In February 2007 Dr. Ariel Toaff, a professor of history at Ramat Gan's Bar-Ilan University and the son of Italy's most beloved rabbi, Dr. Elio Toaff, made headlines in Italy with a book published by a respected academic press, Pasque di sangue [Easters of Blood], wherein he argued that many blood libel accusations against the Jews between the early Middle Ages and the 16th century were, in fact, true and that a significantly large secret cult of Ashkenazi Jews actually did ritually slaughter Christian children and drink their blood. Toaff's book has been condemned by all Italian rabbis, and I have argued elsewhere that it is methodologically flawed: it assumes that confessions rendered under torture may be regarded as valid, because the tortured Jews mention typically Jewish words and usages that the judges may not have otherwise known. Toaff is also impressed by the fact that in dozens of cases the confessions of the accused Jews are similar in a large Central European geographical area. In fact, historians have long ago established that confessions rendered under duress are not a valid source on the central points they elicit (although, of course, they may include elements of the language and folklore of the tortured: this is what was argued for witchcraft cases by the same Carlo Ginzburg who criticized Toaff for misusing his method). And sociologists know that the fact that many accounts resemble each other is, if anything, a sure sign that they share a common subculture of urban legends. It is the account, not the fact, that keeps repeating itself, and Toaff's argument may be used to conclude that, since many accounts in different countries of people being abducted by UFOs or meeting Elvis Presley alive and well in the 1990s are similar, they should also be regarded as true.
When Toaff's book entered the picture, the question of blood libel and the Catholic Church's reaction to it is was already being discussed among Italian scholars, some of whom were questioning a number of the assumptions of Giovanni Miccoli's 1997 lengthy entry on Catholic antisemitism in the second volume dedicated to the Jews within the encyclopaedic Storia d'Italia. Annali (Miccoli 1997). The publication by the undersigned of Cattolici, antisemitismo e sangue ("Catholics, Antisemitism, and Blood": Introvigne 2004) followed a volume on blood libel in general by Taradel (2002). The newest entry is Valerio De Cesaris' Pro Judaeis (2006).
During the first centuries, Christians were quite concerned of being accused themselves of drinking human blood by pagans, who misunderstood the meaning of the doctrine of drinking Christ's blood in the Eucharist. They did not pay much attention to the first recorded instance of blood libel, denounced nevertheless by Josephus (37-103 CE) in the first century CE, and part of the anti-Jewish propaganda of King Antiochus IV (215-164 BCE). Antiochus claimed that Jews kept regularly a Greek prisoner in Jerusalem's Temple in order to slaughter him, eat his flesh and drink his blood in a feast secretly celebrated every seven years. Others regard as the first instance of blood libel an incident at Inmestar, Syria in 415 CE, where in the course of riots between Jews and Christians at Purim a young Christian was allegedly crucified.
However, blood libel in its modern form started at Norwich, England, on March 25, 1144, Easter Day, where a Catholic priest's 12-year old nephew, one William, disappeared and was found dead. William's family was known as anti-Jewish and they accused the Jews of having killed him. Both the sheriff and the local bishop investigated, jailed several Jews for some days, but finally found them innocent. The legend of the "martyr" William however grew thanks to the renowned Welsh preacher Thomas of Monmouth (1120-1180), who was able to exhibit a Jewish convert to Catholicism, one Theobald of Cambridge, who "confessed" that European Jews congregated every year in Narbonne to decide where in Europe a Christian boy should be ritually slaughtered at Easter and his blood consumed. Norwich, Theobald and Thomas claimed, had been selected for the year 1144.
Although nobody was executed in Norwich for the 1144 incident, things developed differently when Thomas' mythology spread to Continental Europe. In Fulda, Germany in 1235, thirty-four Jews were executed under the accusation of having killed five boys and burned their blood in a magical ritual. There are other nine cases before Fulda (six in England and three in France) but it is unclear whether any Jew was really executed. The Fulda case provoked the first official investigation from Rome. Pope Innocent IV (1195-1254) issued a litany of papal bulls dated May 28, 1247, July 5, 1247, August 18, 1247 (this one technically a brief rather than a bull), and September 25, 1253, condemning the executions in Fulda and the harassment of Jews elsewhere. The Pope forbade "to accuse any Jew of using human blood in their rites, since it is clear in the Old Testament that it is forbidden to them to consume any blood, let alone the blood of humans" (published in Strack 1909, 254). Twelve years after the first executions, Rome promptly declared the blood libel myth as illogical and false.
The Pope's action did not prevent the blood libel case of Lincoln, England in 1255, although this is widely regarded as a pretext found by King Henry III (1207-1272)--not a great friend of Rome either--to confiscate the patrimonies of the wealthiest Jews in England. The incident and subsequent cases in Germany (with no execution, thanks to the skepticism of Emperor Rudolph I, 1218-1291) prompted Innocent's successor, Pope Gregory X (1210-1276, revered as Blessed Gregory X by Catholics after 1713) to publish an even stronger bull on October 7, 1272. There, he threatened to excommunicate "those who very falsely (falsissime) insist that the Jews kidnap Christian children and make a ritual use of their hearts and blood, since their law in fact strictly forbids any Jew to drink blood, including from animals. We do order that any Jew jailed for this foolish accusation be freed immediately, and that in the future no Jew be incarcerated for such foolish accusation, except in the case, which we do not believe to be possible (quod non credimus), of being caught committing this very offence" (published in Strack 1909, 255-256).
During the 14th century there were rumours, but no prosecution of Jews on account of blood libel. In the 15th century, however, the blood libel resurfaced. One of the most famous cases, that of three year old "Blessed Andreas" of Rinn, Austria, was a local legend put in writing by a pious doctor, Ippolito Guarinoni (1571-1654) almost two hundred years after it allegedly occurred in 1462. However in 1753 Pope Benedict XIV (1675-1758), ironically a Pope who did much to fight the blood libel, confirmed the local cult of "Blessed Andreas." For several centuries, cults practiced locally for many years were simply "confirmed" by Popes as a matter of routine. Denying confirmation would have hurt local sensitivities, and there was no beatification process complete with a historical investigation as it happens today. Not too much, accordingly, should be made also of the confirmation of local cults of children allegedly slaughtered by Jews for ritual purposes in Spain, such as Dominguito del Val (reported to have been found dead in 1250) and the unnamed "Child from La Guardia" (who was alleged to have been killed in 1490). Although there was a trial for the "Niño of La Guardia" in 1491, and the incident was even mentioned as a reason for the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, no body was ever found and both the Niño and Dominguito del Val may never have existed, although Pope Pius VII (1742-1823) "confirmed" their cult in 1805, as did Pius IX (1792-1872, beatified in 2000) for Lorenzino Sossio (1480-1485) of Marostica, Italy, in 1867.
However, during the time preceding the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, Pope Nicolas V (1397-1455) had published a bull dated November 2, 1447 where he "prohibited in the strictest way" spreading blood libel accusations, and fulminated against "some who try to make Jews odious to Christians by daring to spread false rumours about the Jews, accusing them to celebrate their rites by even consuming the heart and the liver of Christians" (published in Strack 1909, 257). As to Marostica, it was part of a cycle of blood libel accusations which spread in the late 15th century from southern Germany to northern Italy. Pope Martinus V (1368-1431) had seen it coming, and published the by now usual bull on February 20, 1422 condemning anybody "claiming, with false pretexts and arguments (fictis occasionibus et coloribus) that Jews mix Christian blood to their bread for Easter."
The epidemics culminated in the case of Trent of 1475, concerning a two-year-old child, Simon Unferdorben. The child was found dead in the cellar of a Jewish home. The tiny local Jewish community immediately claimed that the child had been killed, or at least dropped in the cellar, by a Swiss troublemaker, one Zanesus, who was involved in a court case with several Jews about honoraries due to his wife, Dorothea, who acted as the local midwife. However blood libel legends were common in the area, and the local bishop, Johaness Hinderbach (1418-1486), who was also the local political authority (Trent was governed by bishop-princes at that time), not only was strongly anti-Jewish but saw in the incident an opportunity to re-affirm his independence from the Pope (Sixtus IV, 1414-1484) and the Archduke of Austria Sigismund IV (1430-1496), both opposed to blood libel.
In open defiance of the Archduke's prohibition, and before a Pontifical legate, the archbishop of Ventimiglia Battista de' Giudici (1428-1484), arrived in town in September 1476, he had fourteen Jews executed. De' Giudici, a close friend of Pope Sixtus, declared the blood libel accusation "fantastic" and the Jews "entirely innocent" (see Hsia 1992). Bishop Hinderbach, in turn, did not lack friends. It is in the progressive Humanist movement that he found some defenders such as Bartolomeo Sacchi, surnamed Platina (1421-1481), who claimed that this was a matter of Rome infringing on the rights of the local bishops.
The quite convoluted story was concluded with a political compromise: Pope Sixtus signed on his deathbed a bull dated June 20, 1478, declaring that the bishop had acted within his prerogatives but on the other hand any Christian should obey the papal bulls against the reality of blood libel, and the Jews still in jail (all women, the men having been executed) should be freed, with their confiscated dowries returned to them. One thing Trent wanted was the recognition of the cult of "the Little Saint Simon": this was regarded as less important by Rome, and granted by Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) in 1588.
In the meantime one Catholic theologian, Johann Eck (1486-1543), was vigorously preaching about the reality of the blood crimes committed by the Jews. This prompted Pope Paul III (1468-1549) to publish on May 12, 1540 yet another bull, where he plainly concluded that "those accusing the Jews of drinking the blood of children are blinded by avarice, and only want to rob their money" (published in Strack 1909, 258).
Pope Paul's bull held. There were no further cases in western Europe until the last decades of the 19th century. The disease however spread to Poland and Lithuania. According to Tollet (2001, 217) there were several hundred cases between 1547 and 1787, with one thousand to three thousand Jews (unfortunately, several documents are missing) sentenced to death. These cases can be traced to the preaching about "the Little Saint Simon" of Trent by the influential Jesuit Piotr Skarga (1536-1612), who is still popularly revered as a saintly figure today but whose beatification process was stopped precisely by the blood libel issue. The popes were not idle: for instance, in the case of Tykocin, Lithuania, Paul III called for the application of his 1540 bull and obtained liberty for a group of Jews accusing of having killed the record number of fifty children. In 1706 the Vatican Congregation for the Propagation of Faith sent to Poland a book refuting the accusations authored by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Tranquillo Vita Corcos (1660-1730), and published with the authorization of the Holy See. The Vatican also influenced several acts by the kings of Poland which tried to stop, or at least slow down, the epidemics.
The Polish bishops were, however, uncooperative. This eventually prompted the most comprehensive study of the question ever produced by the Vatican. In 1756 fifteen Jews of Jampol, Poland accused of the ritual slaughter of a Christian child were acquitted. The local bishop, Anthony-Erasmus Wollowicz (1710-1790) appealed the decision. A delegation of Polish Jews then sent a delegate to Rome, who persuaded Pope Benedict XIV to commission a study by the Holy Office (called today the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith). The Holy Office entrusted the task to the Franciscan bishop Lorenzo Ganganelli (1705-1774). He produced his report at Christmas 1759, just after having been created a cardinal on November 19. The report was approved and became an official document of the Holy Office, and the new Pope Clemens XIII (1693-1769)--whose successor was to be Ganganelli himself as Clemens XIV--sent it to Poland with a bull dated February 9, 1760.
Ganganelli's forty-page report (republished in my book of 2004) remains the most detailed Catholic refutation of the blood libel. The Holy Office report concluded that it is impossible, according to their history and theology, for Jews to even conceive of drinking human blood or mixing it with bread or other food. Ganganelli had to accept that both Andreas of Rinn and "Little Saint Simon" of Trent had their respective cults confirmed by the Popes. He could not deny these possible exceptions to the general rule, but did not fail to note that the cults had been at first forbidden by the popes, and confirmed subsequently only based on their continuous practice for several decades (as mentioned earlier, this procedure no longer exists in the Catholic Church).
The actions by the Holy Office and Pope Clemens XIII were remarkably effective. The epidemic in Poland was stopped. There were trials after Clemens' 1760 bull, but in all cases the Jews were acquitted. The memory survived in the Polish emigration, however, and there were three blood libel cases, but no prosecutions, in Massachusetts and Illinois in 1919, all promoted by Polish immigrants. The most famous blood libel case in the U.S. started at Massena, New York, in 1928 with the claims of a Macedonian restaurant owner well conversant with Polish folklore. The missing girl of Massena was found alive and well in the local woods, and the case died down, although it caused a heated political debate on antisemitism (Friedman 1978). And perhaps the most horrific case happened in Kielce, Poland, as late as 1946, where accusations of ritual murder against Jewish survivors of the Holocaust led to a pogrom and riots which left 42 dead (Taradel 2002, 297-303).
After the French Revolution, all changed. The Catholic Church found itself in a defensive posture against anti-clerical governments, occasionally supported by liberal or secular Jews. The myth that "the Jews" were behind the most liberal wings of Freemasonry and the French Revolution was widely believed, including within the hierarchy. A Catholic religious and political anti-Judaism, dangerously close to antisemitism, developed well beyond the 18th century attitudes. Blood libel, however, was rarely mentioned in the first decades of the 19th century, perhaps because the Holy Office report of 1759 was still comparatively recent. In the meantime, however, the blood libel myth had spread from Catholic Poland to Orthodox Russia, and from Russia to the Ottoman Empire. Eventually, it was to become a permanent feature of Islamic anti-Jewish literature.
It is in Muslim Syria that the case that revived blood libel in the 19th century occurred in 1840. An Italian Capuchin friar from Sardinia, Father Tommaso da Calangianus (1766-1840), disappeared with his servant. Blood libel rumours led to the arrest of eleven Jews, two of which confessed under torture (one, a rabbi, even formally converted to Islam: see Florence 2004). A complicated political game involving Egypt (which was a semi-independent tributary of the Ottoman Empire and controlled Syria), the Sultan in Istanbul, the European powers (with the French Consul Benoît-Ulysse de Ratti-Menton, 1799-1864, unfortunately persuaded that the Jews were guilty, and the Italian diplomats representing the Austrian empire, very skeptical about the whole blood libel affair), and the Holy See. Within the Vatican itself, there was apparently some disagreement between Pope Gregory XVI (1765-1846) who, although an arch-conservative, was well aware of the documents of his predecessors and inclined to believe the version of the Austrian diplomats, and his Secretary of State Luigi Cardinal Lambruschini (1776-1854) who preferred to believe Ratti-Menton. Ultimately the Pope ordered the Catholic media published in Rome to remain silent on the affair (Frankel 1997, 229-230).
The accused Jews were eventually freed thanks to the efforts of Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) and Adolphe Crémieux (1796-1880), although one had died in jail. One young Jew turned atheist, soon to become famous, who did believe in the Damascus story and insisted that both the Jews and the early Christians drank the blood of ritually slaughtered children was Karl Marx (1818-1883), who argued just this in an anti-religious speech of 1847 (Marx 1923, V).
It is after Damascus that the Catholic media started spreading the blood libel mythology, particularly after 1880 and through the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica (Klein 1974), widely regarded as a semi-official organ of the Pope, although the relationship between the Holy See and the journal were in fact more complicated. Miccoli (1997, 1501) does admit this, but claims that there was a concerted effort by the Catholic hierarchy from 1880 to the beginning of the 20th century, and perhaps even later, to use blood libel as a weapon against prominent anti-Catholic Jewish politicians, including the mayor of Rome Ernesto Nathan (1845-1921). In fact, my own and De Cesaris' research show that the hierarchy was surely guilty of not stopping a press campaign involving for some twenty-five years the most prestigious Catholic publications. On the other hand, dissenting voices always existed among both the Catholic journalists and bishops, and the Popes remained remarkably silent.
Engaged as they were in defending both the dogma of Papal infallibility, proclaimed in 1870, and the charisma of the Pope's figure, certainly they could not dismiss the solemn bulls of half a dozen of their predecessors, irrespective of any technical question whether these bulls were or not covered by infallibility. Even the common Catholics in the pews, while avidly reading lurid accounts by respected and not-so-respected journalists (among the latter one may include Henri Desporters, pseudonym of Célestin-Henri Déportes, 1865-1939, who signed "Father Desporters" but had in fact abandoned the clerical career before being ordained), did not cause any blood libel scare in Italy, France, or Spain. Outside the Muslm world (where there were several cases), the only serious incidents occurred in Central Europe, in Hungary (Tisza-Eszlár 1882, where however the accused Jews were all acquitted) and Bohemia.
It is in the Bohemian case of Polna (1899) that the British Jewish community appealed to Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903), asking him to intervene with a new bull or Holy Office report which may perhaps have saved the accused Jew, Leopold Hilsner (1876-1928). The Pope deferred the matter to the Holy Office, whose 1900 deliberations are unfortunately lost but which replied in one line that "we recommend that the Secretary of State answer that the request cannot be granted". Miccoli, again, gives a great weight to this document, but its authority as an expression of the magisterium is doubtful. On the other hand, one understands how the Holy Office cardinals were caught in a politically difficult situation. By producing a document summarizing the previous Popes' fulminations against the blood libel, they would have implicitly condemned La Civiltà Cattolica and other prestigious Catholic organs, while by arguing that Hilsner was guilty they would have undermined Papal authority (and perhaps infallibility itself) by implying that generations of Popes, who had denounced the blood libel from the 13th to the 18th century, were wrong.
Hence the one-line answer, which did not save Hilsner from being sentenced to death, although the very pious Emperor Franz Joseph II (1830-1916), renewing a Hapsburg tradition of skepticism about the blood libel, first commuted the decision to life imprisonment and then graced Hilsner in 1916. It is worth noting that no Czech government, including the Communists, accepted a number of petitions to rehabilitate Hilsner, until the new post-Communist Czech Republic finally rendered justice to the innocent Jew in 1998.
Miccoli (1997, 1533) guesses that the young Monsignor (subsequently Cardinal and Secretary of State) Raffaele Merry del Val (1865-1930) may have played a role in rejecting the petition, particularly since his family claimed to descend from the mythical Dominguito del Val, one of the alleged victims of blood libel in Spain who perhaps never existed. There is no clear evidence that this was the case, while it is certain that Merry del Val (at that time only 34 years old) later denounced unambiguously the blood libel, and even joined in 1926 the short-lived Society of the Friends of Israel, which had among its aims to expose the blood libel as an "incredible myth."
In fact, Merry del Val did play a role in the famous Kiev case of 1911, where Menahem Mendel Beilis (1874-1934) was on trial for ritual murder. The star witness for the prosecution was a Lithuanian priest, Iustinas Pranaitis (1861-1917), an indefatigable propagandist for blood libel that the Holy See had seen fit to remove to faraway Tashkent, Uzbekistan. He came back for the trial, however, and claimed that the papal bulls and the Holy Office 1759 report, mentioned by Beilis' defense, were forgeries. Merry del Val, then Secretary of State of Pope Pius X (1835-1914, canonized as Saint Pius X in 1954), wrote to the Court confirming that the documents were genuine, and that the position of the Church had not changed. It is unclear whether the letter really played an important role in the trial, but Beilis--in a case which inspired the novel and movie The Fixer--was finally acquitted.
De Cesaris' 2006 book confirms, by quoting unpublished correspondence, that Pius X in fact fully backed his Secretary of State and wrote private letters to Jewish leaders expressing his persuasion that blood libel was an unfortunate superstition. It is true that some conservative clergymen befriended by Pius X, including Monsignor Umberto Benigni (1844-1932), did propagate the blood libel, although in a last incarnation of the myth they attributed the ritual sacrifice and blood-drinking to a secret Jewish Kabbalistic cult whose existence was unknown to the majority of common Jews. Under Pius XI (1857-1939), the strong confrontation between the Catholic Church and Nazi antisemitism gradually confined the blood libel to arch-conservative (or pro-Nazi) niches of the Catholic world, whose orthodoxy by then was seriously questioned by Rome. Today, the blood libel is promoted only by splinter groups (such as the one which produced the book by Nitoglia 2002, while others republish Pranaitis) who do not recognize the last three or four popes as legitimate, and should not be confused with the mainline Roman Catholic Church. It is only within Islam that the blood libel is still unfortunately divulgated on a quite large scale, including by politicians such as Mustafa Tlass, who was Syria's Minister of Defense for thirty years until May 2004 and published extensively on the subject, and terrorist groups like Hamas or the Hezbollah.
The Catholic Church did solve in the meantime the last remaining problem concerning the cults, under the "confirmed" title of saint or blessed, of children allegedly ritually slaughtered by Jews. On May 4, 1965 the Holy Congregation of the Rites published a decree forbidding the cult of "Little Saint Simon" of Trent, taking care also of similar cases which were later taken care of by local bishops. In the decree, the Congregation explained that "confirming" a cult only recognized a practice as ancient and is not the equivalent of a formal canonization, an act implying "a serious examination" of the historical facts and solemnly engaging the Church's authority. This did not happen when cults of presumed victims of ritual slaughter were "confirmed."
This is an interesting story, which shows that, contrary to popular accounts, the blood libel was not promoted by the Popes. They almost immediately condemned it when it surfaced in the 13th century, and kept issuing bulls and documents every time significant incidents arose, culminating in the Holy Office report of 1759. There is a "black hole" in this magisterium after the French Revolution, when the Catholic world in general failed to distinguish between a few anti-Catholic Jewish politicians in western Europe (some of them Reform or secular) and the Orthodox Jews in eastern and central Europe, or in the Middle East, who suffered because of blood libel accusations. However, there was never a papal teaching accepting the blood libel, although between 1880-1905 a significant portion of the Catholic press propagated the mythology and Rome failed to intervene. Starting from the Beilis case in 1911, Rome again played an active role denouncing the blood libel for the ugly lie it always was. While the role of the popes in building throughout the centuries a critical mass of documents against the blood libel should be recognized (and more often than not it is not recognized), the silence of the late 19th century should also be acknowledged as one more unfortunate consequence of constructing "International Jewry" as a mythical unity, and failing to distinguish between very different brands and attitudes in real-world Judaism. Remembering the story of Catholic attitudes towards the blood libel may contribute to a better understanding of both the Jewish-Christian relations and the history of antisemitism.
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