Blood libel

Blood libel (also blood accusation)[1][2] is an accusation[3][4][5] that Jews kidnapped and murdered the children of Christians in order to use their blood as part of their religious rituals during Jewish holidays.[1][2][6] Historically, these claims  alongside those of well poisoning and host desecration  have been a major theme of the persecution of Jews in Europe.[4]

Blood libels typically say that Jews require human blood for the baking of matzos for Passover, although this element was allegedly absent in the earliest cases which claimed that (contemporary) Jews reenacted the crucifixion. The accusations often assert that the blood of the children of Christians is especially coveted, and, historically, blood libel claims have been made in order to account for the otherwise unexplained deaths of children. In some cases, the alleged victim of human sacrifice has become venerated as a martyr, a holy figure around whom a martyr cult might arise. Three of these  William of Norwich, Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, and Simon of Trent  became objects of local cults and veneration, and in some cases they were added to the General Roman Calendar. One, Gavriil Belostoksky, was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.

In Jewish lore, blood libels were the impetus for the creation of the Golem of Prague by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in the 16th century.[7] According to Walter Laqueur:

Altogether, there have been about 150 recorded cases of blood libel (not to mention thousands of rumors) that resulted in the arrest and killing of Jews throughout history, most of them in the Middle Ages. In almost every case, Jews were murdered, sometimes by a mob, sometimes following torture and a trial.[8]

The term 'blood libel' can also refer to any unpleasant and damaging false accusation, and has taken on a broader metaphorical meaning. However, this usage remains controversial and has been protested by Jewish groups.[9][10][11]

Actual Jewish practices regarding blood and sacrifice

It has been one of history's cruel ironies that the blood libel — accusations against Jews using the blood of murdered gentile children for the making of wine and matzot — became the false pretext for numerous pogroms. And due to the danger, those who live in a place where blood libels occur are halachically exempted from using red wine, lest it be seized as "evidence" against them.
 Pesach: What We Eat and Why We Eat It, Project Genesis[12]

The supposed torture and human sacrifice alleged in the blood libels run contrary to the teachings of Judaism. According to the Bible, God commanded Abraham in the Binding of Isaac to sacrifice his son, but ultimately provided a ram as a substitute. The Ten Commandments in the Torah forbid murder. In addition, the use of blood (human or otherwise) in cooking is prohibited by the kosher dietary laws (kashrut). Blood from slaughtered animals may not be consumed, and must be drained out of the animal and covered with earth (Lev 17:12-13). According to the Book of Leviticus, blood from sacrificed animals may only be placed on the altar of the Great Temple in Jerusalem (which no longer existed at the time of the Christian blood libels). Furthermore, consumption of human flesh would violate kashrut.[13]

While animal sacrifice was part of the practice of ancient Judaism, the Tanakh (Old Testament) and Jewish teachings portray human sacrifice as one of the evils that separated the pagans of Canaan from the Hebrews (Deut 12:31, 2 Kings 16:3). Jews were prohibited from engaging in these rituals and were punished for doing so (Ex 34:15, Lev 20:2, Deut 18:12, Jer 7:31). In fact, ritual cleanliness for priests prohibited them from even being in the same room as a human corpse (Lev 21:11).


The earliest versions of the accusation involved Jews crucifying Christian children at Easter/Passover because of a prophecy. There is no reference to the use of blood in unleavened matzo bread, which evolves later as a major motivation for the crime.[14]

Possible precursors

Though otherwise very different from the medieval myth, there are two records of ancient stories about Jewish acts of sacrifice that have been linked to the later blood libel stories of the medieval era. The first is in the writings of the Graeco-Egyptian author Apion, who claimed that Jews sacrificed Greek victims in their temple. This accusation is known from Josephus' rebuttal of it in Against Apion. Apion states that when Antiochus Epiphanes entered the temple in Jerusalem, he discovered a Greek captive who told him he was being fattened for sacrifice. Every year, Apion claimed, the Jews would sacrifice a Greek and consume his flesh, at the same time swearing eternal hatred to Greeks.[15] Apion's claim probably repeats ideas already in circulation as similar claims are made by Posidonius and Apollonius Molon in the 1st century BC.[16] The second story concerns the murder of a Christian boy by a group of Jewish youths. Socrates Scholasticus (fl. 5th Century) reported that some Jews in a drunken frolic bound a Christian child on a cross in mockery of the death of Christ and scourged him until he died.[17]

Professor Israel Jacob Yuval of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published an article in 1993 that argues that blood libel may have originated in the 12th century from Christian views of Jewish behavior during the First Crusade. Some Jews committed suicide and killed their own children rather than be subjected to forced conversions. Yuval investigated Christian reports of these events and found that they were greatly distorted with claims that if Jews could kill their own children they could also kill the children of Christians. Yuval rejects the blood libel story as a fantasy of some Christians which could not contain any elements of truth because of the precarious nature of the Jewish minority's existence in Christian Europe.[18][19]

Origins in England

The crucifixion of William of Norwich depicted on a rood screen in Holy Trinity church, Loddon, Norfolk

In England in 1144, Jews of Norwich were accused of ritual murder after a boy, William of Norwich, was found dead with stab wounds in the woods. William's hagiographer, Thomas of Monmouth, claimed that every year there is an international council of Jews at which they choose the country in which a child will be killed during Easter, because, he claimed, of a Jewish prophecy that states that the killing of a Christian child each year will ensure that the Jews will be restored to the Holy Land. In 1144, England was chosen, and the leaders of the Jewish community delegated the Jews of Norwich to perform the killing. They then abducted and crucified William.[20] The legend was turned into a cult, with William acquiring the status of a martyr and pilgrims bringing offerings to the local church.[21]

This was followed by similar accusations in Gloucester (1168), Bury St Edmunds (1181) and Bristol (1183). In 1189, the Jewish deputation attending the coronation of Richard the Lionheart was attacked by the crowd. Massacres of Jews at London and York soon followed. In 1190 on March 16, 150 Jews were attacked in York and then massacred when they took refuge in the royal castle, where Clifford's Tower now stands, with some committing suicide rather than being taken by the mob.[22] The remains of 17 bodies thrown in a well in Norwich between the 12th and 13th century (five that were shown by DNA testing to likely be members of a single Jewish family) were very possibly killed as part of one of these pogroms.[23]

After the death of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, there were a series of trials and executions of Jews.[24] The case is mentioned by Chaucer, and thus has become well-known. The eight-year-old Hugh disappeared at Lincoln on 31 July 1255. His body was discovered on 29 August, covered with filth, in a pit or well belonging to a Jewish man named Copin or Koppin. On being promised by John of Lexington, a judge, who happened to be present, that his life should be spared, Copin is said to have confessed that the boy had been crucified by the Jews, who had assembled at Lincoln for that purpose. King Henry III, on reaching Lincoln at the beginning of October, refused to carry out the promise of John of Lexington, and had Copin executed and 91 of the Jews of Lincoln seized and sent up to London, where 18 of them were executed. The rest were pardoned at the intercession of the Franciscans (Jacobs, Jewish Ideals, pp. 192–224). Within a few decades, Jews would be expelled from all of England in 1290 and not allowed to return until 1657.

Continental Europe

Simon of Trent blood libel. Illustration in Hartmann Schedel's Weltchronik, 1493

The first known case outside England was in Blois, France, in 1171. This was the site of a blood libel accusation against the town's entire Jewish community that led to around 31 Jews[25] being burned to death.[26][27] The blood libel revolved around Isaac bar Eleazar, a Jewish resident of Blois, who was accused by a Christian servant of throwing a child into a watering hole. The child's body was never found, and all the Jews who lived in Blois were killed for the alleged ritual murder.[25] Thomas of Monmouth's story of the annual Jewish meeting to decide which local community would kill a Christian child also quickly spread to the continent. An early version appears in Bonum Universale de Apibus ii. 29, § 23, by Thomas of Cantimpré (a monastery near Cambray). Thomas wrote "It is quite certain that the Jews of every province annually decide by lot which congregation or city is to send Christian blood to the other congregations." Thomas of Cantimpré also believed that since the time when the Jews called out to Pontius Pilate, "His blood be on us, and on our children" (Matthew 27:25), they have been afflicted with hemorrhages:

A very learned Jew, who in our day has been converted to the (Christian) faith, informs us that one enjoying the reputation of a prophet among them, toward the close of his life, made the following prediction: 'Be assured that relief from this secret ailment, to which you are exposed, can only be obtained through Christian blood ("solo sanguine Christiano").' This suggestion was followed by the ever-blind and impious Jews, who instituted the custom of annually shedding Christian blood in every province, in order that they might recover from their malady.

Thomas added that the Jews had misunderstood the words of their prophet, who by his expression "solo sanguine Christiano" had meant not the blood of any Christian, but that of Jesus  the only true remedy for all physical and spiritual suffering. Thomas did not mention the name of the "very learned" proselyte, but it may have been Nicholas Donin of La Rochelle, who in 1240 had a disputation on the Talmud with Yechiel of Paris, and who in 1242 caused the burning of numerous Talmudic manuscripts in Paris. It is known that Thomas was personally acquainted with this Nicholas.

Painting of Werner of Oberwesel as a martyr

At Pforzheim, Baden, the corpse of a seven-year-old girl was found in the river by fishermen. The Jews were suspected, and when they were led to the corpse, blood allegedly began to flow from the wounds; led to it a second time, the face of the child became flushed, and both arms were raised. In addition to these miracles, there was the testimony of the daughter of the wicked woman who had sold the child to the Jews. A regular judicial examination did not take place; it is probable that the above-mentioned "wicked woman" was the murderer. That a judicial murder was then and there committed against the Jews in consequence of the accusation is evident from the manner in which the Nuremberg "Memorbuch" and the synagogal poems refer to the incident (Siegmund Salfeld, Das Martyrologium des Nürnberger Memorbuches (1898), pp. 15, 128–130).

At Weissenburg, a miracle alone decided the charge against the Jews. According to the accusation, the Jews had suspended a child (whose body was found in the Lauter river) by the feet, and had opened every artery in his body to obtain all the blood. Again, supernatural claims were made: the child's wounds were said to have bled for five days afterward, despite its treatment.

At Oberwesel, "miracles" again constituted the only evidence against the Jews. The corpse of the 11-year-old Werner of Oberwesel was said to have floated up the Rhine (against the current) as far as Bacharach, emitting radiance, and being invested with healing powers. In consequence, the Jews of Oberwesel and many other adjacent localities were severely persecuted during the years 1286-89. Emperor Rudolph I, to whom the Jews had appealed for protection, issued a public proclamation to the effect that great wrong had been done to the Jews, and that the corpse of Werner was to be burned and the ashes scattered to the winds.

A statement was made, in the "Chronicle" of Konrad Justinger of 1423, that at Bern in 1294 the Jews tortured and murdered a boy called Rudolph. The historical impossibility of this widely credited story was demonstrated by Jakob Stammler, pastor of Bern, in 1888.[28] It has been speculated whether the Kindlifresserbrunnen ("Child Eater Fountain") in Bern might refer to the alleged ritual murder of 1294.

Renaissance and Baroque

From an 18th-century etching from Brückenturm. Above: The murdered body of Simon of Trent. Below: The "Judensau."

Simon of Trent, aged two, disappeared, and his father alleged that he had been kidnapped and murdered by the local Jewish community. Fifteen local Jews were sentenced to death and burned. Simon was regarded locally as a saint, although he was never canonised by the church of Rome under Pope Sixtus V in 1588. His local status as a saint was removed in 1965 by Pope Paul VI.

Christopher of Toledo, also known as Christopher of La Guardia or "the Holy Child of La Guardia," was a four-year-old Christian boy supposedly murdered by two Jews and three Conversos (converts to Christianity). In total, eight men were executed. It is now believed[29] that this case was constructed by the Spanish Inquisition to facilitate the expulsion of Jews from Spain. He was canonized by Pope Pius VII in 1805. Christopher has since been removed from the canon.

In a case at Tyrnau (Nagyszombat, today Trnava, Slovakia), the absurdity, even the impossibility, of the statements forced by torture from women and children shows that the accused preferred death as a means of escape from the torture, and admitted everything that was asked of them. They even said that Jewish men menstruated, and that the latter therefore practiced the drinking of Christian blood as a remedy.

At Bösing (Bazin, today Pezinok, Slovakia), it was charged that a nine-year-old boy had been bled to death, suffering cruel torture; thirty Jews confessed to the crime and were publicly burned. The true facts of the case were disclosed later, when the child was found alive in Vienna. He had been taken there by the accuser, Count Wolf of Bazin, as a means of ridding himself of his Jewish creditors at Bazin.

Fresco in St Paul's Church in Sandomierz, Poland, depicting blood libel

At Rinn, near Innsbruck, a boy named Andreas Oxner (also known as Anderl von Rinn) was said to have been bought by Jewish merchants and cruelly murdered by them in a forest near the city, his blood being carefully collected in vessels. The accusation of drawing off the blood (without murder) was not made until the beginning of the 17th century, when the cult was founded. The older inscription in the church of Rinn, dating from 1575, is distorted by fabulous embellishments  for example, that the money paid for the boy to his godfather turned into leaves, and that a lily blossomed upon his grave. The cult continued until officially prohibited in 1994, by the Bishop of Innsbruck.[30]

On 17 January 1670 Raphael Levy, a member of the Jewish community of Metz, was executed on charges of the ritual murder of a peasant child who had gone missing in the woods outside the village of Glatigny on 25 September 1669, the eve of Rosh Hashanah.[31]

19th century

The only child-saint in the Russian Orthodox Church is the six-year-old boy Gavriil Belostoksky from the village Zverki. According to the legend supported by the church, the boy was kidnapped from his home during the holiday of Passover while his parents were away. Shutko, who was a Jew from Białystok, was accused of bringing the boy to Białystok, poking him with sharp objects and draining his blood for nine days, then bringing the body back to Zverki and dumping it at a local field. A cult developed, and the boy was canonized in 1820. His relics are still the object of pilgrimage. On All Saints Day, July 27, 1997, the Belorussian state TV showed a film alleging the story is true.[32] The revival of the cult in Belarus was cited as a dangerous expression of antisemitism in international reports on human rights and religious freedoms[33][34][35][36][37] which were passed to the UNHCR.[38]

20th century and beyond

Antisemitic flier in Kiev, 1915: "Christians, take care of your children!!! It will be Jewish Passover on March 17."
Painting of blood libel in Sandomierz Cathedral

Views of the Catholic Church

The attitude of the Roman Catholic Church towards these accusations and the cults venerating children supposedly killed by Jews has varied over time. The Papacy generally opposed them, although it had problems in enforcing its opposition.

In 1911, the Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique, an important French Catholic encyclopedia, published an analysis of the blood libel accusations.[72] This may be taken as being broadly representative of educated Catholic opinion in continental Europe at that time. The article noted that the popes had generally refrained from endorsing the blood libel, and it concluded that the accusations were unproven in a general sense, but it left open the possibility that some Jews had committed ritual murders of Christians. Other contemporary Catholic sources (notably the Jesuit periodical La Civiltà Cattolica) promoted the blood libel as truth.[73]

Today, the accusations are almost entirely discredited in Catholic circles, and the cults associated with them have fallen into disfavour. For example, Simon of Trent was deleted from the Calendar of Saints in 1965 and does not appear in the current (2000) edition of the Roman Martyrology.

Papal pronouncements

Views of Muslims

In late 1553 or 1554, Suleiman the Magnificent, the reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, issued a firman (royal decree) formally denouncing blood libels against the Jews.[77]

In 1983, Mustafa Tlass wrote and published The Matzah of Zion, which is a treatment of the Damascus affair of 1840 that repeats the ancient "blood libel", that Jews use the blood of murdered non-Jews in religious rituals such as baking Matza bread.[78] In this book, he argues that the true religious beliefs of Jews are "black hatred against all humans and religions," and that no Arab country should ever sign a peace treaty with Israel.[79] Tlass re-printed the book several times, and he stands by its conclusions. Following the book's publication, Tlass told Der Spiegel, that this accusation against Jews was valid and that his book is "an historical study ... based on documents from France, Vienna and the American University in Beirut."[79][80]

In 2003, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram published a series of articles by Osama Al-Baz, a senior advisor to then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Among other things, Osam Al-Baz explained the origins of the blood libel against the Jews. He said that Arabs and Muslims have never been antisemitic, as a group, but accepted that a few Arab writers and media figures attack Jews "on the basis of the racist fallacies and myths that originated in Europe". He urged people not to succumb to "myths" such as the blood libel.[81]

However, the blood libel was featured in a scene in the Syrian TV series Ash-Shatat, shown in 2003,[82][83] while in 2013 the Israeli website Arutz Sheva reported cases of Israeli Arabs asking "where Jews find the Christian blood they need to bake matza".[84]


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  72. English translation here.
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  84. Blood Libel Alive and Well in the Muslim World, Arutz Sheva, March 25, 2013

Further reading

External links

Look up blood libel in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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