The Myth of Ritual Murder: Jews and Magic in Reformation Germany
Virtually every reasonably well integrated community requires a scapegoat who is in some sense an outsider; without his services, the miseries and accidents of life would have to be blamed on a member of that community, with sadly disruptive consequences. In Europe, and more especially in Central Europe, that role was for centuries filled by the Jews: they moved into it with the revival of Christianity during the twelfth century, and they played it out in the revival of barbarism during the twentieth. Of course, they suited it exceptionally well. Found in every town but everywhere unassimilable, living in a separation that reflected both choice and imposition, distinctive in dress and behavior, both mysterious and familiar, they slotted easily into the position of the dangerous outsider, rampant within the community of insiders.
Their wealth, real as well as imagined, was supposedly gained from wicked practices barred to good Christians. Their own gloomy addiction to magical dreams and to demonology—the cabala is full of devils—seemed to confirm their essential malice and power to do harm. (Dr. Hsia briefly introduces also a leading light of beneficent magic, Rabbi Loew of Prague, maker of the Golem and allegedly one of my ancestors; why he insists on misspelling the name as “Leow” remains a mystery.) Above all, this alien body of people had known the Christian God before anyone else did but had, so the Church maintained, rejected him: they had killed Christ and therefore deserved both unending suspicion and frequent punishment. Thus the universal desire for a scapegoat was given specific direction by the passions of a faith supposedly dedicated to the Prince of Peace. No one, incidentally, seems ever to have reminded Christian Europe that Jesus could not have taken the sins of the world upon himself by suffering unless someone made sure of his execution. Should the Church not have been grateful to the Jews (if indeed they were guilty of the death of Christ) for giving the Christian religion its start in life? Well, there is no accounting for ingratitude, and things do not work out like that in religion.
Admittedly, this attitude to the Jews was not universally found throughout medieval Europe but became the preserve largely of German and Slavic lands. England was saved from the poison of endemic anti-Semitism by the very early decision (1290) to expel all Jews from the realm; the ones that by stages drifted back, even before Puritan respect for the Old Testament opened the realm once more to Jews in the days of Oliver Cromwell, seem never to have encountered anything like their Central European experience. Indeed, a few scattered Jews would not have served well as scapegoats. Anti-Semitism in England has always been of the kind familiar in the United States, but much less noisy and widespread.
France, after relative immunity for centuries, at the end of the nineteenth century somehow managed to pick up Central European attitudes, with the national church’s energetic assistance. Italy, on the other hand, pretty well preserved its resistance to really rabid anti-Semitism, a fact to which one of the sixteenth century’s Italianate Englishmen offers convenient testimony. Richard Morison, who lived for some years at Padua before joining Thomas Cromwell’s group of humanist advisers and becoming Edward VI’s ambassador to the Emperor Charles V, on one occasion went out of his way to contrast the peaceful, orderly, and industrious existence of the Jews he had encountered in Italy with the quarrelsome, unruly, and idle behavior of his own countrymen. Nevertheless, as Spain was to prove after the reconquest from the Moors, Mediterranean air also could carry the virus. But nothing quite matched what happened in the middle of the continent.
Hatred of the Jews took many forms in medieval Europe, some of them exceptionally murderous, like the pogroms provoked in their different ways by the onset of the crusading movement (hooligans taking part in the crusades were eager to demonstrate their doctrinal purity) and the explosion of the Black Death (half-wits mistook the plague bacillus for poison poured into the wells by Jews). All these things have been discussed at length before this, in several languages, as Dr. Hsia’s footnotes also testify. He has, however, succeeded in turning established knowledge to illuminatingly new purposes in his book under review: an examination of the myth of ritual murder of Christians by Jews in Reformation Germany. He has chosen to concentrate on specifically Christian charges against the Jews—the accusation that they were stealing or buying Christian children and murdering them in order to use their blood in various mysterious ways in their religious rites, as well as the subsidiary accusation that Jews got hold of the consecrated host in order to inflict indignities upon the transubstantiated body of Christ.
These charges themselves significantly reflect the concreteness and blood-based ritualism of the pre-Reformation Christian faith. Oddly enough, the first recorded persecution of Jews accused of ritual murder seems to have occurred in England, at Norwich, where in 1148 a boy called William was said to be martyred by the Jews. His also remained the only English case on record, but from the later fourteenth century onwards disappearing children and ritual murders began to be commonplace within the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire. Dr. Hsia notes that such reports were still circulating as late as the so-called Age of Enlightenment; in fact, though he does not seem to be aware of this, as late as the 1890s a case of alleged ritual murder in Moravia offered to Thomas Masaryk, later the first president of the Czechoslovak Republic, his first opportunity to make public his wise and liberal attitudes. The belief that Jews murdered Christian boys—virtually never girls—for their evil ritual purposes became deeply entrenched in the popular mind of Central, and especially Catholic, Europe; and it did so although the charge was never proved in even a single case.
Dr. Hsia reviews the charges of ritual murder by means of a close look at several cases that happen to be well documented in the record. Thus proceedings at Endingen, in the Breisgau, which started in 1470, laid out a characteristic sequence of events. The reported discovery of infants’ bones in a disintegrating charnel house immediately was used to cast suspicions on some local Jews. There followed investigations under torture, consequent confessions and denials, intervention by higher authority, and in the end (in this case) executions by burning. The dreary procession of wild charges and hapless victims, varying in detail, is traced here in several other places around the turn of the fifteenth century and after. Sometimes mothers or close relatives who killed children tried to escape punishment by blaming the Jews; sometimes attention-hunters invented whole stories that devastated the ghettos. Some Jews caved in quickly under torture, some heroically resisted pain and imprisonment. Particularly striking campaigns of hate and persecution were inflicted on the Jews of Regensberg and Worms by the local magistracy, who wished to carry out the popular desire for the expulsion of the Jews as well as to enrich themselves by confiscating Jewish properties.
On 29 March  the magistrates [of Regensburg] arrested six Jews; on 9 April they imprisoned eleven more men; a list of the Jews’ properties was immediately drawn up. Most of those arrested were leaders of the community: they helped to collect the Jewish tax, arbitrated disputes between Jews, and stood out as the most prestigious and richest members of the Regensburg community. In arresting them, the city council and the duke wanted more than to render “justice” in an alleged ritual murder; it was nothing less than a political plot to commit judicial murder. In early April, city delegates and the duke discussed measures to interrogate the Jews and ways to freeze their assets. Duke Ludwig gave his councillors secret instructions to ensure that the city would not cheat him of his fair share of the confiscated properties. The Jewish quarter was sealed by guards, the assets of all Jews were frozen, and Jews were forbidden to leave Regensburg.
Frankfurt kept faith in the myth of ritual murder alive by a long-enduring painting inside one of the city’s gates of the murder of Simon of Trent, a young boy for whose ritual murder the head of the Jewish community of Trent in northern Italy was tried, tortured, and burned in 1475 (the author obligingly provides an illustration of this horrible work). Some eminent scholars proved to be violent anti-Semites, only too willing to believe the worst of the black legend: in the beginning of the sixteenth century a wellknown humanist, Ulrich Zasius, town clerk and later professor at Freiburg, was virulent in his defense of forcibly baptizing Jewish children and his advocacy of the expulsion of the “loathsome scum” from Christian countries. More than a few recent converts to Christianity sought favor by telling incriminating lies. Other men, again, stood out against the pervasive superstitions of ritual murder and blood libel, above all, the Habsburg authorities who tried to submit legal prosecution of the Jews to lawful procedures of trial and evidence. Also, in his own way, the Jewish convert to Christianity Pfefferkorn tried to defend the Jews against superstitious persecution; although he wrote in his Mirror of Exhortations (1507) that the salvation of the Jews lay in their conversion and argued for the suppression of the Talmud and other “blasphemous” Jewish religious books, he nonetheless attempted to refute the popular claims against the Jews of blood libel:
Taking the Talmud away from the Jews, Pfefferkorn argues, is not doing them violence. What is more insidious is the popular rumor against Jews, the blood libel: “It is said among vulgar Christians that Jews need Christian blood for circumcision, for which they kill little Christian children…most renowned Christians, do not give credence to this…perhaps Jews can be found and some have hitherto been found who secretly plot to kill Christian infants, but this would not be on account of the need to have blood, but because of their hatred and revenge against Christians.”
Dr. Hsia tells this story well, basing himself on the record, which he analyzes with care and expounds with lucidity. He commendably avoids the jargon-ridden absurdities that nowadays lie in wait for anyone engaged in discussing what tend to be called “cultural” issues, though here and there such phrases as elite culture and popular culture trot across the stage. (Can we not confine the word culture to bacteriology, where it makes plain sense?) Dr. Hsia handles words with a pleasing skill, so much so that one may almost forgive him for reviving the ridiculous spelling of Habsburg with a “p.” (His footnote references, strangely enough, are full of correct spellings of the name.) His stories throw much horrifying light into many a murky corner, but in essence they tell little that is new. What made him devote yet another book to this theme?
One possible motive should not be passed over: Dr. Hsia clearly enjoys telling tales out of history. His reactions, it should be emphasized, are entirely proper and worthy, though the accumulation of horrors in words and pictures becomes trying; the eighteen woodcut illustrations are by themselves enough to turn most stomachs. Rather curiously, Dr. Hsia finds all these things “gruesome,” a word which he uses constantly and which at most suggests a Grimms’ fairytale setting for those very real events. It may be supposed that he has been captivated and misled by the German grausam (that is, cruel), which better describes what is put before us. However, titillation is manifestly not his chief purpose, though at times one begins to wonder. The present fad for social history with a sexual slant intrudes only very rarely; unlike some current historians, Dr. Hsia has no intention of smuggling in pornography under the guise of learning.
His chief argument concerns less the rise and prevalence of stories of ritually murdered children and desecrated hosts than the transformation and effective disappearance of such tales as a consequence of the Reformation. As he shows very convincingly, the wave of anti-Jewish terror came in the wake of a special kind of late-medieval piety—the renewal of mysticism, the sudden dash for magical aids and irrational reassurances, which followed upon the public disaster of the plague epidemic. The charges against the Jews formed one aspect of the flowering of ritual faith manifest in the spread of Corpus Christi processions, passionate pilgrimages and the worship of saints, eucharistic devotion—all that flight from fearful darkness, where the Devil lay in wait, to be exorcised only by effective countermagic. Insofar as the Protestant Reformation campaigned from the first against the intrusion of magic into religion—what Dr. Hsia rightly calls its pursuit of disenchantment—it also rejected the magic-inspired horror stories against the Jews.
Now and again this reaction could switch on the light of reason, as in the treatise put out by Andreas Osiander of Nuremberg, who used a mixture of common sense, experience, and the record of serious investigations to dismiss without equivocation the mountain of rubbishy invention. However, his was not a typical voice. He provoked from Johann Eck, professor at Ingolstadt and the famous champion of Rome against Luther, the most extensive and committed statement of the ritual-murder myth ever assembled; and Eck carried a lot of weight within the Church of Rome. Moreover, though Luther did not believe in the myth and at one time entertained friendly feelings toward the Jews, advancing years and the discovery that the Jews positively did not wish to convert to Christianity elicited from him also violent outbursts of anti-Semitism, though he alleged no magic and just hated Jews as obstinate people.
That “the image of the Jewish moneylender eventually replaced that of the Jewish magician” scarcely advanced decency and tolerance. The scapegoat remained available. Dr. Hsia several times notes that from the seventeenth century onward Jews in Germany began to meet better and more welcoming treatment, especially in the Protestant parts of the region. But quite apart from the fact that it took the impact of the French Revolution really to render assimilation and emancipation possible (a point often emphasized by Heinrich Heine), it must be remembered that the world did not come to a stop in 1933.
The evidence assembled by Dr. Hsia leaves no doubt that anti-Semitism, virulent or not, did not affect everybody or, indeed, all layers of society in the same way. The law, and more especially the public law of Rome as it exercised its influence from the sixteenth century onward, limited the effects of the wild accusations and not infrequently secured some sort of justice, even if innocent men had every time suffered torture and long imprisonment. One interesting point to emerge is that the customary laws of the German lands encouraged the extraction of confessions by torture, which was prohibited in the common law of England and traditionally, but erroneously, associated with the professional law of the Romanists in Church and State. The intervention of princes and more particularly emperors several times prevented abuses of power, and that intervention came as often from a sense of justice as from the self-interest of entrepreneurs seeking to protect their financial milchcows. (Dr. Hsia, by the way, seems to confuse the herding of sheep and cattle; at any rate, he has shepherds in charge of cattle herds.) But lower down the scale in society, resistance to the myth of Jewish ritual murder very rarely made itself felt. The “common man,” hero of some recent historiography, had no difficulty in believing and in hating. The accusations against Jews usually came from his, and her, ranks, from women’s gossip, from adolescent criminals and publicity seekers, and urban magistrates risked more unpopularity if they wished to protect innocent Jews than they commonly found it sensible to court. It was the people, egged on by their priests, who believed the stories of child murder and desecration; it was the people who saw in the Jews the deadly enemies of all good Christians, committed to the destruction of good religion and extermination of all hope of salvation.
In the Roman Catholic parts of Central Europe this kind of anti-Semitism entrenched itself and persisted. As early as the sixteenth century, when a Protestant city like Worms began to persecute Jews, it proved determined enough (though the emperor’s jurisdiction won the day against local bigotry), but it no longer relied on tales of ritual murder. This deeply ingrained belief in Jewish deviltry—that Jews worshiped the Devil and needed innocent Christian blood to do so—belonged to the Catholic south. John Eck’s appalling beliefs fairly represent a great many of his coreligionists who never read his book. Out of this tradition, which particularly in Austria had never died, came Hitler and his brand of anti-Semitism, so different from the fastidious dislike and contempt that characterized the similarly persistent but far less virulent anti-Semitism of Prussia and the north. The great Jewish conspiracy against the Christian truth had been replaced by the great Jewish world conspiracy against the Aryan truth, and the myth on which the Third Reich erected its devastating policies stemmed directly from the fear of Jewish magic and sanguinary rituals—a revival created in large part by a magic-oriented popular religion in the later middle ages. In the twentieth century, there were no imperial edicts or imperial chambers to stem the tide of popular superstition, and the Holocaust consummated what popular fury had hoped to achieve centuries before at Endingen and Regensburg and all the rest.
For a while, of course, the Holocaust put an end to the role of Jews as scapegoats for the misfortunes of the communities within which they happened to live, partly at least because they had vanished from so many of those communities, though there are indications that the anti-Semitism of the Alpine regions can survive quite well even without any Jews there. Only in Russia, that further center of dominant anti-Semitic superstitions, did the old convictions and attitudes persist, with the predictably miserable consequences for too many individuals. The snobbish anti-Semitism of England retreated before the truth of Auschwitz, and even Arab romanticism is now the preserve of very few. Similarly golf-club anti-Semitism and university quotas for Jews have disappeared in the United States. In any case, it will be well to remain alert to the echoes. What goes on today in the Middle East makes it likely that we have not seen the last of an effective anti-Semitism or heard the last of the old myths. Stories of the ritual murder of infants may no longer exercise the general public, but if God has chosen the Jews as the scapegoat people of the world who will try to save them from Him and from themselves?
The First Persecution March 16, 1989