[Somehow, I missed this review by a leading Jewish Historian, which is the most far-reaching to date. It appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.]
Blood libels are back
PASQUE DI SANGUE
Ebrei d’Europa e omicidi rituali.
366pp. Bologna: Il Mulino.
Nothing can have been more alarming for the Jews of the north Italian town of Trent than the discovery, on Easter Sunday 1475, of the body of a missing child, in a stream running beneath one of their houses. They reported the find to the authorities; but they had no illusions about the violent consequences. Since the reign of Emperor Frederick II in the thirteenth century, rumours had circulated in German-speaking lands of the killing of Christian boys by Jews, in order to obtain blood, supposedly used in bizarre rituals. Frederick was convinced by the counter-argument that the consumption of blood was strictly forbidden in the Mosaic law code; nevertheless, copycat accusations persisted, coming in great waves at times of social tension, and resulting in massacres of Jews.
The Trent discovery added fuel to the lurid denunciations of the Jews by friars travelling around northern Italy at this time; the Jews were also accused of dishonouring the consecrated host, even stabbing it until Christ’s blood spurted out. In Trent, the town’s Jewish men were executed, while the women converted to Christianity; the community came to an end, but not its memory in the minds of the Christians – the tomb of the dead boy, Simon, became a focus of devotion, and a wave of tales of ritual murder spread across Europe. The authorities reacted to these stories in different ways: the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor defended the Jews, while the Pope doubted the testimonies made under torture.
The story of Simon of Trent has once again given rise to furious controversy in Italy. The Israeli historian Ariel Toaff argues, in Pasque di sangue, that the story of Simon, and, pari passu, other stories of ritual murder around the time of Passover, reflect practices in what he calls an extreme, “fundamentalist”, group within medieval German Judaism.
His sensationalist title, “Passovers of Blood”, is not calculated to comfort those who reject these stories as fantasies, calumnies, or tragic misunderstandings. For Professor Toaff, the Jews of Trent were typical of a new and alien Judaism which was laying down roots in northern Italy. Demand for credit led cities and lords to authorize limited Jewish settlement; one result was the arrival from north of the Alps of German Jews, and it is on these Ashkenazim (“Germans”) that Toaff focuses, noting that accusations of ritual murder were associated with the Ashkenazi Jews and not with the Sephardim of Iberia, nor with the Italian communities – a statement which ignores vigorous accusations in late thirteenth-century Italy. But for Toaff, the Ashkenazim were outsiders in a way that the native Italian Jews could not be, because the latter were much more integrated into the local economy, society and culture. If the Ashkenazim tried to speak Italian, “it was difficult to understand them because of the heavy German accent of their pronunciation and the many German and Yiddish phrases that peppered their speech”. Their “radically different” pronunciation of the liturgical language, Hebrew, made it “practically impossible to pray together” with Italian Jews. In fact, Toaff’s profoundly negative image of Ashkenazi Jews who lived in an almost sealed world is belied by the evidence that there were Christians, even priests, on good terms with these Jews and anxious, as far as possible, to help them in their time of trial. For Toaff, rulers who befriended the Jews were mainly interested in the profitability of the Jewish loan banks.
It was the Germanness of these Jews that was, in Toaff’s account, their undoing. They were not just pawnbrokers but merchants and artisans, and some became involved in the German trade in dried blood; but blood took many forms. The most common form was “dragon’s blood”, derived from trees in Africa and the Canary Islands (though, as the name suggests, it was often uncertain whether exotic spices were animal, vegetable, or mineral). In the lands of blutwurst, animal blood was collected – Jews may have been a regular source of this, because kosher slaughterers would drain as much blood as possible from the carcass in accordance with the commandment not to consume blood. But the medieval pharmacopoeia also contained unguents and potions made of powdered blood and human tissue, a witches’ brew that might include rendered fat from executed criminals, and most notoriously mummia, powdered Egyptian mummy. These items were traded by Christians and Jews, and rabbis were asked whether they could be used: the rule of thumb was that even a commandment as strict as that against eating blood could be ignored when undergoing vital medical treatment. It is thus no surprise that the testimonies gathered at Trent in 1475 mention the trade in blood.
Therapeutic use of various types of blood was, Toaff argues, matched by magical uses: during circumcisions small quantities of blood might be gathered from the wound, mixed with wine, and even consumed; while barren women in some areas competed to seize and swallow the foreskin. Perhaps there is an analogy in the modern fashion for consuming placentas. Toaff is anxious to prove that Ashkenazi Jews did occasionally consume blood; still, there is a great gap between its therapeutic use and the killing of Christian children for their blood.
Toaff wants to take all this much further. Blood, not liberation, was, he asserts, the great theme of the Passover festival, particularly the night-time meal at the start of the festival: “a true and proper river of blood ran at Passover across the Seder table and through the pages of the Haggadah”, the order of service telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Here the author exploits the controversial research of Israel Yuval, who has presented many themes in the Jewish liturgy as a response to the challenge of Christianity; and there is no doubt that certain elements in the Passover ritual, such as the invocation, “Pour out your wrath upon the nations . . .”, were directed at Christian persecutors. But Toaff is carried away by his theme. Everything in the Passover Seder becomes infused with blood: the blood of the first plague, when the River Nile turned red; the blood of the Paschal lamb (even if represented by a charred bone); the haroset, a paste made to represent the mortar used by the Israelites as slaves in the land of Egypt; the wine which came to life, as it were, during the listing of the ten plagues in Egypt, when (in the German custom) a drop of wine was spilled for each plague.
Here were communities which had suffered slaughter and forced conversion since the armies of the First Crusade marched through the Rhineland in 1096. Then and subsequently, Ashkenazi Jews put their own children to death so that they would not be taken from them and baptised; by sacrificing their children, who, they thought, would be better off in the Next World as Jews, than in this one as Christians, they called upon God to come to their defence and to avenge their spilt blood. Christians saw this happening and concluded that Jews were violent, killed their own children, and might all the more easily kill Christian ones.
Toaff wants us to believe that a small group of fanatics took these ideas about the salvific nature of blood and the necessity of vengeance so far that they conspired secretly to kill Christian children, whose murder was supposedly a re-enactment of the killing of Christ; that their leaders secretly took small quantities of powdered blood and mixed it with the special flour used for baking the three slabs of unleavened bread used at the Passover meal (despite extremely strict laws about their ingredients – exclusively flour and water); moreover, that they sprinkled powdered human blood on the wine which they spilled (but did not drink) as they enumerated the ten plagues of Egypt. Toaff uses the statements gathered from witnesses under torture in 1475 to argue this case. This is the sort of evidence he is using (drawn here from Ronald Po-Chia Hsia’s authoritative Trent 1475, 1992): “He was asked whether he saw the murdered boy. Joaff: ‘In the ditch.’ Podestà: ‘Think again.’ Joaff: ‘In the antechamber of the synagogue’”. This was under threat of torture. Then, during torture: “‘Let me down because I will say the truth.’ He was let down and asked where he saw the child in the synagogue. He said, ‘On a bench”’.
According to most of these witnesses the child was killed in the synagogue antechamber, and then laid on the reading-desk, before the ark containing the scrolls of the Law (thus flouting the laws concerning ritual purity). The Jews in Trent were supposed to have cawed over the body of Simon: “Go and say to Jesus, your God, and Mary, that he will help you, pray that he will free you and take you from our hands”. Though one would expect the draining of blood to be a very messy business, no forensic evidence was provided from the synagogue; after all, Umberto Eco’s Baskerville was long dead and Sherlock Holmes unborn.
Ariel Toaff’s handling of the evidence is deeply flawed; he takes extorted statements at face value, and he assumes that his disparate pieces of “evidence” from Jewish sources fit together. Evidence that Jews committed acts of violence against one another or against Christians, the trade in blood, rituals of circumcision, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, images of Pharaoh’s massacre of the innocents, early medieval parodies of Christianity, rowdy celebrations of Esther’s victory over Haman at the festival of Purim, are all woven loosely together; meanwhile, highly relevant Christian material, notably the surge in accusations of host desecration, and the friars’ campaigns against the Jews, is hardly addressed. It is there that we can identify the reasons for the repeated accusation of ritual murder, there that we see the assumption that Jews constantly recrucify Christ in countless ways, of which this is the most horrible. It was taken as proof that all Jews, ancient and contemporary, were indeed Christ-killers.
The biggest mystery about Pasque di sangue is what Toaff is trying to say about accusations of ritual murder before 1475. He takes us back to the first clear accusation of child crucifixion, in Norwich in 1144. What is disconcerting is how here and elsewhere he tells these stories in the past-indicative mood without the usual qualifications one would expect from a historian writing in Italian – a liberal use of the conditional mood, a good sprinkling of subjunctives, some sign of suspension of belief. Children did turn up dead in medieval towns; fingers were pointed at those who were seen as outsiders. Jews were terrified of the accusation of child murder, and were perfectly aware that any rumour of violence against Christians could bring destruction upon the entire community. Nor was it just Jews who were accused of child murder: heretics and witches who made bread out of the ashes of sacrificial children were an equally familiar trope. So we have to conclude that Toaff sees the Christian accusation as in some sense the source of a Jewish practice, in the following sequence: Jews are accused of doing this; some Jews begin to believe that they do this; some Jews do this. And yet at other times he is clearly arguing that these ideas emerged within the Jewish community, and that they had a life of their own there. Meanwhile the significance of blood in Christian culture, and in particular the significance of the Eucharistic sacrifice, is largely ignored as an explanation of the fantasies, for such they were, about Passover rituals, fantasies in which the unleavened bread and wine became explicit negations of the body and blood of Christ.
The blood libel has played a particularly nefarious role in the history of anti-Semitism. Similar accusations resurfaced in Damascus in 1840, and a century later in Hitler’s Germany; the persistence of the blood libel makes it all the more important that it is examined responsibly and not credulously. Ariel Toaff’s book has caused a predictable outcry in Italy, and the publishers, in Bologna, have now withdrawn this edition of Pasque di sangue – though a new one is promised. A historian who finds it so difficult to distinguish truth from fiction, however, is best advised to lay down his pen.
David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge. His books include Italy in the Central Middle Ages, 2004, and A Mediterranean Emporium: The Catalan kingdom of Majorca, 1994.