Blood libel


The main myth was the Blood Libel, namely the belief that Jews murder non-Jews (especially Christians) in order to use their blood for Passover and other rituals. This libel was one of the utmost expressions of cruelty and mass hysteria in human history. The pattern was generally as follows: a corpse was found (usually of a child, often close to Easter), Jews were accused of having committed the murder to get the blood, the main rabbis or community leaders were detained and tortured till they confessed they had done it, and the outcome was the expulsion of the whole community, the torture of most of its members, or its outright extermination. Generation after generation, Jews were tortured in Europe, and Jewish communities were massacred or dispersed because of this libel.


Although the first cases happened in England, here blood libels were a strictly medieval phenomenon. In 1144, a boy called William was found dead in Norwich, and the local Jews were accused of “having bought the ‘boy-martyr’ before Easter and tortured him with all the tortures wherewith our Lord was tortured, and on Long Friday hanged him on a rood in hatred of our Lord.” The motif of torture and murder of Christian children in imitation of Jesus’ suffering persisted with slight variations throughout the 12th century. In the case of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln (1255) the chronicler Matthew Paris relates “that the Child was first fattened for ten days with white bread and milk and then... almost all the Jews of England were invited to the crucifixion.” This echoed the pagan myth (see Damocritus and Apion in our second lesson).


In Spain the myth was included in the law: “We have heard it said that in certain places on Good Friday the Jews do steal children and set them on the cross in a mocking manner” (“Siete Partidas” Code, 1263).


There were altogether around 130 cases of Blood Libel. They spread from England to Italy and Spain, and then Eastwards. In modern times it occurred mainly in Russia and Poland. Overall, Germany was the leader, as in many other aspects of Judeophobia. One third of all the blood libels took place there, most recently under Nazi rule (Memel, 1936, and Bamberg, 1937). A special issue of ‘Der Stürmer’ of May 1, 1934, was entirely devoted to the myth. Outside Germany, there were four other cases during the 20th century.


The first of these four was the Hilsner case. Thomas Masaryk, the founder and first president of modern Czechoslovakia, took a stand “not to defend Hilsner (a 22-year old vagabond of low intelligence) but to defend the Christians against superstition.” He was attacked by the mob and his university lectures were suspended because of student demonstrations against him. This affair stirred a Judeophobic campaign throughout Europe, conducted by Vienna blood libel “specialist” Ernst Schneider.


The libels created a satanic Jewish stereotype. The Jew detests purity, he disdains innocence and good in the Christian child. According to the German monk Caesarius of Heisterbach “the child sings, the Jews cannot endure this pure laudatory song, they cut off his tongue and hack him to pieces.”


The libel was repeated in literature and the arts. About a century after the expulsion of the Jews from England the cultural motif was the plot of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Prioress’ Tale,” where Jews obey their Satanic master and kill the child. In Spain, books supporting the libel were published by top writers in virtually every century, for instance: Rodrigo de Yepes (16th c.), Lope de Vega (17th c.), José de Canizares (18th c.), Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (19th c.), and Romero de Castilla (20th c.).


According to the account of the citizens of Trnava in 1494, the Jews believed that “the blood of a Christian was a good remedy for the wound of circumcision... that this blood put into food awakes mutual love... it is a medicine for menstruation which, among them, both men and women suffer... they have an ancient and secret ordinance to daily shed Christian blood in some spot or other...”


Again, the problem was not that the Church spread the libel. On the contrary, it usually opposed it, as did most heads of state. After the Fulda libel in 1235, in which Jews were accused of having taken the blood of five young Christian boys for medical purposes, Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen decided to clear up the matter definitively. If the accusation proved to be true, all the Jews in the empire were to be killed. If not, they were to be publicly exonerated. His inquiry turned into an all-Christian problem. Since the Church authorities with whom he consulted were not able to decide the matter due to their ignorance of Judaism, a synod of converts was convened and its conclusion was published by the emperor: “There is not to be found, wither in the Old or the New Testament, that the Jews are desirous of human blood. On the contrary, they avoid contamination with any type of blood... Those to whom even the blood of permitted animals is forbidden, cannot have a hankering after human blood. Against this accusation stands its cruelty, its unnaturalness.” A few years later Pope Innocent IV wrote that “Christians charge falsely that the Jews hold a communion rite with the heart of a murdered child; and should the cadaver of a dead man happen to be found anywhere they maliciously lay it to their charge.”


Neither the word of the emperor nor that of the pope were heeded. Accusations spread and massacres continued. The Church tried to stop them but with its characteristic ambivalence. The dead boys were considered martyrs and revered as such. Examples are Saint Hugh of Lincoln, the Holy Child of La Guardia, and Simon of Trento. Every year during centuries Christians worshipped the memory of those “martyrs” who had allegedly been murdered by blood-thirsty Jews.


The libel of La Guardia occurred on the eve of the expulsion from Spain. Conversos were tortured till they confessed that with the knowledge of the chief rabbi the Jews had assembled in a cave, crucified a child, abused him and cursed him as was done to Jesus. The crucifixion motif explained why blood libels occurred at the time of Passover.


Out of many cases in Italy, Trento was particularly infamous. In 1475 the friar Bernardino da Feltre announced that “the sins of the Jews were to be soon manifested to all.” A few days later, on Maundy Thursday, a boy named Simon disappeared and his corpse was soon found near the house of the head of the Jewish community. The whole community was arrested, including women and children. Seventeen of them were tortured for a fortnight till they “confessed.” Some Jews died of torture, the few who converted to Christianity were strangled, and the others burnt at the stake. Their property was confiscated. A papal court of inquiry in 1476 justified the libel, Sixtus IV endorsed the “legality” of the trial and the martyr Simon was beatified.


After his success, Friar Bernardino concocted similar scenarios at Reggio, Bassano and Mantua. He instigated the expulsion of the Jews from Peruggia, Gubbio, Ravenna, Campo San Pietro. His last victims were the Jews of Brescia in 1494, the year of Bernardino’s death, shortly after which he was beatified. It was five long centuries before the Church debeatified Simon in 1965.