Simon, or Simonino, was a young boy from Trent who disappeared on Maundy Thursday, 1475. After a few days of fruitless searching, a servant found his lifeless body on Easter Sunday, in a cellar owned by the Jewish paterfamilias Samuel of Nuremberg. Observers said the body appeared to have been exsanguinated, or drained of its blood, and municipal authorities operating under the auspices of prince-bishop Johannes Hinderbach promptly arrested the entire Ashkenazi community of Trent. The prisoners confessed after torture to the ritual murder of the two-year-old child and the consumption of his blood in the course of their Passover rites. Ultimately, and despite papal attempts to intervene on their behalf, sixteen Jews were burnt at the stake.
Although Simon of Trent’s name was eventually included in the Roman martyrology, and he was even effectively beatified in 1588, today the whole matter has become an embarrassment for the Roman Catholic Church. The accusations that followed Simon’s murder are counted among the foremost examples of blood libel, which, according to Wikipedia, is “an antisemitic canard that falsely accuses Jews of murdering Christian boys in order to use their blood in the performance of religious rituals.” Pope Paul VI suppressed Simon’s cult in 1965, and modern scholars discount the confessions of the Trent defendants as the products of coercion and antisemitism. Allegations associated with the blood libel must be impossible, so goes the line, given that Mosaic law prohibits the ingestion of blood.
As a rule, historians tend towards credulity. It is very hard to say anything about the past if you cannot trust your sources. In certain politically or culturally sensitive areas, though, postwar historians have cultivated a dogmatic scepticism. The forbidden terrain is not limited to sensitive topics in Jewish history, but extends to a whole body of medieval and early modern sources characterising deviant or illicit religious practices. The licentious behaviour of specific heretical sects, the subversive rites ascribed to early modern witches, and all tales of blood libel are held to be little more than clerical fever dreams. This is all in accordance with a broader pattern, whereby modern scholars exhibit hostility towards the efforts of past European Christians to define orthodox practices and exclude outsiders, even as they remain eager to entertain polemical Byzantine, Muslim and Jewish accounts of European Christian conduct and to deplore the purported racial and religious crimes of their forbears whenever possible.
This unbalanced attitude has not always encouraged parsimonious theories. The campaign to discount beliefs and practices of witchcraft as pure judicial fantasy, for example, has been pushed to very implausible extremes. Early modern witch trials have a very definite geographic distribution, and witch mythology often reveals specific regional characteristics which make it hard to write off the phenomenon as purely fantastical. Trial records vary in quality, of course. There are clear moral panics, in which the accused blandly confess to stereotypical offences under torture, but there are also cases where alleged witches provide much more specific accounts of their illicit activities in the absence of coercion. Nor does anybody dispute the abundant evidence for contemporary learned interest in ritual magic and necromancy. Thus it seems far from crazy to suppose, as a minimal thesis, that scholarly cultivation of spells and potions, diffused by iterant preachers or some other mechanism, inspired subversive parareligious rites in various peasant communities.
The early modern witch got up to various nefarious acts; above all, she participated in something called the Witches’ Sabbat. This was held to be a weekly diabolical celebration at which witches danced with demons, engaged in inverted parodies of Christian liturgical rites, and often murdered children, either eating them or reducing their bodies to magical pastes or powders. These extracts could then be used for the preparation of specific potions, or even for lending the power of flight to their broomsticks.
Perhaps broomsticks cannot fly, but such stories are enough to raise the question of whether premodern Europeans took an interest in pastes or powders derived from children in other contexts. It was in the course of trying to answer this question that I first encountered a curious book by Ariel Toaff, son of the Chief Rabbi of Rome and history professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, called Pasque di sangue: Ebrei d’Europa e omicidi rituali, or, in English: Blood Passover: European Jews and Ritual Murder. Among the curious contents of this volume is an entire chapter summarising what is known of the late medieval magical and ritual uses of powdered blood, especially the blood of children. As it turns out, there was an active late medieval trade in this exotic substance, which was the key ingredient in certain electuaries and considered to have a range of salutary properties, both as a haemostatic agent and as a curative astringent. There are even Ashkenazi texts which prescribe the use of blood as a coagulant during the circumcision ceremony. Apparently, those Jews who used these blood-based remedies believed that Mosaic prohibitions did not apply once the blood had been desiccated or mixed with other substances.
It seemed strange to me that the contents of this chapter had never found any reception in the broader discussion of European witch mythology. Here, after all, was clear evidence anchoring in reality the use of potions derived from the bodies of children – the very sorts of things fabulistic witches stood accused of concocting. I soon realised that there were reasons for this neglect. Powdered blood was for Toaff an ancillary matter; his primary concern was none other than Simon, the two year-old boy-martyr from Trent and the ritual murder accusations surrounding his death. After years studying the case with his students, Toaff had concluded that the trial records “constitute the most important and detailed document ever written on the ritual murder accusation, a precious document … in which the words of the accusers and inquisitors did not always succeed in superimposing themselves over, or confusing themselves with, the words of the defendants” (p. 79f.). He proceeded to entertain the theory that the allegations against the Trent defendants might have been accurate, hypothesising that these murderous rituals had become current among select fundamentalist Ashkenazi communities. For this subset of European Jewry, tense cohabitation with German Christians in the Rhineland, punctuated by formative events like the Crusader massacres of 1096, had nourished pronounced anti-Christian sentiments and perhaps encouraged these extreme ceremonies.
My copy of Pasque di sangue, bearing the date of 2008, turned out to be a second edition. I learned that the book had first appeared a year earlier, in 2007, and had even received an enthusiastic advance review in Corriere della Sera. Yet the threat that it posed to the politically fraught edifice of the blood libel enraged familiar actors like the Anti-Defamation League, and set off an international firestorm. Inflamed activists and academics demanded that Toaff resign his professorship; some even called for criminal charges. Scholars of European history, from the illustrious Cambridge historian David Abulafia to the eccentric and unimaginative author of a prior book on the Trent accusations named Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia, issued ex-cathedra condemnations of Toaff’s thesis. Within days of publication, the professor relented and ordered his publisher to withdraw the book. The next year he issued a revised edition, the one that had come into my hands, in which he modified his claims and denied that he had ever entertained the possibility of ritual murder. He had, he pleaded, merely intended to explore the use of blood in Ashkenazi culture and ritual. To protest Toaff’s shameful treatment and the open ethnic biases of his attackers, translators produced a hasty English version, which you can download yourself (http://www.israelshamir.net/bloodpassover.pdf). While the translation is far from elegant, it is this version of the text that is most widely available, and that which I’ll cite in what follows.
Toaff’s critics rarely show signs of having read Blood Passover at all. They prefer to deplore, without elaboration, his methodological sin of taking confessions obtained under torture at face value, even though this is not his approach. All of our records for the past have been produced by people with an array of overt and covert motivations; the historian has to establish the reliability of his sources, but he is never called upon to discount them outright. Judicial torture has also elicited many accurate confessions, after all.
Ritual murder allegations against Jews come out of nowhere, in the middle of the twelfth century. The first case involved the murder of a twelve year-old boy named William, who died around 22 March 1144 in Norwich, England. He disappeared in the days before Easter and his mutilated body was found on Holy Saturday, on the Mousehold Heath just outside the town. Locals accused the Norwich Jewish community of William’s murder; the accused received royal protection immediately and were never tried. The near-contemporary account of William’s murder by the monk Thomas of Monmouth, allegedly based on the testimony of converted Jews with direct knowledge of the killing, is a strange, nightmarish document, with an overtly legendary tone that clashes with its chronological proximity to the events in question. Like all early narratives in the genre, blood has no role to play in the narrative; the emphasis lies rather on a grotesque, ritualised crucifixion.
After the thirteenth century, stories of ritual murder focus more and more on the blood of the murdered victims and its importance for the Passover rite. An important aspect of Toaff’s argument, is that the geographical distribution of these cases is far from random, but is rather closely tied to the presence of the Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora. Thus, although the Italian peninsula had been home to Roman Jews for millennia, ritual murder allegations first arrived in northern Italy with Ashkenazi migrants from Germany in the fifteenth century. The accusations moreover have a distinct pattern, familiar to anyone who has studied the witchcraft trials of Europe: Sensational cases, like that at Trent in 1475, often induce a frenzy of less credible accusations that doubtless ensnare many innocent parties. The most interesting evidence is generally always to be found in isolated incidents, or as at Trent, at the very start of these judicial chain reactions.
There is perhaps a reason that Thomas of Monmouth’s strange account has been widely translated and made available to university students everywhere, while the Trent materials remain out of reach on the high shelf. Contrary to Thomas’s difficult and puzzling story, the confessions of the Trent Ashkenazim are richly detailed, plausible in many points and often subject to external documentary confirmation.
One of central figures in the Trent drama was a young artist named Israel, who confessed eagerly, converted to Christianity, received the name Wolfgang, and even briefly became a confidant of Bishop Hinderbach — all before his covert efforts to free the female defendants in the trial were discovered and he was executed. Israel Wolfgang’s voluminous testimony included a description of another ritual murder that he said had occurred years earlier at Regensburg in 1467, and in which he claimed to have participated. Toaff summarises the story as follows (p. 121f.):
In those days, Rabbi Jossel di Kelheim had … purchased a Christian child from a beggar for the price of ten ducats. He took the child to his house, in the Jewish quarter, where he concealed him for two days, in anticipation of the solemn event of the Pesach, the feast of the unleavened bread, when the annual celebrations begin in remembrance of the miraculous escape of the people of Israel from captivity in Egypt would begin. In the early morning of the first day of the holiday period, Rabbi Jossel … transferred the boy into the narrow confines of the parlour of Sayer Straubinger, the small synagogue located a short distance from his house, where he was accustomed to preside over the collective rites of the community and its daily and festive liturgical meetings. Awaiting him were at least 25 Jews, previously informed of the extraordinary event. Israel Wolfgang was one of them, and he remembered the exact names of all the participants in the rite, both those from Regensburg and those from other regions. …
The boy was undressed in the parlor and placed on a chest containing the sacred parchments of the synagogue. He was then crucified, circumcised and finally suffocated over the course of a horrifying collective ritual, following a script … well known to all the participants… [T]he blood was collected in a bowl, to be distributed among the Jews participating in the rite or sent to the rich of the community. The day after, rumor of the ritual infanticide spread in the district and many people rushed to Sayer’s parlor to see the body of the sacrificed boy, which was placed quite visibly inside the chest. The next evening, at the beginning of the ceremonies of the second day of Pesach, in the central room of the small synagogue … the grisly ritual, which had now become merely commemorative, began afresh. Finally, the child’s body was buried in the courtyard of the chapel, in a remote corner, surrounded by a wall, accessed through a small door which was usually kept locked.
Israel Wolfgang’s deposition prompted a separate inquiry in Regensburg, which culminated in the arrest of the Rabbi and the other prominent Jews he had named. The accused gave unremarkable pro forma confessions, after which the German Emperor, Frederick III, ordered their release in exchange for ruinous fees. And so the incident would have passed beneath our notice as the implausible product of judicial torture, had not workers who were engaged in repairing the house of the Regensburg rabbi, in the course of excavating his cellars, uncovered the skeleton of a small child. The Jews immediately protested that the bones had been planted to incriminate them, and Frederick remained insistent on their release. Any objective observer, however, must admit that this case represents a serious problem for the blood libel thesis, for it cannot be so easily dismissed as the mere product of antisemitism and torture.
Authorities in Trent had no prior experience with ritualistic Passover murders, in fantasy or reality, and the interrogators put a wide range of questions to the accused, touching on all aspects of their Passover ritual. What typically happens, in the less credible witchcraft trials, is that untextured judicial fantasies impose themselves upon the confession, which then loses much of its detail and all connection to local circumstances. You can almost see the truth of events receding from you, as the defendants tell their interrogators what they want to hear. The Trent confessions are attended by the opposite phenomenon, of explicit, textured detail and the coherence of the whole.
In their depositions, the Trent defendants provided a detailed account of their ritualistic use of blood at Passover, at points in the ritual specific to Ashkenazi liturgy. For them, blood was “the object of minute regulation … governed by broad and exhaustive [rules], almost as if it formed an integral part of the most firmly established regulations relating to the ritual” (p. 260). Small quantities of powdered blood from a Christian child were mixed into the dough of the unleavened bread, and dissolved into a cup of wine used during a Seder recitation of the ten curses Yahweh levelled upon the land of Egypt. Heads of households were obligated to procure the blood for Passover, and in view of its expense, wealthy Jews were expected to provide for their less fortunate co-religious.
As you’d expect of old, embedded ritual practices, whose origins had passed beyond memory, opinions on the significance of the blood varied. One defendant suggested it was “a sign of outrage against Jesus Christ, whom the Christians claim is their God” (p. 262); for another, it betokened the coming destruction of the Christian religion. Its use was accompanied by Hebrew invocations fully embedded in the broader Passover rite. “[O]nly someone with a very good knowledge of the Seder ritual, an insider, could describe the order of gestures and operations …. and be capable of supplying such detailed and precise descriptions and explanations” of what was done and why (p. 265). Toaff is even compelled to reconstruct the precise meaning of the depositions at various points, because the Trent judges and their notaries could not accurately transcribe the Hebrew vocabulary of the accused. “Imagining that the judges dictated these descriptions of the Seder ritual, with the related liturgical formulae in Hebrew, does not seem very plausible” (ibid.).
As for Simon’s killing:
The depositions of the defendants in the Trent trial were all in agreement as to the fact that the murder of little Simon was said to have been committed on Friday, inside the synagogue, … in the antechamber of the hall in which the men gathered in prayer. … Simon’s crucifixion was alleged to have been committed on a bench... The boy’s body, [once] lifeless, was … alleged to have been removed to the central hall of the synagogue … for the ceremonies of the Sabbath. … The body was wrapped in a wimple of variegated silk and embroidery, a fine cloth the size of a hand towel used to cover the scrolls of the Law after the reading. (p. 289f.)
Various wounds inflicted on the body had ceremonial significance in the minds of some defendants, but were also at base intended to commemorate, in an act of liturgical mockery, the crucifixion of Christ. The defendants provided precise formulae employed during the murder rite, which were again poorly transcribed by the Italian notaries and at points require Toaff’s reconstruction.
If it is appropriate to argue that Christians were guilty of the unjust torture and execution of religious minorities in their midst, perhaps it should also be permitted to consider the opposite possibility, namely that some of these religious minorities – even if only specific, extremist sects – were likewise guilty of the crimes to which they confessed. Maybe someday, scholars will even consider the possibility that within the late medieval Christian world, on the eve of the Reformation, there lurked a semi-cohesive subversive anti-Christian movement, of which the Trent defendants were only one element, and which indulged in the occasional, ritualistic murder of children, as a parody of the Mass, and for purposes religious, magic or otherwise.
Maybe some of them are still with us.
THIS PIECE IS AVAILABLE IN PRINT FORM IN VOLUME I ISSUE IV