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Medieval Jewelry : Treasures from the Black Death


Pandemics and major epidemics are nothing new - the list is long.  

When a major outbreak occurs, in the absence of any real knowledge, expedient blame often falls on some group of people. Syphilis, a much feared venereal disease, was called the French pox by the English; Poland and Germany called it the Italian pox. The Dutch named it the Spanish disease and the Turks called it the Christian disease or the Frank (Western European ) disease. The names used reflected the political spite of the time and were often used as a propaganda tool. 

Nothing as changed even in our supposedly enlightened times.  With the Covid-19 pandemic, the easy to find scapegoats are Asians living in countries where they are minorities. There has been a dramatic rise in hate crimes against Asians in many countries, including Canada. That they could actually be Thai, Japanese, South Korean, Vietnamese and not Chinese is irrelevant to the racist attackers who usually prey on lone individuals, women, and the elderly who are unlikely and unable to defend themselves let alone fight back. 
 
History, as anyone who reads or studies it can tell you, has a depressing tendency to repeat itself. 

One of the most persecuted groups in history arguably are the Jews. Jewish communities in Europe have, for centuries, borne the brunt of major calamities, from war to the Black Death (1347-1351). The Black Death was humanity's deadliest pandemic killing an estimated 75- 200 million in Eurasia and North Africa.

There are some recognizable parallels with today's Covid-19 pandemic.  The plague bacteria spread via two animal vectors - the flea and the rat. The disease escalated with international travel via ships and invading armies on land. It proliferated in crowded places. The pneumonic form of the plague is also airborne.

Back in 2009, the Trustees of London's Wallace Collection gave me permission to share photographs from their Treasures of the Black Death exhibition on my blog. I am sharing them again as we battle a pandemic in our own time.

The treasures comprise of exquisite medieval Jewish jewelry discovered in two buried hoards.  One was found in Colmar, France and the other in Erfurt, Germany, near the 11th century synagogue, the oldest in Europe (below).

Erfut Synagogue

The Jews were accused of poisoning wells, cursing Christians and thus causing the Black Death. They were subjected to terrible persecutions and hundreds of communities were destroyed.  These treasured bejeweled belongings were never retrieved because the owners never survived. Every single Jew - men, women and children - was slaughtered in the Erfut massacre in 1349.

These exquisitely crafted and deeply personal pieces of jewelry are the some of the most moving to see.  The gold Jewish wedding ring shown at the top and below was engraved with the words mazel tov or good fortune. The house design symbolised both the marital home and the Temple of Jerusalem. It is one of the earliest Jewish wedding rings ever found. (Jewelry seldom survive the centuries as the pieces were often melted down and remade.)


This beautiful Colmar brooch was adorned with sapphires, rubies, garnets and pearls :


This is a toilet set complete with bottle and cosmetic accessories:


But all is not doom and gloom. 

The aftermath of the Black Death brought forth positive social, cultural, religious and economic changes in Europe. Serious inequalities of that time were addressed. Historians point out the Black Death brought an end to European medieval feudalism and serfdom, where ordinary peasants were little more than slaves.

The plague killed such a huge swath of the population there weren't enough people left alive to labor on farms. Survivors were able to demand higher wages and they were no longer tied to the land or a particular overlord. 

The period after the devastation also saw the birth of the Reformation and the Renaissance, a flowering of philosophy, the arts and sciences.

The plague hasn't truly gone away. For example, according to the CDC, there have been 1-17 plague cases per year in the US since 1900.  It isn't a major public health concern today because we have important things medieval people didn't - knowledge about how plague spreads and how to stop it, sulfonamides (sulfa drugs) and antibiotics. 

Unfortunately, antibiotics don't work for viruses. Remember Covid-19 is a new virus, so scientific evidence and medical practices to save the sick are constantly evolving as we learn more about it with each passing day. We may hope for a vaccine in the near future but it is by no means a sure silver bullet. The vaccine (or maybe more than one) has to be proven safe, effective, mass produced on an industrial scale and taken by enough people everywhere for it to work.  All that will take time. 

If you have the time, watch this excellent and fascinating documentary on the The History of the Black Death.



Before You Go:
Disclosure

This blog may contain affiliate links. I do receive a small fee for any products purchased through affiliate links. This goes towards the support of this blog and to provide resource information to readers. The opinions expressed are solely my own. They would be the same whether or not I receive any compensation.
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Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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10 comments:

  1. This is so interesting.. I am very much intrigued by the history of jewelry. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. I too find history fascinating! There is so much to learn.

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  2. Those pieces are beyond exquisite Pearl! It makes my heart hurt to think about the persecution and the inevitable loss of such talent.

    I'm trying to figure out the toilet set. How does it work?

    I just don't understand the pointing of fingers. I'd rather just solve the problem than throw mud at others. That has never made sense to me. It's simply mind boggling that the mud slinging is the go-to for so many people. We all know and have heard the huge outcry when the tables are turned.

    A virus doesn't care about religion, heritage, age, intellect, talent. It's too busy constantly evolving to survive.

    Covid-19 already has changed our world. There's a good possibility that it never goes away. Studying the source and figuring out how humanity is going to survive it should be our focus. I'm grateful for those in the scientific community who are frantically trying to save us from this virus.

    Now we need to learn how to save us from ourselves.

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    1. The bottle probably was a perfume bottle. I suspect one of the chained items is the stopper-dabber. Maybe an ear cleaning pick?

      You are right, we need to learn how to save us from ourselves!!

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  3. Very intriguing article, Pearl. I especially admire the way you draw comparisons between the historical and the currrent bigotry. Well done!!

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    1. Thank you! I think it is important we learn from the past. Although I'm grounded in science, I have been enthralled with history since my teens. Reading about the past helps me understand where we are today and how far we still have to go.

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  4. Wow, great information, Pearl. Horrifying and inspiring, both. Let's hope some of those positive parallels really bear fruit. I am truly sorry for the racist actions that are happening in the current crises (and always!).

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    1. Thanks! I do hope that all the suffering we have endured and the inequalities we have exposed during the pandemic will help all of us promote change for the better.

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  5. I was telling my students 2 days back how history has a way of repeating itself. A pandemic like covid is not new (maybe the virus is) but the world has seen the Spanish Flu (Avian flu) and the black death before that which led to devastation and eventually change. hopefully we become wiser this time.

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