Conspiracy theories have grown in popularity in the last decade. Be it JFK, 9-11 or climate change such theories inspire hundreds of books and spawn thousands of websites each year. However no modern theory enjoys the popularity similar theories had in the medieval period. While researching for my upcoming book “1348: A Medieval Apocalypse: The Black Death in Ireland” I came across a medieval conspiracy theory that was embraced by most of population of the kingdom of France including the king Phillip V. It resulted in a wave of mass-killing and torture.

The supposed conspiracy is best described in the words of a contemporary of the time – the infamous church inquisitor Bernardo Gui (of The name of the Rose fame) in the following manner

BernardoGui‘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 fountains and wells everywhere, by placing poison and infected matter in them and by mixing (into the water) prepared powders, so that healthy men drinking from them or using the water thus infected, would become lepers, or die, or almost die, and thus the numbers of the lepers would be increased and the healthy decreased.’

This conspiracy spread like wild fire through the Kingdom of France in the summer of 1321. When it reached the royal court of king Phillip V embraced the theory and issued an edict for the general arrest of lepers. This edict included provision for the use of torture to extract confessions. It also specified that those who admitted guilt were to be burned at the stake. Even pregnant women did not escape. They were spared until they had given birth and weaned their children. Then they too were consigned to the flames. Medieval-leprosy-genome-explains-sudden-declineOnce torture was used on the innocent lepers the conspiracy began to grow. Unsurprisingly given the widespread anti-semitism in medieval Europe, Jews were implicated. This was quickly followed by accusation against Muslims. Like all such theories the detail differed form place to place. Some versions blamed rich Jews as the orchestrators of the plot while others pointed the finger at the Muslim king of Granada.

While the theory was clearly ludicrous, the consequences in 1321 were dire. Not only were numerous Jews and lepers tortured but this was followed by a wave of executions. Those supposedly guilty were burned alive. Among the most infamous of these executions was the burning to death of one hundred and sixty Jews at the royal court at Chinon in 1321.

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