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How We're Closer to the 14th Century Than We Think

I didn't think while reading a book about the Black Death in 1348, I'd find something that resonated so strongly with me in 2016.

The Black Death, a plague that swept across Europe in the late 1340s and killed approximately 1/3 of the population, changed the course of human history so thoroughly that it's impossible to trace back all the "what might have been" threads that were snipped by it. A princess who might have united England and Spain died. An archbishop who could have ushered in a golden age of scientific discovery never got that chance. And who of the countless peasants, gentry, and noblemen who were taken by it would have made their mark if they had been allowed to. Which snuffed out families could have had descendants who changed the world 100, 200, 700 years in the future?

But the Black Death carried with it something that is shatteringly familiar to us. Something that should absolutely not be left out of its history. In that time of fear and confusion, the people of Europe turned their anger in a very specific direction.

When the plague began hitting cities, towns, and villages across Europe in the late 1340s, the Jewish population began to be targeted as the source. People claimed that Jews were poisoning wells, and the populace reacted to this. They arrested some, they tortured them, they validated their own suspicions by coercing confessions from them, and they began burning entire Jewish populations.

Let me say that again: they began burning entire Jewish populations. 

What I absolutely did not expect in the face of this heart-rending fact were the contemporary attempts to protect the Jewish community. There can be a tendency to paint medieval Europe with the same bigoted brush, but the courage of many of its citizens made me cry over something that happened well over 600 years ago. The pope in Avignon protected the Jews in his city, and attempted to do so further out. In Regensburg, in what is now Germany, 237 of its leading citizens formed a band to guarantee the protection of its Jewish population. 

Other towns weren't so lucky. The leader of another city "opened the gates" to the enraged mob. In another, the Jewish residents locked themselves in their synagogue and set it on fire, rather than die at the hands of their neighbors.

We hear about the Black Death and we go "oh yeah, Ring Around the Rosy, a third of Europe died, I know." No one had ever told me reprisals were taken against the continent's Jewish population. No one had ever said "This is what can happen when you let fear and panic overwhelm you. This is what can happen when you forget that love is love is love and you just want someone to hurt so you can feel safer." It's easy to look back on the medieval age and see ourselves as Too Enlightened to relate to their mentality, but that human trait of transferring fear into action has never ever left us. It's dangerous and however enlightened we might think we are, the possibility of it is always one fear-mongering demagogue away.

Today we have mounting xenophobic rhetoric both overseas and in our own country. It's because people are scared. People are scared so they're looking for a smaller group they can take it out on.  But in the midst of all this, what I find so incredibly heartening is the image of that band of people in the 14th century, who despite a frightening time, despite the fact that their friends and family were dying all around them, despite false confessions being waved in their faces as "proof," still stood up and protected those the mob wanted to harm. 

Our actions have an echo. By standing up now, we will not only be fighting against a voice that is solely motivated by hatred and fear, but beating that voice back into the shadows. We will be leaving people of the future a view of our time that surprises them. They will expect ignorance and social injustice, and they will find it in abundance, but they will also find love and camaraderie across lines of faith and race. They will find that people stood up and protected those who deserved that protection, because that protection is deserved by everyone. History repeats itself. Let's make sure it repeats the good.


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