National Post (National Edition)
WORST YEARS EVER: IN 1348, A DEADLY PLAGUE SWEPT EUROPE AND AN EVIL IDEA TOOK ROOT.
SACHA BARON COHEN KNOWS HIS CARTOONISH RACIST IMAGERY, AND THE IMAGE OF JEWS SKULKING AROUND POISONING WELLS, SICKENING THE VOLK, IS PART OF A CULTURAL RESERVOIR OF RACIST IMAGERY WITH EARLY MEDIEVAL ORIGINS THAT SURVIVE TO THE PRESENT DAY.
Was 2020 the worst year ever? The National Post puts a silly question to a serious test by stacking 2020 up against other years of plague, war, genocide, and human misery, all to answer the unusually urgent question of what makes a bad year the worst.
Borat made his big return to the little screen in 2020. Promoting his sequel that was released just before the U.S. presidential election, the actor Sacha Baron Cohen caused a fuss at a right wing March For Our Rights in Olympia, Wash., in June by getting on stage in full hillbilly getup to sing a call-and-answer song, where the reply to “Obama, what we gonna do?” is “Inject him with the Wuhan Flu,” and so on.
This was a familiar prank. The first time he pulled this stunt as Borat was in the early 2000s at a country bar in Tucson, Ariz., when he got enthusiastic crowd response for his song In My Country There is Problem with its singalong refrain of “Throw the Jew down the well, so my country can be free.”
Just as the Wuhan Flu song tapped into 2020's rising bigotry toward Chinese people, Borat's original racist country song was a richly detailed survey of European anti-Semitic tropes. “You must grab him by his horns,” the song goes. “You must grab him by his money.”
Like a truly bad year, it was funny but also not funny.
The central image of a well was no accident. Sacha Baron Cohen knows his cartoonish racist imagery, and the image of Jews skulking around poisoning wells, sickening the volk, is part of a cultural reservoir of racist imagery with early medieval origins that survive to the present day.
Conspiracy theories about Jews have a long history, going back at least as far as the Crusades. For example, the blood libel about ritual sacrifice was already current by the 12th century. This was the context in which the anti-Semitic slander of well-poisoning really took off in what was very arguably the Worst Year Ever, 1348 CE.
The Black Death, the bubonic plague outbreak in Europe, North Africa, and western Asia, which reached Italy in 1348, was the most deadly pandemic the world has ever known. Perhaps 100 million people died.
This outbreak of Yersinia pestis bacteria is what inspired Giovanni Boccaccio to later write The Decameron, a collection of stories told by rich Florentines as they wait out a plague in louche comfort in the Tuscan hills. This classic enjoyed a boost among pandemic readers this year, as did The Masque of the Red Death, a 19th-century Gothic reinterpretation of older plague themes by Edgar Allan Poe.
Those living at the time did not know it, but the Black Death was carried by fleas on rats. It had been in Sicily for a few months, and arrived in Genoa and Venice on trading ships from the Black Sea in January 1348. Soon, it was everywhere. Grasping for an explanation, some suspicion settled on a convenient minority.
For Christians, demonizing Jews with well-poisoning stories marked an important development in anti-Semitism, whose most influential practitioners have always reached deep into historical culture for their justifications, in some cases literally as far back as Christianity goes.
In that image of the well, from Boccaccio's time to Borat's, ideas about the dark subterranean netherworld mingled with ideas about money and wealth, via the mythology of Pluto, Greek god of both wealth and the underworld, whose other name is Hades, the “unseen one.”
Horns, wells, He l l , money, the unseen, the unknown. All of this helped the well-poisoning stories cast the Jews of medieval Europe as sinister interlopers among Christians. It was a powerfully evil idea that took off during a plague year and has simply never gone away.