11/14/12 - ashkenazi jews, the crusades, and the blood libel

In today's selection - in the 9th century CE, the great Charlemagne himself had recruited Jewish trading communities from Italy to the Rhine region in an enlightened move to add the dynamic of trade to his largely agricultural kingdom. These Jews called the area to which they relocated Ashkenaz and became know as Ashkenazi Jews. Their plight turned perilous three centuries later with the rise of the First Crusade:

"Relations between Jews and Christians remained more or less stable until near the end of the eleventh century, when pressure began to build for a crusade to rescue the Christian holy sites in Palestine, especially the Holy Sepulchre, from the hands of the Muslims. The religious enthusiasm directed violently against the distant nonbelievers came to be directed also against the Jews, for as some Christians argued, 'Here we are going to make war against the infidels in the Holy Land, when we have infidels in our own midst.' When the mobs of the First Crusade began to sweep eastward across Europe in the spring of 1096, among their early victims were the Jews of the Rhineland communities. Local lords and church authorities on the whole tried to live up to their legal obligation of defending their Jewish clients, but they lacked the forces to prevent the onslaught. The result was widespread massacres and forced baptisms. Rather than risk falling into the hands of the Christian mobs, many Jews committed suicide, the men killing their own wives and children first and then themselves. This was the first great trauma suffered by Ashkenazic Jewry, but there was far more in store. The Second and the Third Crusades brought their own horrors. In England, the Jews of York committed mass suicide in 1190 rather than fall into the hands of the warriors of the Third Crusade, an event still commemorated weekly in many Ashkenazic synagogues.

"Hostility now became the normal attitude of the average European toward the Jews. This hostility was partly grounded in fear. The ordinary illiterate and superstitious medieval European peasant saw the Jews, with their strange customs, odd religious practices, and mysterious Hebrew prayers, not just as social and economic outsiders, but as weird practitioners of black magic directed both against man and God, perhaps even agents of the devil. This attitude came to its fullest expression in the blood libel, the widespread belief that Jews regularly murder non-Jews, particularly children, in order to use their blood for magic or religious rites, especially for Passover. The blood libel had arisen as far back as Hellenistic times, when it was directed by pagans against Christians as well as Jews, but it achieved its fullest and most destructive form in medieval Christian Europe. For Christians, the central religious rite was the mass in which, they were told, wine and bread were changed into the blood and body of Christ. Their priests regularly taught them that the Jews, in their perverse wickedness, had spilled the blood of their savior. Against the background of these ideas, it was natural for the credulous masses to imagine that the Jews practiced diabolical counter-rituals involving blood. It was likewise rumored that Jews would steal communion wafers and torture Jesus by sticking pins in them and by otherwise defiling them. Sometimes Jews were accused of using the wafers for unholy magical rituals.

"The first full-fledged blood accusation was made against the Jews of Norwich, England, in 1144. They were accused of capturing a Christian child named William before Easter and hanging him on Good Friday in a reenactment of the torture and crucifixion of Christ. They were supposed to have performed this ritual in fulfillment of an alleged agreement among world Jewry that a Christian child should be killed each year. The Jews of Norwich were massacred. Similar accusations were subsequently brought against Jews all over Europe. The accusation took a particularly sinister turn when the belief became widespread that the Jews used the blood of a slaughtered Christian child to make the Passover matzot (wafers eaten in lieu of bread during the eight days of the festival). The details of the accusations varied, but the consequences were similar: Whole Jewish families, sometimes whole Jewish communities were killed, often by being burned alive. The most famous cases occurred in Gloucester (1168); Blois (1171); Vienna (1181); Saragossa (1182); Fulda (1235); Lincoln (1255) -- commemorated by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, in connection with his own fictional tale of a blood libel -- Munich (1286); Trent (1475); and Avila (1491). This last case was known as that of 'the Holy Child of La Guardia'; it was concocted by those in Spain who were campaigning for the expulsion of the Jews, and it had the gravest possible political consequences.

"Christian intellectuals, even in the Middle Ages, did not give credence to the blood libel, and in the sophisticated Islamic world in this period, the blood libel and the image of the Jew as ally of the devil were unknown. Christian kings and the upper Christian clergy did what they could to defend the Jews against the outlandish accusations. After the Fulda blood libel of 1235, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II established a commission to study it; the commissioners quite correctly pointed out how absurd it was to accuse the Jews, whose religious law prohibited them from eating even an egg with a blood spot on it, of eating human blood for ritual or any other purpose."


Raymond P. Scheindlin


A Short History of the Jewish People


Oxford University Press


Copyright 1998 by Raymond P. Scheindlin


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