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Judeophobia - History and analysis of Antisemitism, Jew-Hate and anti-"Zionism"
Chapter 6: hristian Persecution of Jews in Medieval Europe: III- Myths- Well Poisoning, Blood Libels and Desecration of the Host

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Chapter 6: Christian  Persecution of Jews in Medieval Europe: III- Myths- Well Poisoning, Blood Libels and Desecration of the Host


Main Page: Judeophobia ('Anti-Semitism') - A History and Analysis of Jew Hate

Judeophobia ('anti-Semitism',Jew Hate) in the Pagan Ancient World

Judeophobia (Anti-Semitism, Jew Hate) in the Early Christian Church

Medieval Persecution of Jews I - Proselytization, Conversions and Ghettos

Medieval Persecution of Jews: II- Crusades, Expulsions, Inquisitions and Massacres 

Medieval Persecution of Jews: III- Blood Libels and other Myths

Persecution of the Jews Under Islam

Judeophobia ('anti-Semitism') in the Reformation

Judeophobia in the Enlightenment and 19th Century France

Germany: Racism and Judeophobia ('Anti-Semitism')

Conspiratorial Theories and Russian Judeophobia ('Anti-Semitism')

Marxism and Judeophobia ('Anti-Semitism')

Judeophobia ('Anti-Semitism') in The United States

Contemporary Anti-Zionism

Holocaust Denial

Theories of the Etiology of Judeophobia ('Anti-Semitism')

Our last two chapters were about suffering. A book by Joseph Ha-kohen published in 1558 gives it the biblical title of “The Valley of Tears” (Emek Ha-Bakha). The author refers to “the hardships which befell us since the day of Judah’s exile from its land.” When we look at these tears and hardships with hindsight, three questions usually come to mind.

The first question is why do the Jews always suffer. If by “why” we’re enquiring about the reasons for Judeophobia, well, this what our study about, and we’ll have some answers when we are done. But the implication may be that it is paranoid to review history and find the Jews consistently cast in the rôle of the victims. Our answer is the conceptualization of Judeophobia as a social disease which consists of hatred of the Jews. We must be aware of the enormity of this boundless hatred, a hatred which, always had the Jews as its main victims. This loathing endured for twenty-five centuries, continued through a genocide of 6,000,000 of its target population (a third of it) after which it remained powerful and game for more.

The second question is whether the unsurpassed magnitude of Judeophobia means that the whole world hates (or hated) the Jews. No, it does not. Not everybody is sick with Judeophobia. But the sick, not the healthy, are the objects of our study, even if the majority are healthy.

The third question is whether the clergy of the medieval Church were unanimous in their murderous stance. Again, the answer is no. Even during periods in which all the Church was Judeophobic in its theoretical outlook, individual churchmen did not always behave violently towards the Jews. There are many examples of bishops and priests trying to protect Jews. When the synagogue of Ravenna was burned down (c.550), Theodoric ordered the Catholic population to rebuild it and to flog the arsonists. During the first crusade Bishop Cosmas saved the Jews of Prague. During the second crusade, Bernard of Clairvaux came actively in the defense of Jews who were being murdered. And there are numerous cases through the centuries.

The problem remains, however, that the most virulent Judeophobes within the Church, were (and are) revered as saints. Judeophobia was a crime committed with virtual impunity. The friar John Capristano (d.1456) instigated the abolishment of Jewish rights in Naples and other towns, and in Bavaria he pushed the authorities to enforce that Jews wear a badge, to expel them from several villages, and to have the debts owed to them by Christians canceled. Due to his activities in Breslau, many Jews were tortured and burned alive; many committed suicide. The abolishment of Jewish rights in Poland by Casimir IV was a further result of Capistrano’s maneuvers, and it set off a train of anti-Jewish violence. Capistrano did not allow the Jews to escape their fate: he was responsible for a papal edict which prohibited the transportation of Jews to the Land of Israel.

During his lifetime he received both the title “scourge of the Jews” and the office of papal Inquisitor. More than two centuries after his death, he was canonized, and every March 28 since then, Catholics worship his memory.

The message of the Church was at best inconsistent. It spread the teaching of contempt, and occasionally tried to stop the contemptuous as they ran to commit unspeakable crimes - but it was usually too late.

This standpoint of the Church never changed radically. That is why one of the first historians of the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg, was able to draw a chart in which he shows that each of the principal Nuremberg Nazi Laws had their precedent in ecclesiastical legislation. The Conference of Dutch Bishops of 1995 stated it very bluntly, in what was a major breakthrough in Church’s history: there is a direct road that leads from the New Testament theology to Auschwitz.

During WW2 the position of the Vatican reflected its habitual ambivalence. Its reservations about Nazism were limited to whatever affected Catholic non-Aryans. The encyclicals and statements of the Church rejected the racial dogma and questioned some Nazi theses as erroneous, but neither mentioned nor criticized the specific attack against Jews. In 1938, Pius XI is said to have condemned Judeophobic Christians, but this was omitted by all Italian papers from their account of the pope’s address. His successor Pius XII, a Germanophile, had received information about the murder of Jews in the camps as early as 1942. He nevertheless restricted all his public utterances to carefully phrased expressions of sympathy for the victims of injustice.

The pope’s neutrality and silence continued even when the Nazis rounded up 8,000 Roman Jews in 1943. On October 18, over 1,000 Jews, mostly women and children, were transported to Auschwitz. At the same time, more than 4,000 other Jews, with the knowledge and approval of the pope, found refuge in the numerous monasteries in Rome, and a few dozen in the Vatican itself.

The pope could have not halted the Holocaust, but he could have saved thousands of lives had he taken a public stand against the Nazis. Hitler, Goebbels and other Nazi leaders, died as members of the Catholic Church and were never excommunicated (President Perón of Argentina was excommunicated when he attacked the Church’s influence in 1955, and a few months later he was overthrown). A Catholic priest headed the pro-Nazi regime in Slovakia. A quarter of SS members were Catholic (as was almost half of the population of the Greater German Reich).

The resolute reaction of the German episcopate to the Nazi euthanasia program almost stopped it. Jews did not receive the solidarity that the Church gave to the insane and the retarded. Regarding the Jews, the Church was more interested in saving souls than lives. The diocesan chancelleries even helped the Nazi state to detect people of Jewish descent by supplying data from Church records on the religious background of their parishioners. When mass deportations of German Jews began in October 1941, the episcopate limited its intervention to pleading for Christians. When the bishops received reports about the mass murder of Jews in the death camps, their public reaction remained limited to vague pronouncements that did not mention the word Jews.

There were individual and national exceptions. One of the former was the Berlin prelate Bernhard Lichtenberg, who prayed publicly for Jews (and died on his way to Dachau). An exceptional country was Holland, where as early as 1934 the Church prohibited the participation of Catholics in the Nazi movement. Eight years later the bishops publicly protested the first deportations of Dutch Jews, and in May 1943 they forbade the collaboration of Catholic policemen in hunting down Jews, even at the cost of their jobs. Large numbers of Jews owe their lives to the courageous rescue activities of lesser clerics, monks, and Catholic laymen.

Now let’s move on to the three main Christian myths invented in the Middle Ages, through which Judeophobia has been transmitted since the 14th century.


The 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.

Desecration of the Host

Another main myth was the Host Desecration. According to the Christian doctrine of Transubstantiation, the wafer consecrated in the ceremony of Eucharist becomes thereby the actual body of Jesus (Protestants dropped the doctrine and consider the wafer only a symbol of the body, not Jesus himself; Catholics still hold it). The myth was the belief that Jews secretly stabbed, tormented and burned the consecrated wafer (this belief brought Judeophobia to a new peak of irrationality, since Jews obviously did not believe in Transubstantiation). This charge brought more persecution and massacre. Most of the forty infamous cases took place in Germany and Austria.

The first recorded case was in Belitz, near Berlin, in 1243 where Jewish men and women were burnt at the stake on this charge on the spot later known as the Judenberg (“Jews hill”). In Brussels it led to the extermination of Belgian Jewry (1370); in Knoblauch to 38 executions and the expulsion of the Jews from Brandenburg (1520); in Lisbon all New Christians were banished from the country (1671). The genocide by Rindfleisch that we discussed earlier started with a desecration of the Host charge. The last accusation of desecration was in Rumania, 1836.

At least two of the post-desecration expulsions are still celebrated every year. One at Deggendorf in Bavaria (since 1337) and one at Segovia in Spain (since 1415), where the alleged desecration is said to have caused an earthquake which resulted in the confiscation of the synagogue and the execution of leading Jews. (As to the reason why blood was supposedly found on the host: stale food kept in a dry place often produces a scarlet fungoid organism blood-colored, called for this reason the Micrococcus Prodigiosus).

The Black Death and Poisoning the Wells

The third myth was referred to at the end of our last class, namely the Black Death. In this case the relation between the myth and its consequential massacres was direct and obvious. Between 1348 and 1350, one hundred million people, a third of Europe’s population, died of an epidemic caused by the bacillus “pasteurella pestis.” In centers with denser populations, such as monasteries, the proportion of dead people was higher. People had extreme reactions, either seeking recourse to religion through repentance and supplication to God, or reverting to licentiousness, lawbreaking and savagery. These two types of reaction often combined to accuse the Jews of having poisoned the wells and therefore being the cause of the death (after so much persecution, Christians could imagine that the Jews might seek revenge).

Pope Clement VI came out to defend the Jews, as did the emperors, but massacres broke out throughout Europe. All appeals to reason were ineffective, and in many places Jews were killed even before the plague had visited the locality.

The first case was in September 1348 in the Castle of Chillon on Lake Geneva. The Jews’ “confessed” that the disease was spread by a Jew of Savoy on the instructions of a rabbi who had prepared the poison.

The defamation, killings and expulsions spread from Spain to Poland, affecting about 300 Jewish communities. Emperor Charles IV, who initially defended the victims, finally granted “forgiveness for every transgression involving the slaying and destruction of the Jews.” A group of “Flagellants” roamed through Germany expiating their sins by stirring up attacks on Jews.

In Mainz the Jews in desperation set fire to their own homes and to the Jewish street; 6,000 Jews perished in the flames. In Strasbourg 2,000 Jews were burnt on a wooden scaffold. But the Black Death not only resulted in the immediate destruction of Jewish lives, but also fed popular imagination with even more horrible characteristics added to the already odious image of the Jew. After the Black Death the legal status of the Jews deteriorated almost everywhere in Europe.

There were other myths in medieval Judeophobia, but none as murderous as the three just explained. For example, the Wandering Jew is based upon a legend heard for the first time in Bologna in 1233. It influenced art and literature, but caused no Jews to be massacred.

In contrast, the aforementioned trilogy were the essence of sheer sadism, and made the term “Jewish” synonymous with “diabolical.” In medieval art, the Jew was portrayed with horns, a tail, an evil visage; his company was that of devils, sows, scorpions: his poses grotesque. The image was further elaborated by men of letters, preachers and apologists, and was seized upon as a motif in mob aggressions.

In the 16th century there was a split within the Church, and Protestantism was born. This could have been the dawning of the breakdown of Judeophobia, but these expectations were dashed as we will see.

Gustavo Perednik

Next: Chapter 7: Persecution of the Jews Under Islam

Start - Judeophobia - A History and Analysis of Jew Hate or so-called Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism

Gustavo Perednik


These pages are adapted by the kind permission of Dr. Gustavo Perednik.They  are based on a twelve-lecture Internet course prepared for "The Jewish University in Cyberspace." During 2000 and 2001, the book by Gustavo Perednik "Judeophobia" was published in Spanish. This course summarizes the core ideas of the book. It presents a comprehensive and unique analysis of the development of Jew hate (Judeophobia or anti-Semitism) throughout history. It tries to answer the question "why the Jews?" - why have Jews been particularly singled out for ethnic, racial and religious persecution, and it traces the relationship between anti-Zionism and racist Judeophobia or so-called anti-Semitism.

Zionism and Israel Information Center is grateful to Dr. Perednik for his permission to popularize his works.

History of anti-Zionism External link: Antisemitism


Reproduced by permission. This work is copyright ©1997-2005 by Gustavo Perednik. Please do not copy it in any form without direct permission from the author.  All rights reserved

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