By Karl Radl
The dramatic events in the Bavarian market town of Deggendorf in the fourteenth century are of interest to us in modern times; they represent an example of the validity of Benjamin Ginsberg’s thesis that Jews have historically formed an avaricious and aggressive middle class (or bourgeoisie) operating as formal and/or informal tax collectors with the blessing of a non-Jewish elite. (1)
This in turn made them extremely vulnerable to peasants and burghers who took exception to their behavior, the usurious rates of interests that they charged, or to their violation of religious norms and forms. They were even more vulnerable when all or some of the members of the non-Jewish elite supported the populist uprising against the Jewish bourgeoisie. Examples of this include the massacre of the Jews in York, England in 1190 by the angry populace and the expulsion of the Jews from France by Philip the Fair in 1306.
Indeed, in some cases, popular uprisings against the Jews successfully occurred in spite of the attempts of a non-Jewish elite to quash them. An example of this was the justice visited upon the Jewish merchant and child murderer Raphael Levy in 1669 near Metz, despite repeated interference on behalf of the Jews by Louis XIV.
This equation of anti-Jewish activity and anti-Semitism with class war was well-known to pre-Marxist socialist thinkers such as Eugen Duhring, who raged against ‘Jewish capitalists’ as well fake Jewish socialists in his ‘Der Judenfrage’. Another is Charles Fourier, who spoke out against ‘Jewish usurers’ in his various works.
It is this popular revolt against the Jewish bourgeoisie that can be said to characterize the rising against the Jews in Deggendorf in 1338.
Based upon the sources – both legal records and medieval chroniclers – we know that sometime in the 1330s, before 1338, there was a large fire which destroyed most of the town. (2) The town was rebuilt, but the process required a great deal of money which was acquired by the burghers from Jewish moneylenders. (3)
In 1338 this dangerous situation spilled over at Michaelmas – i.e. in late September or early October – when traditionally crops would have been harvested. The harvest was the peasants’ and burghers’ principle source of revenue, and they expected to use the proceeds to pay their creditors. (4) However, the harvest of 1338 was very poor.
The clue to why this happened is provided in a brief notation by the Bavarian chronicler John of Viktring in his ‘”Liber certarum historiarum.” He mentions that in 1388 the town of Deggendorf was afflicted with a plague of locusts, which he believed was connected to the anti-Jewish violence. (5)
The connection is not hard to divine: In order to rebuild, the peasants and burghers of Deggendorf had borrowed heavily from the Jews against the profits that they would make from future harvests, which - as Toch has observed - was standard practice in Bavaria at the time. (6) Then, when their crops were destroyed by the plague of locusts described by John of Viktring, the peasants and burghers of Deggendorf couldn’t pay their Jewish creditors.
The crop failure would have made an already dangerous situation utterly explosive. It is easy to imagine that one or more of the Jews insisted on their rights as creditors to collect payment– either on principle or out of a personal/religious animus towards Christians – (7) which would have resulted in a substantial segment of Deggendorf passing into Jewish ownership.
Whatever the particulars may have been, an explosion of rage resulted. The Jews of Deggendorf were executed or expelled, their possessions nationalized, and their houses lit aflame by the populace. These actions were the result of class war motivated by revolutionary anti-Jewish sentiment.
That this was a significant outpouring of popular resentment against their exploiters is also indicated by the fact that the local ruler, Duke Heinrich XIV of Bavaria, promptly pardoned the peasants and burghers of Deggendorf and allowed them to keep the property that they confiscated from their exploiters. In other words, he deliberately deescalated an already explosive situation with the potential for wider unrest.
Circa two centuries after this revolutionary uprising of the non-Jews against the Jewish bourgeoisie in Deggendorf, the origins of the riot were muddied by the claim that the Jews set the fire themselves. However, as Eder has demonstrated, this is incorrect because it contradicts the contemporary sources. (9) Aviya Kushner got this point horribly wrong in her recent article in the Jewish Daily Forward that touched on the events in Deggendorf in 1338. (10)
The cause of the anti-Jewish violence was also incorrectly attributed to a host desecration event by a 15th century book “Das Gedicht von den Deggendorfer Hostien,” (11) which was a common charge/occurrence at the time that this work was written. (12) As a result, this became part of the mythical colouring that surrounded the tumultuous events of 1338.
The reality is, however, that this is not a case of host desecration, but rather simple good old-fashioned Jewish greed causing revolutionary anti-Semitic violence along class lines.
(1) Cf. Benjamin Ginsberg, 1994, ‘The Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State’, 1st Edition, University of Chicago Press: Chicago; expanded upon and confirmed indirectly by Jerry Muller, 2011, ‘Capitalism and the Jews’, 1st Edition, Princeton University Press: Princeton
(2) Manfred Eder, 1992, ‘Die “Deggendorfer Gnad”: Entstehung und Entwicklung einer Hostienwallfahrt im Kontext von Theologie und Geschichte’, 1st Edition, Stadt Deggendorf: Deggendorf, p. 196
(4) Ibid, pp. 287-288
(5) Ibid, pp. 212-214
(6) Michael Toch, 1995, ‘Local Credit in an Agrarian Economy: The Case of Bavaria, 14th to 15th Centuries’, pp. 801-802 in Michael Toch (Ed.), 2003, ‘Peasants and Jews in Medieval Germany’, 1st Edition, Ashgate: Burlington
(7) Attitudes of this kind in the general jewish population of the time have been helpfully described by Elliot Horowitz, 2007, ‘Reckless Rites: Purim and the Consequences of Jewish Violence’, 1st Edition, Princeton University Press: Princeton
(8) Eder, Op. Cit., pp. 199-202
(9) Ibid, p. 224
(11) Eder, Op. Cit., pp. 223-226
(12) Ronnie Po-chia Hsia, 1988, ‘The Myth of Ritual Murder: Jews and Magic in Reformation Germany’, 1st Edition, Yale University Press: New Haven, p. 12