I was reading up on some history on the Black Death and came across the name "Balavignus". He was a Jewish doctor who urged people to apply hygienic measures, based on some biblical verses in Leviticus, in order to fight the Black Death. Apparently he was successful in this, though he was later blamed for the Black Death and tortured for denying it.

Impressed by this story I did a google-search on his name only to find a mere 1150 results. The results are comprised largely of some books on google, on the Black Death, and a bunch of articles using the story as proof of God. There is only 1 wikipedia entry on him which references not a single source. Also the jewishencyclopedia mentions his name only once but does not label him Jewish nor a doctor.

Was Balavignus even real, and what evidence of him survived?

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Jakob Twinger von Königshofen, a German chronicler alive during the 14th century, documents the, possibly forced, confessions of several Jews, amongst which is Balavignus, in his book "Chronik” (English translation available in “The Black Death in the Fourteenth Century” p. 181).

Also, letters exchanged between cities, concerning the suspicion of the Jews having poisoned the wells, have been documented in "Urkunden und Akten der Stadt Strassburg" with letter 185 containing the confession of Balavignus.

  • 173. Köln an Straßburg : billet um wahren Bericht über die Verurteilung von Juden wegen Brunnenvergiftung.
  • 179. Rudolf von Oron u. a. an den Rat van Straßburg : machen Mitteilung über ihre Judenuntersuchungen.
  • 180. Bern An Meister und Rat : teilt mit, was er uber die Juden weis.
  • 181. Köln an Straßburg : billet um Mitteilung von Neuigkeiten bezüglich der Brunnenvergiftung durch Juden.
  • 182. Zofingen an Straßburg : verweigert die Zusendung des von den Juden gelegten Giftes.
  • 183. Colmar an Straßburg : teilt die Ergebnisse einer Judenuntersuchung mit.
  • 184. Burkart von Munsingen an Straßburg : berichtet uber die Ergebnisse eines Judenverhors.
  • 185. Der Castellan van Chillon sendet Straßburg Auszuge aus dem Protokoll.

Thus Balavignus was indeed a Jewish physician alive during the outbreak of the Black Death. Claims that he, in 1348, ordered people to follow the Biblical laws of Leviticus and thereby reducing the amount of Black Death victims to a mere 5%, in his neighbourhood, appear in the book "Magic, myth and medicine" by D.T Atkinson, along with other details of Balavignus. It is unclear, to me, what the original source is for the statements below.

In the early part of the fourteenth century at Thenon, near Strassburg, lived the Jewish physician Balavignus. Though he was distinguished among his people, his life was confined to narrow limits, and his services were not in demand except by his own race. 1

For the part he was to play in saving his people from the devastations of the great epidemic, fate early made of Balavignus a student of Arabian sanitation, a science unfamiliar to the gentile physicians of his time. 1

Balavignus was also a master of Jewish tradition and was in a position to apply literally the principles of Pentateuchal sanitation. These writings of Moses contain most practical instructions relating to disinfection and the incineration of refuse. The laws of health laid down in Leviticus are the basis of moderen sanitary science. 2

Besides being familiar with the Pentateuch, Balavignus was also a student of the Talmud, and Talmudic writings contain a great mass of medical information, setting for the scientific facts antedating many supposed modern discoveries by centuries. The talmud shows the Jews have been far in advance of their time in anatomy. Dissections of the human body had been performed and the results carefully noted. They had a passing familiarity with surgery, for they operated for stones in the bladder, inserted artificial teeth, and even performed te Caesarean section. Their thoughtful and progressive medical spirit is indicated by Talmudic writings which describe rabies and pleurisy and mention jaundice, giving its pathology as bile in the blood. These studies also shade the career of Balavignus that the ghettos under his supervision were entirely free from filthiness so general throughout Europe. 2

The plague being carried by rats, no condition could have been more conducive to its spread than was afforded by this general uncleanliness. Balavignus insisted that no better setting for an epidemic could be staged than this general lack of sanitation which was to be found in the homes and premises of his neighbors, both Jewish and Christian. Immediately following the advent of the epidemic , he instituted a cleanup movement among his people. In his campaign to promote general cleanliness it cannot be presumed that Balavignus had the modern conception of the cause of disease, but it is an undisputed fact that he senses in some way the relation between dirt and disease and attributed the plague to filth. 3

Following the sanitary laws as set down in Leviticus, Balavignus had all refuse burned. Naturally the rats left the ghettos and gravitated to gentile quarters in search for food. The Jews consequently suffered less from the disease than did there Christian neighbors, the mortality in the ghettos being five percent of what it was among the Christians. This was so noticeable that the Jews at once fell under suspicion. 4

Aside from the noticeable mortality difference, Atkinson offers another insight into why the Jews were easy scapegoats,

Some of the more fanatical inhabitants believed that such epidemics were the result of the anger of the Deity because of the infringement of his laws. Others looked to natural causes and were convinced that the water supply as well as the walls of the homes of the people were being poisoned. Many residents, both Jewish and Christian, were accused of poisoning the wells and were subjected to torture unto death if the failed to name their imaginary accomplices. In the extremity of suffering they were driven to making false accusations and were for the time relieved of their torture, but in nearly all instances they were finally burned. The Jewish population suffered especially, many if them being burned to death, each one of them having been subjected to torture for for varying periods in order to get names of supposed accomplices. The Jews at the time were not allowed to enter the profession in Europe or to compete with any non-Jewish person in business. Christians of the period were forbidden to take interest on money, so the Jews became the bankers of each country and made loans to Christians. It was due to this that so many Jews were suspected of poisoning the wells. Any accusation in this dark ages amounted in nearly every case to a conviction, and the plagues gave a golden opportunity to those indebted to the Jews for money to make accusations which would likely end in a conviction and a cancellation of their debts. 5

  1. Atkinson, D. T. (1958). Balavignus And The Rebirth of Sanitation. In Magic, myth and medicine (pp. 57). Retrieved from https://openlibrary.org
  2. Atkinson, D. T. (1958). Balavignus And The Rebirth of Sanitation. In Magic, myth and medicine (pp. 58). Retrieved from https://openlibrary.org
  3. Atkinson, D. T. (1958). Balavignus And The Rebirth of Sanitation. In Magic, myth and medicine (pp. 59). Retrieved from https://openlibrary.org
  4. Atkinson, D. T. (1958). Balavignus And The Rebirth of Sanitation. In Magic, myth and medicine (pp. 60). Retrieved from https://openlibrary.org
  5. Atkinson, D. T. (1958). Von Leber and the End of Legal Torture. In Magic, myth and medicine (pp. 160). Retrieved from https://openlibrary.org

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