Kennet Stow 10/2/2007

Haifa University - Department of Jewish History

On reading of Toaff’s Pasque di Sangue

Some thoughts

The myth of ritual murder, tied to the blood libel, the actual use of blood, and tied, once more, to the accusation of stealing the Host for magical and other purposes is demonstrably a product of a medieval Christian world which saw the Jew as competing to reclaim the legacy of being God’s chosen, which Christianity had claimed for itself. The way to prove the rightful possession of the mantle was by claiming that the allegedly rejected other, the Jew, in the Christian’s case, was an agent of impurity and its transfer. In specific terms going back to John Chrysostom in the late fourth century, the Jew was the Dog, who sought to steal the bread that belonged rightfully to the children, the bread in question being the Eucharistic one of Matthew 15:26, the verse Chrysostom was parsing as he spoke these words. [a] The Jews’ touch, contact, common dining said Agobard of Lyons, create pollution, and the Christian who has done these things not only receives the Eucharist in a state of impurity, but passes it on. Hence, Innocent III had Jews wear special garb for special distinction. It was he who made the Eucharist mandatory annually for all.

The image of the dog appears in the physician Tiberino’s account of the death of Simon of Trent. When Simon was brought in to be tortured, he wrote, the Jews assembled began ululare, to bark, the same word used constantly in Latin texts to describe Jewish prayer. When the ghetto was opened in 1871, Pius IX wrote that he now heard the Jews latrare per le vie. Earlier, it was said of Philip II of France, about 1180, that he had heard that every year the Jews immolabant et communicabant, they sacrificed and took communion, literally, with the heart of a Jewish child. Werner of Oberwessel, whom also the Jews supposedly slew, was called simultaneously the corpus verum, the Eucharist, the corpus mysticum, the Church, and the real body of Christ,. Other stories use leather bags, water imagery (read baptism), and more to create a set of topoi that pass from one ritual murder story to another. A game played even today in Chile has children singing: Who stole the bread from the oven, and they respond themselves: The Jewish Dog.

There is some kind of need for these stories, not only to prove one’s purity and God’s choice, known theologically under the name of supersession, but out of a belief that Eucharistic martyrdom—and all martyrs have been likened to the Eucharist, regardless of their martyrdom’s origin—actually enhances Christ’s saving grace. This was said especially in the seventeenth century.

Is it any wonder, then, that reacting to these exaggerations and distortions, the Jesuit Petrus Browe about 1940, when asked whether there was any substantial proof for ritual murder and blood libels, replied succinctly, Nein? Another Jesuit, the student of Saints’ Lives Francois Halkin, about 1923, called the charge inanité.

But some people were not listening, are not listening. Websites like, whose most developed version is in Italian, reprints the worst texts of libels, while denying the Shoah in the process – and accusing both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI of 123 heresies. Blood libels and super Catholic fundamentalism go hand in hand. Mel Gibson’s film The Last Passion of Christ, carefully inspected, turns out to be a blood libel in reverse. Christ is reconstructed suffering much like the victim of blood libel stories, whipped, tortured, and profusely bled.

To find a book which, following the article in the Corriere della sera by Sergio Luzzatto (whoever he is, certainly no known expert on Jewish history), revives all the myth, including all the topoi that accompanied it, but under the title of even possible truth, is disturbing. That it is politically disturbing goes without saying. Judged by rigid historiographical canons, it is disturbing even the more. I have not read the book. I cannot say how Toaff uses his evidence. One thing, though, is certain. To debunk what one considers historical myth—in Toaff’s case, the belief that there never were ritual murders—one has to engage those so-called myths and prove they were that, that historians were obfuscating a clearly ugly truth. One has also to negate the claims of not-always-so-friendly medieval converts from Judaism to Christianity, who testified both before popes and emperors that Jews never use blood. And one has to explain why texts which outstanding scholars like Diego Quaglioni, one of today’s leading experts on medieval law, have judged to be the transcripts of a trial improperly carried on should be seen otherwise, as reporting the truth.

It is necessary also to explain why the Dominican Bishop Battista de’ Giudici took up the cudgels, right after 1475, to argue the trial at Trent was a railroad, putting his own life in danger. Not to mention that the then Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV issued a bull in 1478 with a most direct message that Jews were not to be harmed who lived peacefully, who did no evil against Christianity, which he clearly believed, following his legate’s advice, to have been the case at Trent, that the Jews were unjustly imprisoned, tortured, and horribly put to death.

The historian has to counter all this, using rigorous historical rules of evidence, in order to make a case that ritual murder was real, even one single instance of it. One cannot, moreover, mystify all this by pretending to some hitherto unknown Kabbalistic sect was responsible, raising up the specter of Kabbalah as sheer magic that it falsely acquired in later years, mostly through Christian practice of Kabbalistic ritual, or to be more precise, pseudo-kabbalistic ritual. Nor is the use of the term fundamentalist, as Luzzatto reports it, applicable at that time. All Jews, unless they fled the community, carefully observed Jewish rights; they had no choice.  

We always hope for accurate historical study. About Toaff’s book, I must, just because I am a historian, reserve judgment till I have actually read it. At the same time, as one who has studied these issues for much time and in great depth, I fear for the worst: that a great perversion of the historian’s craft may be here at work.

Kenneth Stow

[a] Kenneth Stow, Jewish Dogs, An Image and Its Interpreters: Continuity in the Jewish Catholic Encounter. Stanford University Press, 2006.

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