History Crash Course #46: Blood Libel
Christian accusations leveled against the Jews were extreme and irrational.
We are about to begin discussing an excruciating period of Jewish history that is marked by constant and unrelenting Christian persecution.
During this period we will see:
- the Jews expelled from England (1290)
- the Jews expelled from France (1306 and 1394)
- the Jews expelled from Hungary (1349 and 1360)
- the Jews expelled from German states (1348 and 1498)
- the Jews expelled from Austria (1421)
- the Jews expelled from Lithuania (1445 and 1495)
- the Jews expelled from Spain (1492)
- the Jews expelled from Portugal (1497)
And that's only a partial list.
(As often as not, the Jews were expelled and then, when a significant economic decline was noted in their absence, they were re-admitted only to be expelled again. It was the classic "can't live with them, can't live without them" philosophy.)
The story of these persecutions really begins around the year 1000the first millennium. It seems that people get nervous about big dates, especially Christians whose Book of Revelations predicts that at the end of a thousand years Satan will be released from prison and then he's going to wreak havoc on the world.
The approaching millennium led to a religious revival in the Christian world which historians call the "New Piety." The New Piety focused especially on the historicity of Jesus. Focusing on the life of Jesus meant focusing on his death. And, even though the Christian "New Testament" says that the Romans killed Jesus, the Jews were blamed for wanting him to die.
And so at this time, we see the notion of Jews as "Christ-killers"which first surfaced in the 4th century really growing in popularity.
But that alone does not explain the vehemence of Christian persecutions. To fully understand the issue, we have to look at other, more complex reasons.
To start off, the very existence of the Jews was an irritant to many Christians. And this is why:
Christian theology accepts the Hebrew Bible. It does not quarrel with the statements therein that the Jews were a special people chosen by God to receive the Torah and bring holiness into the world. But Christian theology says that the Jews failed in their mission. This is why God sent His "son" (Jesus) to straighten things out, but the Jews refused to recognize him as "god."
As a result, God abandoned the Jews and replaced them with the "new chosen people"the Christians. (Hence, the Christian segment of the Bible is called the "New Testament" which is Greek for "scripture.")
By this line of reasoning however, there would no longer be any purpose for Jews in the world. They should disappear, like did so many mightier peoples. But by the first millennium already 1,000 years after the death of Jesus the Jews were still all over the place.
Christian theology had to come up with some sort of answer to this problem and it did. The Jews must have been doomed to wander the earth by God as a "witness people"teste veritatis in Latin. The purpose of a witness people is to survive throughout history to bear witness at the end of days that Jesus is the Messiah, when he appears again for the so-called "Second Coming."
But the explanations of Christian theology could not remove the sore spot that the presence at times, strong and prosperous presence of the Jews represented. At the heart of the matter was the Christian view of Judaism as a direct competitor for the soul of humanity.
The hostility that the Christians felt toward the Jews can be seen readily from the writings of the early fathers of the Christian Church. (See What Did They Think of the Jews? by Allan Gould, pp. 24-25.)
From John Chrysostom, the Patriarch of Constantinople, we get this:
Jews are the most worthless of men ― they are lecherous, greedy, rapacious ― they are perfidious murderers of Christians, they worship the devil, their religion is a sickness... The Jews are the odious assassins of Christ and for killing god there is no expiation, no indulgence, no pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance. The Jews must live in servitude forever. It is incumbent on all Christians to hate the Jews.
From Gregory of Nyssa, we get more of the same:
Slayers of the lord, murderers of the prophets, adversaries of god, haters of god, men who show contempt for the law, foes of grace, enemies of the father's faith, advocates of the devil, brood of vipers, slanderers, scoffers, men whose minds are in darkness, leaven of the Pharisees, assembly of demons, sinners, wicked men, stoners and haters of righteousness.
In some places, such calumny incited people to violence.
(We saw in Part 45, for example, how the Crusader mobs devastated the Jewish population of Europe, slaughtering 30%-50% of the Jews living there. Some 10,000 Jews of an estimated population of about 20,000-30,000 were murdered in 1095 as the first Crusade got under way.)
In other places, such calumny bred other forms of persecution.
If one were a reasonable Christian listening to one's Church fathers speak of the Jews, one might quite naturally conclude that such a people had no place in a decent society.
And this is a conclusion that was drawn over time.
Around the first millennium, we see the rise of the Christian trade guilds from which Jews were pointedly excluded. No more Jewish goldsmiths and silversmiths and glass-blowers. Jews were also excluded from owning land, holding office, and from being doctors and lawyers.
Jews were forced to wear a "distinguishing garment"either a badge or a sign or a silly-looking hat which set them apart. This was not only to make them look different but also to humiliate them.
Then, beginning in 1123, when the bishops of the Church undertook a series of meetings called Lateran Councils to decide Church policy, the Jews were assigned a new function in Christian society.
Along with a decree that priests must be celibate, the bishops decided that Christians were not allowed to lend each other money. (This came from a misunderstanding of Biblical commandment that forbids one from charging one's brother interest when making a loan.)
As for the Jews, the bishops promulgated a doctrine decreeing them servants of Christians, and then assigning to them the degrading task of lending money called usury with which the Christians were forbidden to sully their hands.
The bishops were not stupid. They knew that you have to charge interest to have banking, and you had to have banking to have economic development, otherwise there is no growth and your economy stagnates. Someone had to lend money. And that someone, the bishops decided, would be the Jews.
What happened next is that Jews were not allowed to live in various cities in Europe, unless they supplied a certain number of money-lenders.
However, lending money was a very precarious job. For one, it engendered a lot of animosity. After all, who likes to pay back loans?
And what happened if the local nobleman or bishop decided not to pay you back? He'd accused the Jew of doing something terrible like killing a Christian baby. That way he could renege on his loans, confiscate all Jewish property, and then expel or even kill the Jews.
This happened over and over again.
Some have claimed that it was Jewish money-lending practices that engendered such actions and, indeed, were responsible for a great deal of anti-Semitism. This is a total myth. At that time Jews charged an average interest rate of between 33% and 43% on loans. And while this may seem high by today's standards, consider that the Lombards, the Christian Italian bankers living under the nose of the Vatican, charged rates as high as 250%. So we see that the Lombard money-lending practices were many times worse and yet no one went around persecuting Lombard bankers.(1)
Persecutions of the Jews, on the other hand, knew no bounds.
It is next to impossible to explain the accusations that were hurled at the Jews during this time. Jews were persecuted not only for being "Christ-killers" but as "baby-killers."
The first such accusation better known as a "blood libel"was leveled in 1144 in Norwich, England. There, Jews were charged with kidnapping a Christian baby and draining the baby of blood. The charge became so popular it would sweep, in various forms, through Europe and then spread to other parts of the world.
The most famous of all blood libel legends is that of the ritual murder of the child Hugh of Lincoln, England in 1255. The story was immortalized in a ballad so well-known in England and Scotland that is number 155 in the standard cannon of English and Scottish ballads compiled by Francis James Child in the 19th century. The best-know tale of ritual murder is the Prioress's Tale, found in Chaucer's 14th century classic work or early English fiction, Canterbury Tales. One verse of the tale goes like this: (2)
Now why did Jews need blood in Christian opinion? This is a multiple-choice question:
- Jews suffered from hemorrhoids as a punishment for killing Jesus and drinking blood was the best cure for hemorrhoids at the time.
- All Jewish men menstruate and need a monthly blood transfusion.
- Jewish men, when they're circumcised, lose so much blood because of that surgical procedure that they need to drink Christian babies' blood.
- It's the chief ingredient in matzah, and therefore prior to every Passover Jews would be requiring a large supply.
- All of the above.
What do you think the correct answer is? Shockingly, it's (e)all of the above.
This is a very important lesson in anti-Semitism. You can say anything about the Jews and people will believe it.
It's ironic that Jews, who are prohibited by Jewish law of consuming any blood whatsoever (kosher meat is carefully washed and salted to remove all traces of blood) were precisely the people accused of drinking blood.
The blood libel makes even less sense when you consider that in the 13th century the Church adopted the doctrine of transubstantiation. This is a mystical idea which maintains that when the priest says mass over the wafer and wine, these objects mystically change into the body and blood of Jesus. Christians who consume the wafer and drink the wine are said to be mystically eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood.(3)
It's ironic that the Christian world, while engaged in the ritual of "drinking the blood of Jesus" would accuse the Jews who are forbidden to drink blood of this totally fabricated hideous crime.
But then the accusations got even more wild.
Starting in Switzerland and Germany in the 13th century, Jews were accused of kidnapping communion wafers from churches. Why would the Jews do this in Christian view?
To torture it.
Medieval documents tell stories describing how a Jew (usually called always called Abraham) steals a wafer from a church, sticks a knife in it, and blood starts pouring out. And then he cuts it up into pieces and sends it to different Jews who all torture it.
This would be funny, if not for a fact that thousands of Jews were slaughtered as a result of such stories. For example, the entire Jewish community of Berlitz, near Berlin in Germany, was all burned alive based on the accusation of torturing a wafer!
(To read more about this subject see The Devil and the Jew by Joshua Trachtenburg or "Why the Jews?" by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin.)
Throughout this time, the Jews were physically marginalized, beaten, burned, raped. And they were economically marginalized, pillaged, robbed, taxed nearly to death. Indeed, their money was one of the reasons they were tolerated at all. Jews were a good source of income to the crown. They were specially taxed with special punitive "Jew taxes."
We will see later in Germany that 38 special taxes were imposed on the Jews. There was a tax to be born, a tax to die, a tax to wear a kippah, a tax to be married, a tax to be circumcised, a tax to buy Shabbat candles, a tax to exempt you from the German army in which you were not allowed to serve anyway because you were a Jew.
And what would happen eventually, once Jews were drained of their money they would be expelled. In 1182 King Philip II of France, out of the need to acquire some "quick and easy" money, expelled the Jews of France and confiscated all their property. The lure of future Jewish tax revenue caused him to rethink his policy and invite the Jews back to France in 1198.
This is also what happened in England where heavy taxation of the Jewish population of about 5,000 people supplied the crown with almost 20% of all of its income.
In 1290, on the 9th day of Av, which is the same day that the Temple in Jerusalem was twice destroyed, and which is therefore the worst day in Jewish history – drained of their wealth by a crushing taxation ― the Jews were expelled from England and not permitted to return for almost four centuries. King Edward I declared all debts owed to the Jews canceled and that the principal (but not the interest) be paid directly to him. As the Edict of Expulsion stated:
... therefore, we in, in requital of their crimes and for the honor of the Crucified, have banished them from our realm as traitors. We... do hereby make totally null and void all penalties and usuries and whatsoever else... may be claimed on account of Jewry... pay the amount to us at such convenient times as may be determined by you. (4)
Other countries would soon follow suit, but first would come another twist in the persecution of the Jews.
1) Despite the Church's prohibition against Christian involvement in usury, Christians and even members of the clergy continued the practice throughout Europe. For a more detailed description of Jewish and Gentile money lending see: Salo Baron , Arcadius Kahan, Economic History of the Jews, (Keter Publishing, 1975), pp.43-47.
2) Alan Dundes, The Blood Libel ― A Case in Anti-Semitic Folklore, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), p.41.
3) "...body and blood [of Christ] are truly contained in the sacrament of the Alter under the species of bread and wine, transubstantiated by the divine power-the bread into his body and the wine into his blood." Text from the decision of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 as cited in: Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Chrisitan Doctrine - From the First Century to the Present, (Fortress Press, 1966), p. 153.
4) Edict of Expulsion ok King Edward I as quoted in: Alexis P. Rubin ed., Scattered Among the Nations ― Documents Affecting Jewish History 49 to 1975, (Jason Aronson Inc., 1995), pp. 76-77.