How German lands responded to the Black Death

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How German lands responded to the Black Death

In this week's Expat Dispatches, history teacher Mike Stuchbery gives us a lesson in the Medieval fear and loathing unleashed by the Black Death in the German lands.


We all know that the Black Death was a phenomenally lethal disease. Whether it manifested in its bubonic or pneumonic forms, there was precious little that could be done to stop it.

In the space of four years it killed between a third and half of the population of Europe. 

When faced with what must have seen the End of Days, the fears and tensions that existed throughout the German lands ran unchecked, leading to bizarre and horrible occurrences. 

Whipping boys

At the milder end of the scale existed the Flagellants.

These guys existed under the belief that the sins of man had caused the pestilence and thus, should punish themselves in order to banish the disease.

Great columns of these blokes would march through the countryside, banners flying. As they marched, they would whip themselves with barbed leather whips, leaving great bloody scars on their backs.

Once they arrived in a town they would call everyone into the main square to atone for their sins, in the hopes that it would banish the Plague.

Funnily enough, having a bunch of bloody, sweaty men walk from town to town, attracting crowds only served to speed the spread of the Black Death. 


Elsewhere, panic and fear over the Black Death manifested in acts of barbarity and savagery. 

In the fevered imaginations of medieval Germans, the obscene number of deaths around them could only be the work of a dark conspiracy. In many areas, Jews became the target of this paranoia.

Rumours spread that the Jewish communities across the Holy Roman Empire had banded together under a central command to poison the wells used by their gentile neighbours.

This was, of course, deluded, risible garbage, but enough Jews confessed under prolonged torture for the fabrication to spread.

Once word got out of these “confessions”, the good citizens of towns and cities across Germany ran riot.

There are precious few moderately-sized towns in Germany that weren’t the site of a bloody pogrom.

Where I’m based, in Stuttgart, all of the Jews of the city were burned in the dark, dreary November of 1348.

Just down the road in Esslingen, the Jews of the city burned themselves alive in their Synagogue rather than allow themselves to fall into the hands of the mob.

Across the area we know today as Germany, this pattern was repeated.

In Augsburg, Munich, Nuremberg and Regensburg, entire Jewish populations were put to the torch.

Seeing what was happening to their brethren, the Jews of Worms repeated the actions of their Esslingen cousins, willingly walking into the flames of their quarter rather than allow themselves to be butchered.

Eventually things got so bad that the Pope in Avignon issued a Papal Bull, or official statement, that began, “…certain Christians, seduced by that liar, the devil, are imputing the pestilence to poisoning by Jews.” The Bull went on to denounce the murder of Jews and to condemn their murderers.

However, this was all a bit late. By the time the document had circulated, thousands were dead across Germany and Jews wouldn’t return to settle in the same numbers until the 19th century. 

'Plague Angel'

Perhaps the strangest and most touching of all the horrible things wrought by the Black Death was the legend of the “Pest Jungfrau”. This was the “Plague Angel”, a spirit that flew across the land as a blue flame, spreading the contagion.

It was supposed to fly the mouths of the dying and seek new victims, manifesting as a deathly pale maiden when it found a new source of victims.

One can imagine that many slammed their doors against sick and dying young women, thinking that the Jungfrau had come for them, leaving them to die outside, alone.

In the chaos and murder that the Black Death left in its wake in Germany, we can take one very salutary lesson - fear and panic will only make things much, much worse.

Rather, in times of a crisis it is imperative that we band together and support one another, not allowing rumour and scuttlebutt to take hold and colour our actions. 

When taking in the secondary carnage wrought by the Black Death, one can only be glad that they didn’t have access to the communication channels available to us today.

It doesn’t bear imagining the kinds of rumours and superstition that would fly across their Facebook feeds. 

Of course, we’re all so much more rational and sceptical today, right? Right?

By Mike Stuchbery @MrStuchberry

Mike is a teacher and writer originally from Australia and now living in Stuttgart.

Expat Dispatches is a weekly post from an English-language blogger or writer in Germany. It covers everything from lifestyle and food to history and culture. Email [email protected] to have your blog considered for publication.


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