It’s October 1347 in the bustling port city of Messina in the Kingdom of Sicily.
In the city’s harbor, 12 merchant ships arrive after a long voyage from the Black Sea.
A dock worker rushes to greet one of the ships and help unload its cargo. But as he ventures on board, he realizes something is deeply wrong. He finds no one aboard.
The dock worker calls out and eventually a lone sailor comes to meet him. His face somber, the sailor explains that the mysterious but deadly sickness struck the crew during their voyage. He guides the dock worker below deck, where the remaining members of the ship’s crew lay shivering and bedridden.
The dock worker recoils as the ill passengers shift beneath their blankets, revealing bodies covered in black oozing boils. As their sores are revealed, the scent of rotting flesh hits the dock worker, and he stumbles back in disgust. He has never seen or smelled a sight so gruesome.
As fast as he can, the dock worker flees the ship and rushes to alert the city’s officials of his horrifying discovery. He’s confident that the sick arrivals, with their strange black bumps and odor of death, are a bad omen for the town. And he is correct. He does not yet understand the extent of the devastation to come. He has no way of knowing that the ship’s mystery illness will soon ravage the entire continent, unleashing one of the most devastating pandemics the world has ever seen.
As soon as Messina’s authorities realize the merchant ships brought a terrible contagion, they will expel the vessels from the port. But it will be too late to stop the spread of the bubonic plague. Carried by fleas and rats on the infested merchant ships, the Black Death will soon take over Europe, killing an estimated 25 million people, approximately one-third of the continent’s population.
As the death toll rises, so too will fear and panic. Searching for someone to blame for their suffering, many Europeans will point fingers at the Jewish community, claiming they caused the illness by poisoning the Christians’ food and water. This false accusation will only heighten the era’s deep-seated anti-Semitism, leading to a surge in persecutions that will result in a horrific massacre when 2,000 Jews are burned alive in the city of Strasbourg on February 14th, 1349.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is February 14th, 1349: The Strasbourg Massacre.
Act One: Persecutions Begin
It’s the night of April 12th, 1348 in the city of Toulon in the Kingdom of France, six months after the bubonic plague arrived in Europe.
As darkness falls, a group of angry townsmen storm toward the city’s Jewish quarter. In their hands are an assortment of torches, blades, and other makeshift weapons. On their faces are looks of deep contempt and scorn for the villagers they believe are responsible for their town’s suffering.
Ever since the plague arrived in Europe, tensions between its Jewish and Christian communities have soared. With little understanding of disease, many Christian Europeans have blamed the new sickness on the already marginalized Jewish population. Though both communities have been affected by the plague, many claim that the contagion is a nefarious conspiracy concocted by a rival religion to extinguish Christendom.
Here in Toulon, anger toward the city’s significant Jewish population has reached a boiling point. As in the rest of Europe, rumors have run rampant alleging that Jews must be poisoning the Christian community’s wells, streams, or food. And having been convinced these rumors are true, a mob of townsmen are now ready to eliminate the supposed culprits behind the city’s illness.
As they reach the Jewish quarter, the men scatter in different directions. Some raise their torches and set fire to the area’s synagogues. Others surge toward the area’s residential housing. With blades in hand, they break down door after door, killing any inhabitants in sight and pillaging their homes. By the following morning, forty of the city’s Jews are dead, their homes ransacked, and their neighborhood burned to ash.
The Toulon pogrom is one of the first massacres in the impending wave of violence against Europe’s Jews, known as the Black Death Persecutions. Over the coming months, more and more Christians turn on their Jewish neighbors with violent results. Europe soon becomes the site of numerous mass killings. In other areas of France, Jews are locked into synagogues and set on fire. In Germany, an entire town’s sizable Jewish community is murdered in a single day.
But the Christian majority faces no consequence for the violence. In fact, the attacks only intensify when Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV decrees that the property of Jews murdered for spreading the plague can be seized with impunity. In central Europe, the situation will therefore worsen when a group of feudal lords from the Alsace region of the Holy Roman Empire assemble to formally blame the Jews for the Black Death.
On February 8th, 1349, a smattering of bishops, nobles, barons, and representatives from the region’s cities descend upon the town of Benfeld, for a conference held by the Bishop of Strasbourg. In theory, the meeting is intended to discuss Jewish responsibility for the current health crisis and determine an official response. But the bishop has little patience for any real debate. The conference is simply an occasion to validate the attacks that have already occurred in the region and incite further violence in his own city of Strasbourg.
Unlike most of the Alsace region, the city of Strasbourg has resisted calls to persecute its large Jewish community. Because so far, the plague has not yet reached the city. Even so, the bishop has insisted that Strasbourg must preemptively prosecute and burn its Jews. But the city’s guild-based government has held firm against his demands. This group of merchants and artisans governing the city have formed one of the few governments who have expressed any doubt regarding the Jews' culpability for the current contagion. But their authority and influence is not absolute.
These governors try their hardest to protect and defend their city’s Jews, claiming before the bishop's council that they know nothing about any Jewish conspiracy within the town. But it’s to no avail. The bishop and his council ignores their resistance, reasserts the guilt of the region’s Jews, and lays out an official, and lethal, plan of action. Before the meeting is over, they adopt a series of steps to target Jews, charge them for murder, and expel them from the region.
The Benfeld Decree, as this directive will come to be known, will have an immediate effect. Within days, Jewish communities across Alsace will be targeted and attacked or forced into exile. Only the city of Strasbourg will remain an exception. But that too will change. In the wake of the decree, angry townspeople will rise up and overthrow Strasbourg’s government, forcing a swift and brutal policy change that will lead to bloodshed and devastation.
Act Two: Strasbourg Massacre
It’s February 13th, 1349 in the city of Strasbourg in the Holy Roman Empire, just five days after the Benfeld Decree.
Inside the town’s Jewish quarter, anxious residents retreat into their homes, draw their curtains, and reinforce their doors with whatever they can find. Normally, they would have spent today preparing for Shabbat — a weekly day of rest, beginning at sundown on Friday and lasting until nightfall on Saturday. But today, relaxation is impossible.
For months, the town’s Jewish community took solace in their government’s support. While Jews elsewhere faced persecution, Strasbourg remained a safe haven. But that’s all over. Three days ago, a mob of angry citizens rose up and overthrew Strasbourg’s city government. Now, the angry townspeople have taken power. And, despite the fact that the plague has not yet infected the city, one of their first acts is to arrest Strasbourg’s Jews for poisoning the town’s Christian wells.
As the city’s new governors storm into the streets with heavily armed guards at their side, Jewish residents try to escape. But nowhere is safe. Synagogues, schools, homes — everything is set on fire. Screams echo through the neighborhood as each building is invaded, and its inhabitants dragged away and charged with murder. Any who try to flee are hunted down and killed.
By the end of the night, two thousand Jewish townspeople are taken and held at a local cemetery where they are forced to await their fate. Together, they watch in horror as Christian townspeople construct a giant wooden platform inside the gravesite. They recognize it immediately as a giant pyre.
As the work on the platform continues, members of the town’s new council approach the apprehended Jews. They declare that all debts to them have been canceled, and all money currently on them must be surrendered. There’s a pause as the crowd of Jewish residents empty their pockets. And then, the council members make another declaration: any Jew who is willing to convert to Christianity will be spared.
There are murmurs among the crowd. Some rush to accept the offer in exchange for survival. Others balk at the idea. Despite the wishes of their parents, many small children are taken and baptized. Parents cry and protest as their sons and daughters are ripped away from them.
Then as dawn breaks, a crowd of townspeople gather to watch a grisly spectacle. Today is Saint Valentine’s Day - a holiday the Christian residents normally spend feasting and celebrating one of Christianity’s martyrs. But this morning, they simply look on as hundreds of their Jewish neighbors are rounded up and ushered onto the wooden platform. The cemetery is still and silent as a flame is lit, the enormous wooden structure is set on fire, and, slowly the Jewish townspeople are burned alive.
Their murder takes hours. All the while, the town’s residents watch, some in horror, others with relief. Once the bodies are reduced to ash, the crowd disperses. Many head back to their houses, ready to get on with their normal celebrations and forget the morning’s gruesome atrocities. Others venture forward and sift through their neighbors’ remains, searching for any unscathed valuables left behind by the deceased.
The Strasbourg Massacre, as this mass execution will come to be known, will be one of the worst acts of violence against Europe’s Jews during the Middle Ages. With the mass murder, the city’s Jewish population will be all but erased. Any Jews who managed to evade the massacre will be promptly expelled from the city, never to return. It will be decades before any Jews are allowed back into Strasbourg.
Their expulsion will be just one of many though. All across the continent, countless other Jewish communities will be exiled, forced to flee the cities and towns they have resided in for centuries. But, as in the rest of Europe, the execution and expulsion of Strasbourg’s Jews will fail to save the city from suffering.
Just a few months after the Strasbourg Massacre, the plague will finally reach the city, infecting and killing thousands of its remaining Christian residents. In its wake, Strasbourg will find itself in turmoil, reeling from a year of violence and suffering. Amidst the instability, the leader of the Holy Roman Empire will step in, squashing unrest and ensuring that Strasbourg’s mob government and its Christian citizens will never face any repercussions for their killings.
Act Three: The Emperor’s Pardon
It’s September 12th, 1349 in Prague, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire.
Inside one of his castles, Emperor Charles IV takes an official document from a servant. As he looks it over, Charles recognizes it as an official pardon for the citizens of Strasbourg.
Ever since the Valentine’s Day massacre of the city’s Jews, Charles has worried about rising unrest in the city. The loss of its Jewish community has caused significant upheaval, socially and financially. Before the mass execution, some in the town doubted the Jews’ wrongdoing. And in the wake of the massacre, their skepticism morphed into anger at the unjust killings and the hasty overthrow of the town government that made the murders possible.
Adding to the turmoil, Strasbourg is now facing new financial challenges. Before the massacre, the city was a bustling center for trade — in large part, thanks to its Jewish community. Without them now though, the city’s commerce has significantly declined, intensifying Strasbourg’s unrest.
Careful to prevent further violence and maintain stability throughout the empire, Charles has decided to intervene with an official declaration of the citizens’ innocence. He briefly glances over the document passed his way. Then, Charles dips his quill into a pot of ink and signs off on a directive pardoning all of Strasbourg for killing its Jews and stealing their wealth.
None of the people involved in the Strasbourg Massacre will ever face any recorded punishment for their misdeeds. And only in the centuries after the Valentine’s Day killings, the city’s Jewish community will slowly rebuild itself, but the memory of the massacre will remain. Today, Strasbourg’s opera house sits opposite the cemetery where the 1349 massacre was conducted. On it is a memorial plaque, reminding all who pass by of the violence and discrimination that led to the mass execution of Strasbourg’s Jews on February 14th, 1349.
Next onHistory Daily. February 15th, 399 BCE. Athenian philosopher Socrates is sentenced to death for impiety and corrupting the city’s youth.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.