Friday, May 27, 2016

Poisoning the well

A violent pestilence which ravaged Europe between March, 1348, and the spring of 1351, and is said to have carried off nearly half the population. It was brought by sailors to Genoa from south Russia, whither it had come from central Asia. During March and April, 1348, it spread through Italy, Spain, and southern France; and by May of that year it had reached southwest England. Though the Jews appear to have suffered quite as much as their Christian neighbors (Höniger, "Der Schwarze Tod in Deutschland," 1882; Häser, "Lehrbuch der Gesch. der Medizin," iii. 156), a myth arose, especially in Germany, that the spread of the disease was due to a plot of the Jews to destroy Christians by poisoning the wells from which they obtained water for drinking purposes. This absurd theory had been started in 1319 in Franconia (Pertz, "Monumenta Germaniæ," xii. 416). On that occasion punishment had fallen upon the lepers, by whose means the Jews, it was alleged, had poisoned the wells. Two years later, in the Dauphiné, the same charge had been brought against the Jews. In 1348, once the accusation was raised, it was spread with amazing rapidity from town to town.

Although the Jew-baiting was scurrilous, irrational, and hateful, it's revealing in another respect. How many times have you read atheists say Christians traditionally attribute natural events to God's direct action? How often have your read atheists say Christians traditionally attribute plagues to divine judgment? 

Yet these medieval Christians did not attribute the plague to divine judgment or direct divine action. Rather, they suspected the plague had a natural cause. 

Moreover, although they were mistaken about the transmission of this particular pathogen, there's nothing irrational about considering the public drinking water supply as a possible source of contagion. Some epidemics have a common point of origin. Indeed, infected drinking water is a source of cholera. It can be reasonable to trace some epidemics back to common source. 

So the notion, popularized by atheists, that prescientific Jews and Christians (as well as pagans) automatically ascribed natural events to direct divine action, or divine judgment, in the case of epidemics, is a simplistic and ignorant urban legend. 


  1. "Indeed, infected drinking water is a source of cholera."

    Just as an aside, this was discovered by Dr. John Snow (not of House Stark) during the London cholera outbreak in the mid-1800s. A watershed moment in medical history. I think it's a tale recounted to most med students around the world or at least English-speaking nations. Snow's work on finding the then unknown source of the cholera epidemic saved thousands of lives. Not only in London but elsewhere around the world such as NYC which faced a cholera epidemic later in the same year as well cities in Europe like Hamburg.

  2. This is a really good point. I think I also pointed this out to you before, Steve, that atheists also seem to operate under the assumption that prescientific bronze-age morons attributed every form of apparent madness to demonic possession. But we see in 1 Samuel 21 that ancient people did recognize that there were categories for insanity as well as for demonic activity.

    So now we have scientistic transistor-age morons attributing every form of apparent madness to schizophrenia or epilepsy.