Publication Date



antisemitism, Black Death, Grand Peur


The massacre of most fo the Jewish communities in Western Germany and what is now Switzerland between late 1348 and the middle of 1349 permanently altered the position of Jews in Central Europe, both by shifting the Jewish population eastward and by moving those Jews who remained behind to the periphery of economic society. A close examination of the chronology of the massacres on the local level rapidly disproves the traditional interpretation that the massacres were attacks of the classic 'scapegoat' type made in response to the onset of the first great modern European plague. Although the first massacres outside of Germany were in fact in response to the plague, by the time the killing started in Germany the pattern had altered into something quite different. What took place in the German Southwest in the winter of 1348-49 was strikingly similar to the 'Grand Peur' ('Great Fear') oof 1789 described in a classic study by Georges Lefebvre. Lefebvre's conclusion was that the spasm oof violence which swept France in a matter of days in the summer of 1789 was spontaneous in the sense that there had been neither advance coordination nor planning, but that the targets selected by the peasants and urban laborers were neither irrational nor haphazardly chosen. The present essay will suggest that the pogroms of 1348-49 were similar to the Grand Peur in that they were precipitated by the spontaneous spasm of popular fear which ran through the medieval urban world ahead of the Black Death, but that the specific form the violence took was shaped by social and political conditions which had long been in the making.