How did medieval Christians embrace false blood libel?

The trial of the Jewish community of Trent (Trentino in Italian) for the supposed ritual murder of a Christian child named Simon in 1475, was copiously documented.

 The martyrdom of Saint Simonino, sculpture (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The martyrdom of Saint Simonino, sculpture
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Trent 1475: Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial (1992, Yale) by Professor of European History at New York University Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia, is an important addition to our understanding of ritual murder trials that took place throughout Europe during the Middle Ages.

These were trials of Jews accused of murdering Christian children in order to obtain their blood to use in Passover rituals. There were estimated to be ca. 150 such trials, which usually resulted in the torture and execution of tens of Jews and often the decimation of whole Jewish communities. The first instance of such a blood libel was in 1144 in Norwich in England.

The importance of the current book is that the trial of the Jewish community of Trent (Trentino in Italian) for the supposed ritual murder of a Christian child named Simon in 1475, was copiously documented in a collection of 614 numbered folios in German, Latin and Italian. These folios were kept in a Viennese convent from 1613 until they were acquired in an auction in 1987 in NY and then donated to the Yeshiva University Library.

On March 26, 1475 (Easter Sunday), the body of a small boy was discovered in the basement of the house of the leader of the Jewish community in Trent. The boy was naked and had cuts and abrasions on his body. His body was floating in the water that flowed through the basement, which was used as a mikveh (ritual bath). Apparently, the body had been floated into the basement through the hole in the wall that allowed the water to flow in.

The leaders of the community went directly to Chief of Police Giovanni De Salis, who immediately arrested the whole Jewish community, including the women and children. A Christian of good repute was not tortured without good reason, however a Jew could be tortured, and it was necessary to torture them to obtain the truth. The standard torture, the strappado, was to hoist a person up by their hands behind their back. If it was felt that they were not being cooperative it was permissible to jolt the ropes or undo the rope so that they would fall to the floor, and to beat them with the rope.

In this way, over a period of months, the Jews were induced to confess to a tale of ritual murder in which they had kidnapped the boy, then murdered him as in a crucifixion in the synagogue, then collected and drank his blood and used it in making matzah. Having obtained their confessions, the main Jewish characters were tried and found guilty. Nine men were sentenced to death, one committed suicide and the other eight were burned at the stake – several had their flesh first torn off with heated pincers. This was Christian justice.

The Jewish community of Rome complained to Pope Sixtus IV, who wrote to the Prince-Bishop of Trent, Johannes Hinderbach, in July 1475 and told him to stop the trial (too late for most of the Jews) and he sent an Apostolic Commissioner Baptista Dei Giudice to investigate the trial. Dei Giudice wrote on the authority of the Pope ordering Hinderbach to free the rest of the imprisoned Jews, including the women and children and to stop the cult of Simon the Martyr. Hinderbach released only the children, and instead of stopping the trial, proceeded in October 1476 against another six Jewish men, who after months of torture, were executed. Then finally they started on the five women. They were stripped and subjected to the strappado. When Dei Giudice returned to Rome, he reported to the Pope, who wrote a stern letter to Hinderbach ordering him to immediately stop the trial against the women. Finally he complied, and three of the women and one of the remaining men were then converted.

But this was not the end of the affair. A Papal Commission of Cardinals then investigated the trials. Several Cardinals supported the actions of Hinderbach. In 1478, Pope Sixtus IV issued a Papal Bull, which in effect cleared Hinderbach of wrong-doing, but he forbade any Christian from killing, mutilating or extorting Jews without Papal permission.

In 1963, a German Catholic, Paul Eckert, published a historical study refuting the cult of Simon the Martyr and finally the cult was abolished by Papal decree after the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The remains of the child were reinterred in an ordinary plot. It must be emphasized that the bloodthirsty anti-Christian ritual murders were a total figment of the Christian imagination, for which countless Jews were tortured and paid with their lives.