On July 6, 1348, Pope Clement VI issued the first of two bulls instructing Christians not to blame the Jews for the plague epidemic then sweeping across Europe. Noting that Jews too were dying from the Black Death, Clement announced that people who cast blame on the Jews “had been seduced by that liar, the devil.”
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The plague, a worldwide epidemic caused by what was most likely the bacterium Yersinia pestis, probably had its origins in Central Asia, from which it began to spread in 1346. Before it was finished, the disease would kill somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of the Continent’s population.
End of Days looms large
Recorded history had never known anything like this pandemic. It was perhaps inevitable that, in seeking explanations for such a calamity, people would attempt to assign blame.
The apocalyptic nature of the plague, and the Christian belief that the Jews are destined to play a key role in the End of Days, culminated in suspicion becoming trained on the Jews.
Among other popular theories was the belief that Jews had poisoned the water sources of their respective towns, and were themselves supposedly spared from the disease because they generally lived in distinct separation from their Christian neighbors.
By February 1348, the disease had reached Avignon, in Provence, France, where the popes were based from 1307 until 1378, as part of a struggle between the king of France and the Vatican for political and spiritual domination of Christendom.
Pope Clement VI, born as Pierre Roger in Acquitaine, France, in 1291, had been elected pope about six years before the plague's outbreak, in May 7, 1342. Trained as a Benedictine monk, Clement, the fourth of the seven Avignon popes, had previously been the archbishop of Sens and of Rouens, respectively.
When the Black Death began striking down Christians, Clement too sought explanations. He had a physician undertake autopsies of victims’ bodies, in the hope of finding a telltale sign, and he asked his papal astronomers to look to the sky for an answer in the stars.
People were dying so quickly in Avignon that the cemeteries there ran out of space, and survivors began dumping bodies in the Rhone River. Clement order additional burial grounds to be prepared, but also declared burial in the water to be acceptable. He also announced that those who died without having been given their last rites as a Christian would still be able to enter Heaven.
Bon vivant and burier, too
While an estimated one-quarter of the pope’s staff were killed by the plague, he himself was spared. In fact, Clement, who declared that “a pope should make his subjects happy,” was known for continuing to lead the life of a bon vivant, even as the epidemic was spreading death and destruction. At the same time, however, he refused to abandon Avignon, and is said to have personally overseen care of the sick and dying, as well as helping to carry out burials.
Clement objected to the effort to place blame on the Jews, and issued two papal bulls (papal declarations) in 1348 – the first on July 6, the second on September 26 –that are striking in their rationality.
The pope’s principal point was that the plague was caused by “a mysterious judgment of God,” and that since it was “all but universal everywhere,” and that it afflicted “both Jews and many other nations to whom life in common with Jews is unknown,” the idea that the Jews were behind the plague “has no plausibility.”
Clement stressed that if there reason to hold the Jews responsible, “we would wish them struck by a penalty of suitable severity,” but that wasn’t the case, even though “these same Jews are prepared to submit to judgment before a competent judge.”
The pope warned his subjects not to take measures against the Jews, and threatened anyone who harmed a Jew with excommunication.
As history has recorded, the pope’s statements urging fair treatment of the Jews, to which were joined similar efforts from other monarchs, had only limited success, and, although the situation varied from town to town and region to region, there were many cases in which Jews became the victims of people’s fear, frustration and ignorance regarding the Black Death.