This Day in Jewish History A 14th-century Neighborhood Watch Begins

In response to groups of slaughter-hungry marauders intent on murdering Jews, the Bishop of Strasbourg formed a local band to track down the perpetrators.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On May 17, 1338, disturbed by an ongoing series of murderous attacks on Jews in the Alsace region of France, the Bishop of Strasbourg formed an alliance of locals to track down the armed band carrying out the assaults.

The chain of attacks on Jews had begun two years earlier, after a nobleman in Northern Bavaria announced that he had been visited by an angel calling upon him to kill Jews. He organized a group of Judenschlaeger (Jew-beaters) and began to follow the so-called angel’s orders.

The following year, the same mission was adopted by a former innkeeper from Alsace, John Zimberlin, who similarly led a group of marauders from town to town, killing Jews as they went.

Zimberlin girded his arms in leather straps, rather than armor, and his comrades did the same, leading to his being called King Armleder. They carried out attacks in the towns of Thann, Ensisheim and Rouffach. And when the people of the city of Colmar offered protection from the gang to their Jewish citizens, Zimberlin laid siege to that city and its surroundings.

The people of Colmar requested assistance from the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis IV, who sent his army there. By the time they arrived, Armleder and his gang had fled to the west, only to return to Colmar when the Imperial Army departed. At this stage, a group of prominent Christians from Strasbourg – the city’s bishop, Berthold II of Bucheck, various noblemen, and the magistrates of a number of 12 surrounding towns – joined together to take on the Judenschlaeger, signing an agreement of alliance on this date in 1338.

Even their efforts, however, did not succeed in stopping Zimberlin. It was only the following year that a knight named Rudolf of Andlau took a different tack, and achieved results: On August 28, 1339, he persuaded Zimberlin to sign an agreement, by which, in return for amnesty, he and his fellow combatants promised not to carry out attacks on Jews over the next 10 years.

The agreement did lead to the temporary cessation of attacks, but the Jews of Alsace had to pay for the protection. For example, a 1338 document from Strasbourg shows that 16 Jewish families of that city had agreed to pay a sum of 1,072 marks in return for a guarantee of safety for the next five years. Of that sum, 1,000 marks were to go the authorities in Strasbourg, 60 to Emperor Louis IV, and the remainder of 12 marks to Bishop Berthold II. The document also granted the Jews permission to engage in money-lending.

By 1348, the Black Death began to stretch across Europe, and the Jews of Alsace, along with those in many other places, again became the focus of attacks. On February 14, 1349, for example, 900 Jews were slaughtered in Strasbourg – a preventive measure, apparently, since at that date, the city had not even been struck by plague.

Strasbourg, France.Credit: Wikimedia

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