Pandemics and Economics in History #6

Disease, Plots and Animosities

Pandemics and Economics in History #6: Disease, Plots, and Animosities

Episode #5 looked briefly at how infections have been blamed, throughout history, on people one group considered foreign and dangerous. Tahitians called syphilis “the British disease,” for example, while the French called it “Neapolitan disease.” The spread of various infections, over the centuries, seems to have regularly intensified existing animosities and interacted in complex ways with economic realities of the times.

The Plague Cycle, by Charles Kenny, cited in last week’s episode, highlighted one odd example. A conspiracy theory in the year 1321 claimed that lepers — people suffering from what is now called Hansen’s Disease — were plotting to infect the whole of France through water supplies. The Plague Cycle notes that Jews of France were accused, along with distant Muslim leaders, of orchestrating the plot. These accusations led to torture and death or banishment for lepers and Jews. Kenny’s narrative then quickly shifts to plague-related pogroms in the same century, concluding: “anti-Semitism was not created by the plague, but the plague gave anti-Semites a murderous excuse” (p.87).

The Plague Cycle covers a lot of territory, from prehistory to Covid-19, so perhaps there was simply no room for the Crusades in discussion of the Lepers Plot. But the context of the Crusades does provide some clarifying background for this strange conspiracy story.

Kenny’s description of the Lepers Plot — a few paragraphs in a chapter entitled, “The Exclusion Instinct” — can suggest that the whole situation is about groups of people distrusting one another and forever blaming the outsider. And no doubt this is part of the equation. But it also helps to recall that, in the 1300s, Christian and Muslim rulers in what is now France and Spain were in an extended war. The Christians framed their battle as a Crusade for the soul of Europe, seeking to rid the land of Muslims and Jews, whom they considered infidels.

14th Century France

Charles Savona-Ventura, a medical professor and historian, offers more detail: Climatic changes in southern Europe in the early 1300s brought about crop failures. “This brought about unrest and disgruntlement among the masses,” he writes:

In France, the frustrations brought about by religious [fervor] against the threat of Islamic incursion of Christian lands, together with the suffering brought about by the climate-induced famine looked upon as punishment for failing the religion, resulted in a redirection of attention towards the Jewish community…The Jewish population had been evicted…in 1306 resulting in the welcome elimination of any debt owed to Jewish moneylenders. Louis X had allowed the Jews to return to the kingdom thus reviving the extant debts and furthermore becoming a partner in the recovery of these debts. — p.32

The 2019 paper continues, explaining that lepers were feared by the healthy population, partly due to a widely held belief at the time that disease symbolized punishment for sin.

Savona-Ventura adds, however:

The hysteria may well have been further fuelled by a desire of the monarchy and municipal authorities to appropriate the benefices of the various leprosaria [revenues of the lepers’ houses] and belongings of the Jewish community. — p. 36

The Lepers Plot conspiracy theory didn’t just pop up one day: it was brewed from deep, long-standing, intermingled issues of religion, politics, economics….and just plain greed.

The Inquisitor of Toulouse is quoted as writing at the time:

In 1321 there was detected and prevented an evil plan of the lepers against the healthy persons in the kingdom of France. Indeed, plotting against the safety of the people, these persons, unhealthy in body and insane in mind had arranged to infect the waters of the rivers and foundations and wells everywhere… they aspired to the lordship of towns and castles, and had already divided among themselves lordship of places…

— Bernard Gui, Inquisitor of Toulouse 1307-1324, quoted in Malcolm Barber, “Lepers, Jews, and Moslems”

These tropes — seeing marginalized people as threat to person, property, and power of some, and using rhetoric of public safety to foment violence — seem all too familiar these days, and we will see them in future episodes as well.

Passover and Other Holidays

One additional related note…

Threats against Jews in particular — mentioned in this and the previous episode — seem timely, given that Passover starts this coming Saturday evening and Passover was historically a time of other bizarre accusations against Jews, often called “Blood Libel,” sometimes resulting in mayhem and violence. This year, in the United States, especially, Jews of all backgrounds and Asians in- and outside the Jewish community are struggling with how to raise issues of anti-Asian hate during the upcoming observance. Jewish World Watch has also organized a Freedom Seder in support of Uyghur human rights as well as a related week of action (link below).

No doubt, many Christians and Muslims are considering these issues in the context of their own upcoming holidays and many others are at work on countering anti-Asian hate, dismantling white supremacy, and protecting human rights worldwide.


Gui, Bernard (Inquisitor of Toulouse 1307-1324) found in Malcolm Barber, Lepers, Jews, and Moslems: the plot to overthrow Christendom in 1321 (University of Reading, February 1981, Wiley Press)

Kenny, Charles. The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease. NY: Scribner, 2021. Booktalk on C-SPAN in January. Also available on YouTube.

Savona-Ventura, Charles. “The Leper’s Plot of 1321 – Evidence of a nation-wide leprosaria network in 14th century France.” Acta Historiae Sancti Lazari Ordinis, vol.3 (2019). via

Jewish World Watch Freedom Seder (March 30) and Week of Action 2021

See also:

Also, visit Community Thru Covid for more discussion on history and current events.

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