The Impresarios of Trent: The Long and Frightening History of the Blood Libel (review)Historians in the News
tags: Jewish history, medieval history, European history, antisemitism, blood libel
Among the more unpleasant mythemes that one group of humans has devised about another is the blood libel: the claim that Jews murder Christian children, often around Easter, and use their blood in Passover rituals. Bits and pieces of this myth date back to ancient times. The Greek world produced some sinister stories about Jews annually fattening a Greek in their temples for sacrifice. And the New Testament (Acts 7:51–53) and the Quran (2:87) have cast Jews as persecutors and murderers of prophets. But the specific ingredients of the blood libel—innocent children murdered by conspiratorial Jews for blood rituals—were not baked into narrative until a child’s corpse was discovered in 12th century England and an enterprising monk accused the local Jewish community of murder. That first accusation sputtered out, but others soon followed in France and Germany that sometimes resulted in the execution of entire communities. With the invention of the printing press, the myth spread even more widely, throughout Eastern Europe and, with colonialism, into the Middle East and beyond. In the 20th century, there was even a genre of postcards depicting Jews draining the blood from young Christian boys.
Magda Teter’s terrifying and learned new book, Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth, examines some of the long history of this pernicious idea. Her focus is firmly on the past and especially on the death in 1473 of one toddler, Simon of Trent. His lifeless body provided the stage for a spectacular trial against the Jews of that town—one whose consequences would be felt for hundreds of years. Teter sets out to document how the information about Simon’s death circulated during and after the trial and how it eventually flowed into Eastern Europe, where the myth put down some of its deepest and cruelest roots. She certainly succeeds in that historical task. While her claims are specific and circumspect, her book can be read more broadly as an allegory for our age, a story about how technological change, religious beliefs, struggles for power, and a politics of demonization can produce memes capable of transmitting the potential for violence across vast amounts of time and space.
In the case of the blood libel, that potential remains very much alive. “You are not forgotten, Simon of Trent,” wrote the 19-year-old gunman who stormed a synagogue near San Diego on the final day of Passover last year. “The horror that you and countless children have endured at the hands of the Jews will never be forgiven.”
Blood Libel’s trail starts almost a millennium ago, in 1144, with the discovery in Norwich, England, of the corpse of a 12-year-old named William. Although some of the local clergy may have accused the Jews at the time, little notice was taken until a few years later, when a monk called Thomas of Monmouth moved to town. He spent the next two decades attempting to establish the dead boy as a martyr killed by Jews and promoting the church where he was buried as a site of pilgrimage. In The Life and Passion of William of Norwich, Thomas developed many of the themes that would become staples of the blood libel genre: the seeming kindness with which Jews seduce an innocent child; the hideous tortures to which they subject him in reenacting Christ’s passion; the ritual nature of the crime, repeated annually; the Jewish community’s “inborn hatred of the Christian name”; the conspiracy by state authorities, bribed by Jewish money, to cover up the crime; and the many miracles by which the Christian truth overpowers the lies of murderous Jews and their corrupt Christian allies.
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