Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Anti­se­mit­ic Myth

January 14, 2020

A land­mark his­to­ry of the anti­se­mit­ic blood libel myth―how it took root in Europe, spread with the inven­tion of the print­ing press, and per­sists today.

Accu­sa­tions that Jews rit­u­al­ly killed Chris­t­ian chil­dren emerged in the mid-twelfth cen­tu­ry, fol­low­ing the death of twelve-year-old William of Nor­wich, Eng­land, in 1144. Lat­er, con­ti­nen­tal Euro­peans added a destruc­tive twist: Jews mur­dered Chris­t­ian chil­dren to use their blood. While charges that Jews poi­soned wells and des­e­crat­ed the com­mu­nion host waned over the years, the blood libel survived.

Ini­tial­ly blood libel sto­ries were con­fined to monas­tic chron­i­cles and local lore. But the devel­op­ment of the print­ing press in the mid-fif­teenth cen­tu­ry expand­ed the audi­ence and crys­tal­lized the vocab­u­lary, images, and facts” of the blood libel, pro­vid­ing a last­ing tem­plate for hate. Tales of Jews killing Christians―notably Simon of Trent, a tod­dler whose body was found under a Jew­ish house in 1475―were wide­ly dis­sem­i­nat­ed using the new tech­nol­o­gy. Fol­low­ing the paper trail across Europe, from Eng­land to Italy to Poland, Mag­da Teter shows how the blood libel was inter­nal­ized and how Jews and Chris­tians dealt with the repercussions.

The pat­tern estab­lished in ear­ly mod­ern Europe still plays out today. In 2014 the Anti-Defama­tion League appealed to Face­book to take down a page titled Jew­ish Rit­u­al Mur­der.” The fol­low­ing year white suprema­cists gath­ered in Eng­land to hon­or Lit­tle Hugh of Lin­coln as a sac­ri­fi­cial vic­tim of the Jews. Based on sources in eight coun­tries and ten lan­guages, Blood Libel cap­tures the long shad­ow of a per­ni­cious myth.

Discussion Questions

Mag­da Teter’s thor­ough­ly well-researched and metic­u­lous account of a per­sis­tent and dead­ly anti­se­mit­ic myth exam­ines the blood libel from its roots in twelfth-cen­tu­ry Eng­land to its spread across Europe over the course of cen­turies with the devel­op­ment of the print­ing press. This impres­sive vol­ume con­sti­tutes the first com­pre­hen­sive study of the blood libel’s evo­lu­tion in Europe, draw­ing on archives in eight coun­tries and ten lan­guages, from the Unit­ed King­dom, France, and Bel­gium to Italy, the Vat­i­can, and Poland. Teter fol­lows a trail of rare print­ed mate­r­i­al, obscure archival ref­er­ences, and pop­u­lar artis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tions to cre­ate a high­ly read­able account that demon­strates the endur­ing pow­er of hatred and con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries all too famil­iar to a con­tem­po­rary audience.