Nothing in the long and tragic history of Catholic anti-Jewish action rivals the blood libel for shock, horror, and folly. The sudden disappearance of a Christian child in a small rural Central or Eastern European town is met, unexpectedly, by an outburst of accusations by local Christians against their Jewish neighbors. Good men and women who have lived peacefully for decades suddenly hear themselves accused of abducting and murdering a small child for the purpose of religious sacrifice. The blood libel has been around since the twelfth century, fostering in Christians the feeling that they are once again the victims of Jews, hence justified in defending themselves, their faith, and their children against the ancient enemy.
In truth, ritual-murder accusations took hold only rarely: fewer than a hundred noteworthy cases in a millennium. And such charges almost invariably provoked some degree of disbelief among the educated and those in authority, as well as refutations from the learned—Christian or Jewish. Formal investigations and trials were authorized despite ambivalence and reluctance on the part of doubtful officials. Indeed, the case that proved to be the “big bang” of blood-libel notoriety involves Simon of Trent (1475), which exploded into high visibility mainly because secular and religious authority was united in the hands of a powerful prince-bishop who found it politically expedient to pursue this case. He did this so efficiently that Rome felt obliged to acquiesce: Simon was eventually canonized, while books about “the martyr” were still being churned out more than four centuries later in justification of the blood libel.
Tendentious books of blood libel went uncondemned by the magisterium, transforming fake news into established tradition, a long “memory trail.” Those in search of a pretext could always find phony documentation to justify their chimerical beliefs about Jews. “This long story of the persistence of anti-Jewish blood libels despite arguments to the contrary is dispiriting,” concludes Magda Teter in Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth, a long-awaited study of ritual-murder accusations. Teter, a professor at Fordham University, shows that the “great” medieval cases of William of Norwich (1144) or “Little Hugh” of Lincoln (1255) took on celebrity status only centuries later in the sinister retroactive light shed by Simon of Trent. Teter also shows that the blood libel, even as it arose in very Catholic Poland, did not turn on matters theological (e.g. the Crucifixion) but consisted of vitriolic efforts to brand Jews as criminals or perpetrators of anti-Christian cruelties in order to impede their social interaction with Christians. (The attempts did not always work: in Eastern Europe, as in Central or Western Europe, Jews and gentiles got along well for the most part.)
If the Reformation and Enlightenment largely put the kibosh on German, French, and British blood-libel charges, the Counter-Reformation gave the lie new life as a popular discourse in Poland–Lithuania. A report prepared by Cardinal Ganganelli (the future Pope Clement XIV) in 1758 concluded that ritual murder was a calumny void of truth, but this text lay buried in the archives for more than a century. It was printed for the first time around 1900 because the blood libel, having receded from visibility for three centuries, underwent a stunning revival in five shocking cases. Teter does not include Tiszaeszlár (1882–3, Hungary), Xanten and Konitz (1891–3 and 1900, respectively, both Germany), Hilsener (1899–1900, the Czech lands), and Beilis (1913, Russia) in her study, though she does have a postscript on them. They are covered with great detail in another recent book: Blood Inscriptions: Science, Modernity, and Ritual Murder at Europe’s Fin de Siècle by Hillel J. Kieval, a professor at Washington University.
Teter and Kievel are both accomplished and respected scholars, yet in critical points of method, interpretation, and understanding, they sharply differ in their approach to the topic—a reminder, if one were needed, that history is always as much an art as a science. Had Teter chosen to “finish the story” with a hundred pages of analysis of the modern cases, one suspects she would have turned out a study very different from Kieval’s.
Teter’s is a sweeping work of longue durée, from the mid-twelfth to the late eighteenth century throughout Europe. While much changes, the continuities prevail over the discontinuities. Her book is, most importantly, a study where religion is the final reference point, notwithstanding numerous learned peregrinations into the adjacent terrains of society, economy, and politics. For Teter, the ritual-murder accusation has a clear and stable identity from its earliest appearance to its most recent. In fundamental ways, the Beilis case in 1913 rehearses the William of Norwich case in 1144, thanks to nearly eight centuries of Christian anti-Jewish discrimination, persecution, and contempt in sermons, rites, policies, and public sentiment.
Kieval, on the other hand, has produced a micro-history focusing on five locales in Central Europe over thirty years. In his telling, modern ritual murder is a new phenomenon that relates only nominally to the earlier cases Teter focuses on. In this, Kieval follows the prevailing scholarly view, according to which “antisemitism” constitutes a thorough-going departure from religious anti-Judaism. Kieval’s conclusions about the novelty of latter-day ritual murders are anchored in his analysis of his subjects’ distinctively modern epistemology, which embraced the secular languages of forensic science, politics, and “breaking news” journalism. In other words, their understanding did not turn on theology, and they were not concerned with the religious symbolism of the alleged crimes: Jesus was no longer being “crucified.” Instead, the modern version of the blood libel accused kosher butchers of slicing up Christian children for no particular reason beyond, in Kieval’s pungent words, “raw brutality…. [S]acrifice has been transmuted into slaughter, the altar into the cutting block…. The Jews, themselves, finally, are not religious adversaries, the vanquished recipients of the Old Law; they are Yids.”