A Gripping History of an Undying Lie


One would think that by 2020, with all the noise surrounding anti-Semitism and with many books on the blood libel (notably Sara Libby Robinson’s 2011 idiosyncratic “Blood Will Tell”), the topic would have been exhausted.

Not so, argues Magda Teter, a history professor at Fordham University. She is, to be sure, interested in the centuries of false accusations of ritual murder by the Jews, but her agenda in “Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth” (Harvard University Press) is far broader than the narrative of the libel, compelling though the story may be.

“Blood Libel” is a big book, weighing in at 560 pages. And Teter is a master of the telling detail: Every page is full of dates and data, facts and figures. But “Blood Libel,” amazingly for an academic work, reads like a high-end crime novel; it’s a page-turner that the reader will have difficulty putting down.

So if the blood-libel story has been told and retold, what does Teeter uncover that’s new? The conceit of the book is that how and why the libelous stories of ritual murder were spread across Europe, using new broadcast technologies, were as significant — perhaps more so — than the blood libel incidents themselves.

Teter tells the story cogently and winningly; it moves from the earliest false stories of ritual murder through a series of blood libels in medieval Europe to the Jewish communal responses to the libels; from the dissemination of the libel to the “calculated pragmatism” of the Catholic Church to the waning of accusations. The chapter titled “Who Should One Believe, the Rabbis or the Doctors of the Church?” is unusually engrossing, summing up the dilemma for many in European lands.

The core of the first few chapters is the narrative of the murder of Simon of Trent — “Little Simon” — both the event and the aftermath that became what Teter calls “a near permanent fixture of Christian historical accounts.” This ritual-murder libel, concocted after a toddler’s body was found under a Jewish house in 1475, became a model for later events. Her astoundingly detailed story — the narrative reads like a crime-story yarn, notwithstanding the abundance of academic detail — weaves grisly details, a cast of Christians and the few Jews of Trent (central casting could not have done better!), and the propaganda machinery that spread the canard to a believing populace across Europe.

Teter makes the case that the Simon story might not have had the impact it did without advances in the dissemination of information, especially printing. The invention in the West of moveable-type printing created the mass-produced “chronicle,” which provided comprehensive histories authored by respected individuals (usually clerics).

To the medieval reader, a “chronicle” called to mind the biblical “Book of Chronicles,” and was considered to be authoritative, indeed an extension of the biblical canon. Teter notes that the bishops who authored these “chronicles” included false accusations of ritual murder alongside records of true events. Once in the “chronicle,” the event had the sanction of undisputed history with an ecclesiastical imprimatur.

The blood libel was one of two libels popular in the Middle Ages. The rationale for it — the logic for those who believed it — was that after the Jews had crucified Jesus, they yet thirsted for pure and innocent blood.  Since the formerly incarnate God, Jesus, was now in heaven, Jews were thought to aspire to the blood of the most innocent of Christian believers, namely Christian children. It follows that most of these fraudulent ritual-murder charges were brought near Passover, close in time to when Christians mark the death and crucifixion of Jesus at Easter.

Equally significant, albeit lesser known, was the libel of desecrating the Host — the sacramental bread, or wafer, which, in the Roman Catholic Eucharist, is believed to become the body of Jesus. In that libel, the Jews of a town somehow obtained the Host and took it to the synagogue or to a Jew’s home to stab, beat and trample.

What else could be expected of these wicked people, yet thirsting for the murder of Jesus, than that they would continue to slay God — Jesus — by defiling the Host?

Here and there, Teter assumes knowledge that the general reader might not have. In her discussion of the sainthood proposed for victims of the libel, Teter is fuzzy on the details of the steps toward canonization. They are three: veneration, beatification and canonization. The reader would benefit from this clarity.

But at bottom, there isn’t a single page in “Blood Libel” from which this reader did not learn something. And for students and scholars in the field, the archival material is priceless. 

In her closing argument to the reader, Teter makes the point that the blood libel, although medieval in origin, “became rooted in Christian imagination,” notwithstanding a centuries-old tradition of papal condemnation of the libel and defense of the Jews. Jews still remained vulnerable to the charges. Historians debate why, after 1540, there were no papal condemnations of the canard, and why the libel stayed alive into contemporary times. (Just last week, a well-known painter in Italy posted on Facebook his new painting, titled “The Martyrdom of St. Simon of Trent by Jewish Ritual Murder,” featuring leering, hook-nosed, yarmulke-wearing men with bloody hands.)

“Blood Libel” reminds us that when people embrace sources they find reliable and that conform to their predispositions, they will reject data that contradict their views and beliefs. “Cognitive bias” has long played a role in the tawdry history of anti-Semitic libel — medieval libels, the horrors of the Nazi era, the Soviet campaigns against the Jews, contemporary expressions. “Blood Libel” lays the groundwork for this history, and for this a debt of gratitude is owed its author. 

Jerome Chanes, a regular contributor, is the author of several books on anti-Semitism and is the editor, most recently, of “The Future of
Judaism in America.”