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23.03.13 Barzilay, Poisoned Wells

23.03.13 Barzilay, Poisoned Wells

Over the last half century, we have learned a great deal about many of the dangerous accusations levelled against Europe’s minority communities during the high and late Middle Ages. Inspired by the pioneering studies of Gavin Langmuir on ritual murder, Norman Cohn on witchcraft, and Miri Rubin on host desecration (to name only a few prominent examples), medievalists have charted with ever-greater precision the historical contexts in which these accusations were first articulated, the cultural conditions and narrative constructs that made communities susceptible to believing them, the institutional and informal networks facilitating their spread, the conflicted and conflicting responses of local and distant authorities, and the ebbs and flows of their subsequent resurgence. [1]

Historian Tzafrir Barzilay tackles all of these themes--and more--in Poisoned Wells, a compelling study of the well-poisoning accusations that underpinned horrific acts of violence against lepers, beggars, foreigners, and Jews during the middle decades of the fourteenth century. While these accusations have featured prominently in earlier studies of the so-called Lepers’ Plot of 1321 as well as the Black Death, Poisoned Wells presents the first systematic account of their emergence, elaboration, and afterlife. Through his persistent concern with the particularities of time, place, and documentary production, Barzilay both corrects many previous historiographical missteps and crafts a powerful account of the dynamics of persecution in the later Middle Ages.

As suggested by the book’s subtitle, it is only in the early fourteenth century that well-poisoning accusations began to prompt official concern and active investigation. (Barzilay demonstrates that most reports of earlier incidents in western Europe were either later fabrications or the result of modern misreadings.) Although scattered instances are recorded in northern France, the Low Countries, and even as far east as Kraków, the vast majority of the accusations surfaced in an arc running from the Crown of Aragon to Provence and then upwards through Savoy into German-speaking lands. And unlike claims of ritual murder or host desecration, which persisted for centuries after their initial emergence, well-poisoning accusations largely disappeared by the end of the fourteenth century, with a final papal refutation of 1422 providing a formal endpoint to the book’s chronology.

In contrast to poisoning rumors more generally, which typically involved fairly high-status figures, allegations concerning the poisoning of public sources of potable water were targeted almost exclusively at minority and marginal communities: lepers and Jews in particular, but also Muslims, foreigners, and beggars. (The well-poisoning accusation that French royal investigators levelled against Dominican friars in 1390 represents a rare, albeit remarkable, exception.) One of the book’s major achievements is its methodical reconstruction of the ways in which accusations shifted from one target to another, as well as the limits of such transferability. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is the fact that during both the Lepers’ Plot of 1321 and the Black Death, accusations against Jews emerged only after other groups had already faced such slander. Notable too is the author’s finding that heretics never became the targets of widespread accusations, despite the longstanding rhetorical association between heresy and poison.

Central to Barzilay’s overall analysis are the questions of why anybody would have claimed that wells were being poisoned, and why anybody else would have believed such a claim. The book’s first chapter duly surveys several thirteenth-century cultural developments that, in the author’s view, facilitated the emergence and acceptance of the accusations: a growing focus on poison in medical literature and political life; rapid urbanization and the resulting concern with public water supplies; and heightened suspicions of non-Christians and other minorities. Yet, as Barzilay insists, these were at most “possible contributing factors” (10); they cannot in themselves explain why accusations erupted where and when they did. The following chapters therefore adopt a more granular approach, meticulously examining the documentary record concerning pivotal accusations and their aftermaths. As the author concedes up front, these chapters have little to say about the experiences of those accused of such poisonings. Instead, they draw our attention to a cadre of mayors, aldermen, subvicars, and other local authorities, reminding us of their crucial importance to the history of power and persecution.

Chapter Two examines the early stages of the Lepers’ Plot of 1321, with Barzilay arguing persuasively that the first accusation of well poisoning was concocted by local officials in southwestern France who were eager to strip leprosaria of their property and privileges. The accusation quickly spread throughout the region, with each new iteration adding new and ever-more threatening details--a narrative evolution depicted with arresting (indeed, chilling) clarity in Table 2. Chapter Three then explores how the first wave of accusations against lepers gave way to accusations against other groups: foreigners, Cagots, Jews, and Muslims in the Crown of Aragon; and Jews (supposedly at the prodding of distant Muslims) in northern and central France. Challenging earlier accounts that have analyzed the violence against lepers and Jews as a shared phenomenon (and thus in need of a shared explanation), Barzilay observes that “lepers and Jews were attacked in two waves, separated both chronologically and geographically” (97).

Chapters Four and Five focus on the resurgence and spread of well-poisoning accusations following upon the outbreak of plague in the western Mediterranean in the winter of 1347-48. Once again, the earliest accusations were not aimed at Jews; rather, they targeted beggars, vagabonds, mendicant friars, and travelling clerics--that is, those who travelled about without supervision. And as before, the resulting repression was generally achieved through official processes of investigation and punishment. As for the roughly simultaneous outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence in Provence and Catalonia, these cannot be firmly linked to well-poisoning accusations; Barzilay shows furthermore that these outbreaks were driven by mob violence rather than official persecution. But fears of the plague soon spread northward into the Dauphiné, the county of Savoy, and Alsace. Here Jews swiftly emerged as the principal suspects in new well-poisoning accusations, as shown in three maps that vividly depict the month-by-month spread of the accusations during the summer and fall of 1348. These accusations were not universally accepted, however, and Barzilay adroitly reconstructs the varied responses of local authorities to reveal why persecution emerged in some cities but not others.

Chapter Six then examines the sporadic resurfacing of well-poisoning accusations in following decades. As in earlier instances, accusations were sometimes levelled against vulnerable Christians, such as foreigners and beggars (and in one case, those accused of sorcery and heresy). As for accusations targeting Jews, these were often connected to new outbreaks of plague, and they appear to have been concentrated in Alsace and the western Alps--that is, the same areas where renewed accusations of Jewish well poisoning first emerged in 1348. Yet the accusations never again spread as quickly or widely as they had in 1348-49, and by the early fifteenth century well poisoning usually appears as a trope of past Jewish misdeeds, used as justification for further marginalizing local Jewish communities rather than as grounds for legal violence against them.

Following in the footsteps of Alfred Haverkamp and others, Barzilay stresses the particular political and economic interests of local actors as the motivations for these accusations and the investigations (and violence) they inspired. [2] (This line of reasoning, it bears noting, proves better at explaining the accusations targeting Jews and lepers than those against beggars, foreigners, and itinerant clerics.) Yet Barzilay is also sensitive to the enabling force of ideas, insisting throughout on the knowledge networks and administrative procedures that helped to make rumors of well-poisoning ever more plausible. Moreover, the book’s expansive geographic scope and diverse source base allows Barzilay to identify both discontinuities and linkages that have gone unnoticed in previous studies.

For many readers, the book’s most surprising finding will be Barzilay’s demonstration that the onset of well-poisoning accusations usually preceded the arrival of the plague in a given community, rather than serving as a post-hoc explanation for sudden excess mortality. This finding also underpins one of his principal explanations for the swift decline in accusations post-1350: since the execution of Jewish suspects had not halted the spread of the plague, Barzilay argues, subsequent generations of officials proved less anxious to react to the onset of new rumors. (This argument does not, however, explain why accusations of well poisoning did continue to spur sporadic legal violence against Jews in Alsace and Switzerland.)

More intriguing as an explanation for decline is the author’s observation that, unlike previous ritual murder or host desecration claims, accusations of well poisoning “produced no saints, no relics, no holy places” (184). This aligns with the author’s analysis of the accusations as a robustly secular phenomenon, arising chiefly from the “organized political action of local officials” (2)--a finding that holds true across almost all of the many cases that he examines. Yet one wonders whether in some instances, at least, local clergy or religious institutions might have played a larger role than administrative sources reveal. Barzilay mentions an isolated instance of a late fifteenth-century German preacher stirring up fears of Jewish well poisoning; perhaps more such examples remain to be found?

In its rigorous attention to chronology and the details of documentary practices, Poisoned Wells represents something of a departure from much recent work on persecution. This might explain the author’s fear that readers will interpret his study as a “positivist attempt to reconstruct the historical reality of well-poisoning accusations ‘as they truly were’” (4). To defend his approach, Barzilay invokes William Sewell’s famous essay on the days following taking of the Bastille in 1789, which is a staple of graduate historiography courses in the United States. While I am not convinced that this book shares much methodological overlap with Sewell’s essay (which, among other differences, depends on a thickness of detail that is all but impossible for medievalists to replicate), I am even less convinced that Barzilay’s approach requires such special pleading--especially given the originality of his results. His keen analysis of the extant evidence frequently reveals the weaknesses of earlier accounts, which (as he shows) have often relied on later developments to fill in earlier gaps or lumped the disparate dynamics of different towns and regions into a single generalizing framework. To his credit, however, Barzilay graciously buries in the obscurity of endnotes such observations as “I have found no documents supporting these secondary sources” (257).

Barzilay is admirably frank about the limitations of his evidence. As one example, between 1348-50, the Holy Roman Empire witnessed at least 350 instances of anti-Jewish persecution. For only a few dozen of these do we know much about the instigating accusations, in part because contemporary observers proved more interested in “issues of authority and property...than the exact causes for the persecution” (135). Moreover, official actions tend to leave more documentary traces than rumors--and the latter are often attested only through chronicles composed well after the events they describe. Such broad silences necessarily impose a limit on even the most assiduous efforts to identify networks of anxiety and influence.

Even more conspicuous is the absence of attested contemporary well-poisoning accusations in many parts of western Europe, including the British Isles, most of Iberia, and Italy. Barzilay offers a halfhearted explanation for these geographical discontinuities--suggesting that they “had more to do with political stability or the historical status of minorities than with cultural, geographical, or linguistic factors” (196)--but surely there is more to explore here. After all, as Barzilay’s focused case studies make clear, where persecution stops can be just as revealing as where it spreads.

For any scholar whose research or teaching encompass the Black Death, the crises of the fourteenth century, the persecution of minorities, or Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle Ages, Poisoned Wells should be considered essential reading. The maps alone are invaluable teaching aids, and if the book appears in an affordable paperback version, it would be well-suited for use in undergraduate seminars on any of these topics. But the book’s value extends beyond its subject matter. Not only does it provide an exemplary model of comparative and connected history, but it also offers a salutary reminder of how much we can still learn from asking the seemingly simple questions of when and where something happened, who was involved, how people heard about it, and who wrote it all down.



1. For example, Gavin I. Langmuir, “L’absence d’accusation de meutre ritual à l’ouest du Rhône,” Cahiers de Fanjeaux 12 (1977): 235-49; idem, “Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder,” Speculum, 59 (1984): 820-46; Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt (London: Sussex University Press, 1975); Miri Rubin, “Desecration of the Host: The Birth of an Accusation,” Studies in Church History, 29 (1992): 169-85.

2. In particular. Alfred Haverkamp, “Die Judenverfolgungen zur Zeit des Schwarzen Todes im Gesellschaftsgefüge deutscher Städte,” in Zur Geschichte der Juden im Deutschland des späten Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit, ed. Alfred Haverkamp (Stuttgart: Hiersemann, 1981), 27-93.