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Encyclopaedia Judaica

Blood libels against Jews and Christians in the Middle Ages 1144-1491

How Christian rumours lead to impossible allegations of killing children or using blood for remedies

Blood libels in Europe, map
Blood libels in Europe, map

from: Blood Libel; In: Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971, vol. 4

presentation by Michael Palomino (2007)

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<BLOOD LIBEL, the allegation that Jews murder non-Jews especially Christians, in order to obtain blood for the Passover or other rituals; a complex of deliberate lies, trumped-up accusations, and popular beliefs about the murder-lust of the Jews and their bloodthirstiness, based on the conception that Jews hate Christianity and mankind in general.

It is combined with the delusion that Jews are in some way not human and must have recourse to special remedies and subterfuges in order to appear, at least outwardly, like other men. The blood libel led to trials and massacres of Jews in the Middle Ages and early modern times; it was revived by the Nazis. Its origin is rooted in ancient, almost primordial, concepts concerning the potency and energies of *blood.> (col. 1120)

[One has to consider that in former times there was no free press, there was no free information, and there was not even a telephone in former times. By this a stupid story could spread up to a severe rumour and to severe action of stupid people when no justice existed, and mostly, there was no good justice, and until now justice is manipulated, also with telephone, with TV, even with the internet justice is sometimes very stupid and not at all a justice].

[Fact: Torah forbids blood sacrifice - missing images and statues in Jewish religion leads to accusations]

<Origins [defamations in the Greek and Roman time].

Blood sacrifices were practices by many pagan religions. They are expressly forbidden by the Torah. The law of meat-salting (*melihah) is designed to prevent the least drop of avoidable blood remaining in food. Yet pagan incomprehension of the Jewish monotheist cult, lacking the customary images and statues, led to charges of ritual killing.
[The story about a kidnapped Greek, fattened in the forest and hanged with an oath against the Greeks]

At a time of tension between Hellenism and Judaism, it was alleged that the Jews would kidnap a Greek (col. 1120)

foreigner, fatten him up for a year, and then convey him to a wood, where they slew him, sacrificed his body with the customary ritual, partook of his flesh, and while immolating the Greek swore and oath of hostility to the Greeks. This was told, according to "Apion, to King "Antiochus Epiphanes by an intended Greek victim who had been found in the Jewish Temple being fattened by the Jews for this sacrifice and was saved by the king (Jos., Apion, 2:89-102).

Some suspect that stories like this were spread intentionally as propaganda for Antiochus Epiphanes to justify his profanation of the Temple.  Whatever the immediate cause, the tale is the outcome of hatred of the Jews and incomprehension of their religion.

[The rumours about eating of babies]

To be victims of this accusation was also the fate of other misunderstood religious minorities. In the second century C.E. the *Church Father Tertullian complained:

"We are said to be the most criminal of men, on the score of our sacramental baby-killing, and the baby-eating that goes with it."

He complains that judicial torture was applied to Christians because of this accusation, for

"it ought ... to be wrung out of us [whenever that false charge is made] how many murdered babies each of us has tasted ... Oh! the glory of that magistrate who had brought to light some Christian who had eaten up to date a hundred babies!"
(Apologeticus, 7:1 and 1:12, Loeb edition (1931), 8, 36).

Middle Ages.

[The rumours against Christian splinter groups - questions about the Jesus body]

During the Middle Ages some heretical Christian sects were afflicted by similar accusations. The general attitude of Christians toward the holy bread of the Communion created an emotional atmosphere in which it was felt that the divine child was mysteriously hidden in the partaken bread.

The popular preacher, Friar Berthold of Regensburg (13th century), felt obliged to explain why communicants do not actually see the holy child by asking the rhetorical question,

"Who would like to bite off a baby's head or hand or foot?"

[The rumours about healing or damaging blood in Christianity - blood accusations coming up]

Popular beliefs and imaginings of the time, either of classical origin or rooted in Germanic superstitions, held that blood, even the blood of executed malefactors or from corpses, possesses the property of healing or causing injury. Thus, combined with the general hatred of Jews then prevailing, a charge of clandestine cruel practices and blood-hunting, which had evolved among the pagans and was used against the Christians, was deflected by Christian society to the most visible and persistent minority in opposition to its tenets.

As Christianity spread in Western Europe and penetrated the popular consciousness [since 13th century by inquisition], influencing the emotions and imagination even more than thought and dogma, various story elements began to evolve around the alleged inhumanity and sadism of the Jews.

[Norwich in 1144: Rumour about a boy on a crucifix - more processes about the same theme until 1491]

In the first distinct case of blood libel against Jews in the Middle Ages, that of *Norwich in 1144, it was alleged that the Jews had

"bought a Christian child [the 'boy-martyr' William] 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' Passion persisted with slight variations throughout the 12th century (Gloucester, England, 1168; Blois, France, 1171; Saragossa, Spain, 1182), and was repeated in many libels of the 13th century.

In the case of Little Saint Hugh of *Lincoln, 1255, it would seem that an element taken directly from Apion's libel (see above) was interwoven into the Passion motif, for 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."

The crucifixion motif was generalized in the Siete Partidas law code of Spain, 1263:

"We have heard it said that in certain places on Good Friday the Jews do steal children and set them on the cross (col. 1121)

in a mocking manner."

[Rumours about the motives of the child abuse of Christian children]

Even when other motifs eventually predominated in the libel, the crucifixion motif did not disappear altogether. On the eve of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, there occurred the blood-libel case of "the Holy Child of *La Guardia" (1490-91). There, *Conversos were made to confess under torture that with the knowledge of the chief rabbi of the Jews they had assembled in a cave, crucified the child, and abused him and cursed him to his face, as was done to Jesus in ancient times. The crucifixion motif explains why the blood libels occurred at the time of Passover.

The Jews were well aware of the implications of sheer sadism involved in the libel. In a dirge lamenting the Jews massacred at Munich because of a blood libel in 1286, the anonymous poet supposedly quotes the words of the Christian killers:

"These unhappy Jews are sinning, they kill Christian children, they torture them in all their limbs, they take the blood cruelly to drink" (A. M. Habermann (ed.): Sefer Gezerot Ashkenaz ve-Zarefat (1946), 199).

This ironical "quotation" contains an added motif in the libels, the thirst of the Jew for blood, out of his hatred for the good and true. This is combined in 13th-century Germany with the conception that the Jew cannot endure purity: he hates the innocence of the Christian child, its joyous song and appearance.

This motif, found in the legendary tales of the monk Caesarius of Heisterbach in Germany, underwent various transmutations. In the source from which Caesarius took his story the child killed by the Jews sings erubescat judaeus ("let the Jew be shamed"). In Caesarius' version, the child sings the Salve Regina. The Jews cannot endure this pure laudatory song and try to frighten him and stop him from singing it. When he refuses they cut off his tongue and hack him to pieces.

About a century after the expulsion of the Jews from England the cultural motif only became the basis of Geoffrey *Chaucer's "Prioress' Tale". Here the widow's little child sings the Alma Redemptoris Mater while "the serpent Sathanas, That hath in Jews herte his waspes nest" awakens indignation in the cruel Jewish haeart:

"O Hebraik peple, allas! /
Is this to yow a thing that is honest, /
That swich a boy shal wacken as him lest /
In your despyt, and singe of swich  sentence /
Which is agayn your lawes reverence?"

The Jews obey the promptings of their (col. 1122)

Satanic master and kill the child; a miracle brings about their deserved punishment. Though the scene of this tale is laid in Asia, at the end of the story Chaucer takes care to connect Asia explicitly with bygone libels in England, and the motif of hatred of the innocent with the motif of mockery of the crucifixion:

"O younge Hugh of Lincoln, slayn also /
With cursed Jewes, as it is notable, /
For it nis but a litel shyel ago; /
Preye eek for us."

[The rumour that Jews take Christian blood for making remedies]

In the blood libel of *Fulda (1236) another motif comes to the fore: the Jews taking blood for medicinal remedies (here of five young Christian boys).

The strange medley of ideas about the use of blood by the Jews is summed up by the end of the Middle Ages, in 1494, by the citizens of Tyrnau (*Trnava). The Jews need blood because "firstly, they were convinced by the judgment of their ancestors, that the blood of a Christian was a good remedy for the alleviation of the wound of circumcision. Secondly, they were of opinion that this blood, put into food, is very efficacious for the awakening of mutual love. Thirdly, they had discovered, as men and women among them suffered equally from menstruation, that the blood of a Christian is a specific medicine for it, when drunk. Fourthly, they had an ancient but secret ordinance by which they are under obligation to shed Christian blood in honor of God, in daily sacrifices, in some spot or other ... the lot for the present year had fallen on the Tyrnau Jews."

[More elements mixed into the rumours - tortured Jews for centuries]

To the motifs of crucifixion, sadism, hatred of the innocent and of Christianity, and the unnaturalness of the Jews and its cure by the use of good Christian blood, there were added, from time to time, the ingredients of sorcery, perversity, and a kind of "blind obedience to a cruel tradition".

Generation ofter generation of Jews in Europe was tortured, and Jewish communities were massacred or dispersed and broken up because of this libel (see map).> (col. 1123)

MAP (col. 1125-1126)

[How the rumours were spread: Agents, preachers, tales]

<It was spread by various agents. Popular preachers ingrained it in the minds of the common people. It became embedded, through miracle tales, in their imagination and beliefs.

[The rumours become superstition]

This caused in Moravia, in about 1343, "a woman of ill fame to come with the help of another woman and propose to an old Jew of Brno, named Osel, her child for sale for six marks, because the child was red in hair and in face. The Jew simulated gladness, immediately gave three marks to the woman, and invited them to come with the child to a cellar the next day, early in the morning, under the pretext that he had to consult about the buying of the child with the bishop of the Jews and the elders." The Jew invited Christian officials, who imprisoned the women and punished them horribly (B. Bretholz: Quellen zur Geschichte der Juden in Maerchen (1935), 27-28).

[Fulda: Emperor Frederick II blames all Jews - all Christians are torn into the Fulda conflict - statement of the church - the Jewish religion does not need any blood]

The majority of the heads of state and the church opposed the circulation of the libel. Emperor *Frederick II of Hohenstaufen decided, after the Fulda libel, to clear up the matter definitively, and have all the Jews in the empire killed if the accusation proved to be true, or exonerate them publicly if false, using this as an occasion to arbitrate in a matter affecting the whole of Christendom. The enquiry into the blood libel was thus turned into an all-Christian problem.

The emperor, who first consulted the recognized church authorities, later had to turn to a device of his own. In the words of his summing-up of the enquiry (see ZGJD), 1 (1887), 142-4), the usual church authorities

"expressed various opinions about the case, and as they have been proved incapable of coming to a conclusive decision ... we found it necessary ... to turn to such people that were once Jews and have converted to the worship of the Christian faith; for they, as opponents, will not be silent about anything that they may know in this matter against the Jews."

The emperor adds that he himself was already convinced, through his knowledge and wisdom, that the (col. 1123)

Jews were innocent. He sent to the kings of the West, asking them to send him decent and learned converts to Christianity to consult in the matter. The synod of converts took place and came to the conclusion, which the emperor published:

"There is not to be found, either in the Old or the New Testament, that the Jews are desirous of human blood. On the contrary, they avoid contamination with any kind of blood."

The document quotes from various Jewish texts in support, adding,

"There is also a strong likelihood that those to whom even the blood of permitted animals is forbidden, cannot have a hankering after human blood. Against this accusation stand its cruelty, its unnaturalness, and the sound human emotions which the Jews have also in relation to the Christians. It is also unlikely that they would risk [through such a dangerous action] their life and property."

A few years later, in 1247, 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."

[The Emperor and the Pope are not heard by the other church authorities - stop of the libel only in 1965]

Neither emperor nor pope were heeded.

Jewish scholars in the Middle Ages bitterly rejected this inhuman accusation. They quoted the Law and instanced the Jewish way of life in order to refute it. The general opinion of the Jews is summed up thus:

"You are libeling us for you want to find a reason to permit the shedding of our blood" (the 12th-13th centuries Sefer Nizzahon Yashan-Liber Nizzachon Vetus, p. 159, in: Tela Ignaea Satanae, ed. J. Ch. Wagenseil, 1681). However, the Jewish denials, like the opinion of enlightened Christian leaders, did not succeed in preventing the blood libels from shaping to a large extent the image of the Jew transmitted from the Middle Ages to modern times. (It was only in 1965 that the church officially repudiated the blood libel of *Trent by canceling the beatification of Simon and the celebrations in his honor).> (col. 1124)

go to blood libels in modern times

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-- M. Samuel: Blood Accusation (1966)
-- M. Hacohen (ed.): Mishpatim ve-Alilot Dam (1967)
-- H. L. Strack: The Jew and Human Sacrifice (1909)
-- C. Roth: Rutual Murder Libel and the Jew (1935)
-- D. Hruby; In: W. P. Eckert and E. L. Ehrlich (eds.): Judenhass-Schuld der Christen? (1964), 281-308; idem; In: Der Judenchrist (1960/62)
-- J. Trachtenberg: Devil and the Jews (1943), 124-55
-- Baer, Spain, 2 (1966), 398-423
-- Il Piccolo martire S. Domenichino de Val, Patrono di Chierichetti (1960)
-- M. I. Seiden: Paradox of Hate (1967)> (col. 1131)

Encyclopaedia Judaica: Blood libel against
                        Jews in the Middle Ages, vol. 3, col. 1120
Encyclopaedia Judaica: Blood libel against Jews in the Middle Ages, vol. 3, col. 1120
Encyclopaedia Judaica: Blood libel against
                        Jews in the Middle Ages, vol. 3, col. 1121-1122
Encyclopaedia Judaica: Blood libel against Jews in the Middle Ages, vol. 3, col. 1121-1122
Encyclopaedia Judaica: Blood libel against
                        Jews in the Middle Ages, vol. 3, col. 1123-1124
Encyclopaedia Judaica: Blood libel against Jews in the Middle Ages, vol. 3, col. 1123-1124