, new ideas began to rise about maritime, trade, and religious views. Now that the New World was open for settlement, new religions began to spring up and people would migrate to the Americas and Canada in order to practice their faiths in peace. The witchcraft scare of the 17th century was one of the biggest phenomena of religious appeal. England had been bouncing back and forth their religious views between Catholicism and Protestantism. In the beginning of the 16th century, England was Protestant under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, after the destruction of her Catholic sister Queen Mary, also known as “Bloody Mary”. In 1603, Queen Elizabeth died and King James I of Scotland became England’s new monarchy. After Queen Elizabeth, the English monarchy bounced from Catholic and Protestant a number of times until the rule of King William I and Queen Mary II in the late 1680’s. Because of the ever-changing religions in England, the English people needed a place to go where they could practice in peace. The first colony of Roanoke in the 1500’s was a failure, with the strange disappearance of the settlers. In 1606 the Jamestown colony was much more successful even though there was a great Starving Time during the beginning of the settlement. After this settlement was established, then Puritan settlers came from England to settle in the Massachusetts Bay Colony which is today Plymouth. The settlers spread across Massachusetts eventually to create the towns and cities of Boston, Ipswich, and Salem. The ever occurring threat of Native Americans attacking the colonists kept them on their guard and in constant fear. This is one of the theories of why the inhabitants of Salem created the catastrophe of the Witch Trials.

There were many witch hunts throughout the 17th century, mostly in Germany and the new Massachusetts colony in America. But the Salem Witch Trials didn’t happen until the late 17th century in 1692. The start of the Witch hunts in Germany began around 1609. The Holy Roman Empire was collapsing and the witch hunts were mostly in territories ruled by prince-bishops. The Thirty-Years War was already happening in some places for over ten years by this time. The war between Roman Catholics and Protestants had weakened governments, killed many people and territories were left demolished and devastated. Bad weather also during this time added to harsh crop failure, famine and the outbreak of plague once again. This could be an indirect déjà vu epidemic from the Black Death since the exact same factors are repeating themselves over three centuries later. Only now in the early 17th century, the Jews are replaced in the blame game by witches. Instead of blaming natural disasters or mistakes of politicians for the cause of this epidemic, the Germanic people blamed witches and the Devil for the pain and suffering of this period.

The Germany Witch Trials were of the same caliber as that of the Salem Trials in 1692. Neighbors would blame each other and accuse one another of being a Witch. Some as young as 12 and women were accused of witchcraft and being in league with the Devil. Once these people were improperly accused of such deeds, their heads would be cut off on a chopping block by the executioner’s ax, and then their bodies were burnt, their ashes spread across the land. The Witch Hunts began to die down and came to a near halt in 1630. Some hunts would sporadically pop up after this time, but the witch hunts finally ended in the 18th century when the laws were revoked. The last prosecuted witch to be legally executed was Anna Maria Schwägelin in 1775.

The Unfortunate Scapegoats of the Black Death Were Mainly Heretics, Jews and Witches
Witch trials featured many witnesses who claimed to have seen dealings with the Devil himself. Wikimedia.

The Black Death Set Up the Salem Witch Trials

The most memorable witch hunt of human history begins sixty-two years after the end of the Germany Witch Trials. The Salem Witch Trials actually started in 1691, but no one came to trial until 1692. These witch trials in Salem are complex, and still, not all is known about why this happened. Salem during this time was split between Salem Town and Salem Village. They both were strict of the Puritan faith, which was serving community and God. Salem was a community-oriented society and heavily relied on religious Christian beliefs. This was a community where politics and church went hand in hand. The Trials had a significant influence on Puritan ministers and their position and power. The role of witchcraft was a religious view in Puritan society. The ministers of Salem during the Trials (Samuel Parris and Nicholas Noyes) sought to control the witch craze from a spiritual and judicial perspective. The people of Salem during this time looked towards their ministers in spiritual help and it was common during the time that the clergy played a dual role in both the church and politics. Certain legal situations like the Witch Trials gave them the judicial power and services. Being able to have the combination of the two helped solidify and increase ministers’ position in society. The uneasy environment helped fuel the animosity between Salem Town and Salem Village.

It was believed in the Puritan faith that the soul was predestined to either go to Heaven or Hell and that could only be changed by doing good deeds, work hard, active in the community, and attend church on a regular basis as well as a strong faith in God. This is called “predestination” which is present in many other faiths other than Christianity. The problems that led to the witch hunts in Salem were the problems of self-government with political, economic and church issues. Salem Village relied on Salem Town for help with government and religious services. Salem Town grew as a cosmopolitan city while Salem Village was slow to change and separated themselves from Salem Town. Most of the accused during this period were the East Salem Villagers.

The prosecuting and finger pointing was done by West Salem Villagers. The main accusers were young women, about 75 percent. One of these women was Parris’ niece. Also, 75 percent of the witnesses at the various trials were men. Of the male and female witnesses, 74 percent of men and 80 percent of women were married. The statistics support the theory of maintaining status quo and abolish aberrant behavior. After the entire witchcraft episode, eighteen men and women were hanged for the practice of witchcraft. One man, Giles Corey was pressed to death instead of hanged. Of all nineteen men and women prosecuted not one was an actual practitioner of witchcraft. If a person prosecuted to be a witch was actually a witchcraft practitioner that said persons would not have died since magickal forces would have been at work. A witch could simply erase the minds of the villagers or kill them and their deaths are deemed by natural causes. But of course, if a witch were to do these spells they must always remember the Witches’ Creed and Rule of Three.

This Rede every witch must follow, and a witch will be cursed and die if they break the Rede. It would take a very powerful witch, a Champion of the Gods to ignore this Rede and perform Black Magick without dire consequences.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Bever, Edward. “Witchcraft Prosecutions and the Decline of Magic.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 40, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 263-293.

Halsall, Paul. “The Black Death and the Jews 1348-1349 CE.” Jewish History Sourcebook (July 1998):1-5.

Herzig, Tamar. “Bridging North and South: Inquisitorial Networks and Witchcraft Theory on the Eve of Reformation.” Journal of Early Modern History 12, no. 5 (2008): 361-382.

Horrox, Rosemary. “Human Agency.” In The Black Death 1994 ed., 207-226. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.

King, Ernest W, and Franklin G Mixon, Jr. “Religiosity and the political economy of the Salem witch trials.” Social Science Journal 47, no. 3 (September 2010): 678-688.

Pavlac, Brian A. “A Witch Hunt: Germany 1628.” The WITCH HUNTS (A.D. 1400-1800). Last modified January 13, 2011.

Rees, William. “The Black Death in England and Wales, as exhibited in Manorial Documents.” Section of the History of Medicine (February 1923): 27-45. Academic Search Premier.