In the decade from 1340, the Black Death (or bubonic plague) killed millions of people in Europe. Around one third of the continent’s population died of the disease.
Modern research has revealed that the plague was probably carried by boat from an Asian source, but at the time the affected communities had no idea why and how such a terrible affliction had come upon them so suddenly. In seeking an explanation, they needed a scapegoat and lighted upon the Jews living in their midst. In many villages, towns and cities, Jews were accused of causing the sickness by poisoning drinking water in wells and fountains. The resulting hysteria led to pogroms such as the one that took place in Erfurt, the capital of the German state of Thuringia, where 1,000 Jews were killed in a single day of violence on March 2, 1349.
Those not killed were forced to flee. In the general panic, some Jews hid their most precious possessions, hoping one day to reclaim them. Many were never able to return and Jewish treasure hoards dating from the 1340s have been uncovered at a number of European sites. An exhibition of the treasures found in Erfurt, and in Colmar in eastern France, is about to open at the Wallace Collection in London.
The Erfurt treasure, which is considered the most important and includes 3000 coins and more than 600 pieces of jewellery and precious metalwork, was discovered in 1998 during archaeological excavations in the medieval Jewish quarter of the city. Karin Sczech, an archaeologist who has been researching the collection, says there was a slice of luck about the discovery.
“We always write that the treasure was found during excavation, but that was not exactly how we found all the pieces,” she reveals. “We had a little exhibition to show what had been found and a workman who was working nearby came to have a look and exclaimed: ‘What you have found is not bad but we have found better things.’
“They had actually found a series of stacking silver beakers and some bowls. They did not understand what they were. They thought they were made of tin and were planning to use the bowl as an ashtray.”
The exhibition in London will be “the last possibility to show the treasure outside Erfurt”, says Sczech. Later this year the pieces will be returned to be displayed in a new museum in the old synagogue, built around 1100 and thought by some experts to be the oldest synagogue still standing in Europe.
Curating the Wallace Collection show is Christine Descatoire, of the Musée Cluny in Paris, where another Jewish treasure hoard found in the town of Colmar in 1863 forms part of the collections. The Jews of Colmar were massacred in 1349, burnt alive in what became known as the Fosse aux Juifs or Jews’ Pit.
The Erfurt and Colmar finds have much in common, she says. “Most notably, they were both hidden at the time of the Black Death. Both include a Jewish wedding ring and these are the signature pieces. All the other objects found could have been used in a Christian setting. It is the rings that allow us to identify the hoards as having belonged to Jewish families. These are probably the oldest existing examples of this type of jewellery. They were given by the bridegroom to the bride and were worn during the marriage ceremony. They are decorated with an architectural element that represents both the Temple of Jerusalem and the new home of the married couple. The rings were engraved with the words mazal tov written in Hebrew. They are very beautiful, really magnificent.”
Sczech is especially proud of one of the Erfurt rings. “It is the only piece in the hoard made from solid gold as was required by [Jewish] tradition, with no settings of precious stones.”
Also of great interest are the “double cups” found at both locations. “These may have had a ritual function,” says Descatoire. “They are made up of an inner cup and a cover that forms a second cup. They may have been used in the marriage ceremony and were often given as presents.”
She also stresses the importance of other pieces of jewellery. “In general we don’t have many secular pieces from the first half of the 14th century. People used to have their gold melted down so they would have liquid assets or to make more fashionable jewellery.
“From these objects, one gets a good idea of secular goldsmiths’ work from that period.”
The fact that the Erfurt hoard includes so many precious pieces of jewellery and metalwork suggests that there were some members of the Jewish community were very wealthy. Sczech confirms this:
“Jews played an important part in Erfurt both in trade and as moneylenders and were well integrated into city life. They had strong political influence. I think the pogrom of 1349 was the work of a small group and those responsible were caught and punished. The Bishop of Erfurt even forced the city to rebuild the synagogue,” she explains.
For the Wallace Collection, Treasures of the Black Death is more than an exhibition of beautiful jewellery. As its director, Rosalind Savill, says: “This is a deeply poignant display of objects which have a very personal, human dimension.”