Ritual Murder/Blood Libel
In 1144, an unfounded rumor circulated in England that Jews had kidnapped a Christian child from the town of Norwich, tied him to a cross, stabbed his head to simulate Jesus’ crown of thorns, killed him, drained his body of blood, and mixed the blood into Passover matzos (unleavened bread). Purportedly, the rumor was started by a converted Jew named Theobald who had become a monk. He reported that certain Jews gathered each year in Narbonne, France, where it was decided in which city a Christian child would be sacrificed.
The child involved in the Theobald hoax became known as St. William of Norwich. Pilgrimages were made to his tomb and miracles were said to have resulted from prayers to him. The myth demonstrates a lack of understanding of Judaic belief because, aside from the Torah prohibition against killing innocent people, the Torah specifically forbids the drinking, eating or touching of any form of blood. This particular rumor, nonetheless, persisted for centuries. Pope Innocent IV (1243–54) ordered an investigation in 1247 which found the myth to be an invention used to justify Jewish persecution. At least four other popes subsequently vindicated the accused from culpability, but blood libel/ritual murder accusations, trials and executions, nonetheless, stubbornly persisted for centuries.
While the Norwich incident did not result in any known attacks against Jews, the first instance of ritual murder/blood libel alleged to have occurred in France nearly 30 years later proved deadly. In 1171, the Jewish community of Bloiss, southwest of Paris, was accused of crucifying a Christian child for Passover and tossing his body into a local river. The entire community was imprisoned and then sentenced to be burned to death. When the Jews were taken to the execution site, they were told they could save themselves by converting to Christianity, but nearly all of them refused to do so. A number of Jewish children, reportedly, were forcibly baptized.
According to Joshua Trachtenberg, author of “The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism,” ritual murder/blood libel accusations against Jews had a profoundly negative influence on public opinion. “Crowning the diabolical conception of the Jew,” Trachtenberg wrote, “it rendered him a figure of such sinister horror even in that blood-stained, terror-haunted period that it is little wonder that common folk came to despise and to fear and to hate him with a deep fanatical intensity.”
In 1825, a book written by Ferdinand Jabalot, procurator general of the Dominican order, was published and widely distributed throughout Europe. It restated traditional libels against Jews (e.g., they were deicides crazed with the lust for lucre and desired to bring about the ruin of Christians). So intense was their hatred of Christianity, Jabalot wrote, that no evil was too great for them: “They wash their hands in Christian blood, set fire to churches, trample the consecrated Host…..kidnap children and drain them of their blood, violate virgins.” Jews are ever busy “cheating, and hoodwinking Christians,” which was no surprise, since the Talmud called on Jews to cheat Christians at every opportunity. Christians unfortunate enough to fall into their clutches are likely to emerge “not only without their shirt, but without their skin.” Pope Leo XII (1823–29) subsequently appointed Fr. Jabalot head of the Dominican order worldwide.
In April, 1840, newspapers throughout Europe reported a story from Damascus, Syria, about the disappearance of an elderly Italian Capuchin monk, Fr. Tommaso da Calangiano della Sardegna. Fellow monks, allegedly, spread a rumor that Fr. Tommaso had last been seen heading for the city’s Jewish quarter (ghett0). Twelve Jewish leaders were arrested. Four died from mistreatment; most of the rest, all of whom were tortured, “confessed” their involvement in the monk’s ritual murder. Jasper Chasseaud, an American diplomat in Beirut, wrote: “A most barbarous secret for a long time suspected in the Jewish nation…at last came to light in the city of Damascus that of serving themselves of Christian blood in their unleavened bread…a secret which these 1840 years must have made many unfortunate victims.”
In 1867, Pius IX endorsed the blood libel myth when he decreed that the cult surrounding an allegedly martyred child, Lorenzino of Marastica, would be accorded official status. According to church accounts, on Good Friday 1485, when Lorenzino went out to play, Jews seized him, tore off his clothes and crucified him on a nearby tree, draining his blood to make Passover matzos. In 1869, Henri Gougenot des Mousseaux published a book entitled, “The Jew: Judaism and the Judaization of Christian Peoples,” arguing that Jews required the blood of Christian children for their Passover matzos. Pius IX praised the book and its author, awarding him the Cross of Commander of the Papal Order.
In 1913, Pius X refused to intervene in the Menachem Mendel Beilis trial, then taking place in Kiev, Ukraine, one of the twentieth century’s most notorious cases of ritual murder. Beilis, who worked in a Jewish-owned factory, was arrested in 1911 and charged with killing a boy on factory grounds. Jewish leaders were particularly alarmed by the flood of articles in the Catholic press telling, in gruesome detail, of past supposed ritual murders perpetrated by Jews. After a priest testified during the trial that ritual murders were historical fact, a number of influential English Jews asked the Duke of Norfolk, a Catholic, to appeal to the pope to refute the libel. Pius X, however, refused to intervene. According to David Kertzer, author of “The Pope Against the Jews,” by not taking this step (to refute the libel), Pius X allowed the Catholic press, including that part of it viewed inside and outside the Church as communicating the pope’s true sentiment, to continue to tar the Jews with the ritual murder charge.
More recently, in 1928 a four-year-old girl went missing just before Yom Kippur in the upstate New York community of Massena. A town resident suggested it could be a blood libel kidnapping. Although the little girl turned up unharmed, after having wandered into the woods, there was speculation that she was released only because the plot was discovered. Accordingly, the mayor organized a boycott of Massena’s Jewish owned businesses, as the Nazis would do in Germany in April, 1933.
There have been, at least, 150 recorded cases of blood libel/ritual murder, beginning with Theobald hoax in 1144, most of which led to violence against Jews.
Catholics believe that during the rite of the Mass, bread (the host) is transformed into the body of Jesus, and wine into his blood (Transubstantiation). The host and wine are then consumed by the priest and believers in attendance. A variation of the blood libel myth involving the host surfaced in Europe early in the eleventh century. Instead of accusing Jews of killing an innocent child, they were accused of desecrating the host, sometimes by stabbing pins into, or stepping on it. Other times, they were accused of stabbing the host with a knife or nailing it to a cross in symbolic replay of the crucifixion.
The Black Death (Bubonic Plague)was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. It peakied in Europe between 1348 and 1350, estimated to have killed 30 percent to 60 percent of Europe’s population, reducing world population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in the fourteenth century. The aftermath of the plague created a series of religious, social and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover. The plague resurfaced at various times, killing more people, until it finally retreated from Europe in the nineteenth century. Jews were blamed for causing outbreaks of the plague by poisoning water wells, which in fact, were contaminated by rat-carried fleas. Hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed in pogroms. That Jews also died from the epidemics made no difference whatsoever as the suspected culprits were tortured until they confessed their guilt. During the Black Plague, ethnic Germans slaughtered thousands of Jews, who throughout history have been falsely scapegoated for natural and human catastrophes. The Nazis, for example, scapegoated the Jews for the Russian Revolution; Bolshevism; Germany’s defeat in WWI; the humiliating terms of the Versailles Treaty; the chaotic social, economic, and political conditions of post-war Weimar Germany; and for WWII itself, among other things.