On August 24, 1349, the Jewish quarter of Cologne, Germany, was attacked by an angry crowd, and most of its residents killed. Their property was then plundered and divvied up between the ransackers, the city government and the Church.
Ostensibly, the justification for the massacre was the belief that Jews were responsible for the Black Death – the bubonic plague pandemic that was then raging through Europe, and which between 1348 and 1350 is estimated to have killed up to two-thirds of the continent’s population. In fact, on the same day, the Jews of Mainz, who at the time constituted Europe’s largest Jewish community, were slaughtered en masse in a Black Death pogrom, one of many assaults on Jews that took place during the period. The reality, however, was more complex.
Cologne had a Jewish population with a presence harking back to Roman times, in the third century C.E. By the year 321, the emperor Constantine had issued a document that gave the Jews of Cologne permission to hold certain (unpopular) municipal positions that had previously been closed to them. Ongoing excavations in the heart of modern-day Cologne in recent years have yielded impressive physical evidence of this ancient Jewish community.
In 1096, during the First Crusade, the city’s Jews were attacked by the Christian armies moving eastward, with significant numbers murdered, despite efforts by the local population to hide and shelter the Jews.
By the 14th century, Cologne’s renewed Jewish population played an important role in the economy of this important trading center and member of the Hanseatic League. They had exclusive permission to make interest-based loans, and their clients included not only merchants but also the city itself. (Visitors to Cologne today can still see the “Judenprivileg” carved into a wall at Cologne Cathedral, the rules set down by Archbishop Engelbert II von Falkenberg regulating the Jewish role in moneylending.)
Plague as an excuse
As has been the case in so many societies throughout history, the services offered by Jews were economically critical, but also made those same Jews resented and hated – and at times even expendable. There were many cases in which the Jews found themselves caught and victimized in disputes over power and money that were in essence being waged between clerics, nobility, merchant classes and the peasantry.
Thus it was in Cologne in 1349 that the plague that was then making its way through Germany served as an excuse for those in power to stand aside while members of a panicked populace attacked the Jews, thus forestalling any possibility of the latter from collecting outstanding loans.
Although earlier in the summer, when Strasburg was hit by the Black Death, the Cologne council had implored officials in that city to spare their Jews, when the fearful populace of Cologne became concerned that Jews were poisoning their wells, there was little that the council could do to save them.
The assault on the Jewish quarter of Cologne took place on the eve of St. Bartholomew’s Day, the night between August 23 and 24. According to some chronicles, many of the Jews elected to lock themselves within their synagogue and burn it down, rather than finding themselves confronted with a demand that they undergo baptism. Another version says they burned themselves inside their houses. Those Jews who didn’t die at their own hands were killed by the rioters, with only a few survivors leaving town and seeking refuge nearby.
Ransacking followed the murder. Competition for the Jews’ property was fierce, so that it became necessary for the Church and the city council to negotiate an agreement on how to divvy up the spoils.
Jews were officially permitted to return to Cologne in 1372, although they were prohibited from making claims on any property that had been in their hands prior to 1349.