On the night of April 12th (Palm Sunday) 1348, townsmen stormed the street where Toulon's Jewish community predominantly resided. They killed forty Jews and pillaged their houses. In this way a long-standing Jewish community was destroyed. This pogrom coincided with the arrival of the Black Death, the most devastating epidemic in European history. It was one of the first pogroms in a wave of violence against Jews between 1348 and 1350. Why were the Jews blamed for the plague? And how was the scapegoating of Jews mediated by political and economic considerations?
The Black Death was an unprecedented demographic and economic shock. Between 1348 and 1353, it killed between 30 and 40 percent of Europe's population. Moreover, it was a catastrophe with huge consequences. Many distinguished scholars view it as a turning point in European history. In the short run, commerce and trade dried up, agricultural land went untilled, prices soared, and disorder spread. In the long run, wages rose, rents fell and, more importantly, the plague brought about an institutional transformation across much of Western Europe.
The plague spread first from Kaffa, a trading port on the Black Sea run by Genoese merchants, toMessina in Sicily. But the story that it was spread by Mongol besiegers catapulting infected bodies into Kaffa is almost certainly false. The disease vector was black rats that likely entered the city through simpler means. These black rats bore fleas infected with bubonic plague.
From Sicily the plague spread to Marseilles and from there it spread to much of Western Europe in 1348. When it arrived in a country, it moved quickly. For instance, it arrived in southern England in June 1348. It reached London by November and northern England in summer 1349. By late 1349, it had also spread across Central and Northern Europe, including the Low Countries, Scandinavia, and Germany.
The demographic and economic impact of the plague was tremendous. Rural and urban populations died at similar rates. Medical knowledge was rudimentary and ineffective. And there was no effective policy response to the new disease. Figure 6.1 from Jebwab, Johnson, and Koyama (2016) depicts estimates of Black Death mortality. Cities like Florence saw their populations fall by around 60 percent. But other cities escaped with mortality rates of 15–20 percent.