Mention of Jews in the Middle Ages often conjures up words like ritual murder accusations and burning at the stake. Though the medieval period was undoubtedly a violent one during which countless Jews suffered and died, such atrocities are at least as, if not more, representative of the modern period.
Magda Teter’s new book discusses hundreds of cases from sixteenth and seventeenth century Poland in which Jews were implicated in one way or another in charges of sacrilege against Catholic churches and their contents. The pages of Sinners on Trial are replete with accounts of torture and violent executions, but also of the deeply intertwined lives of Jews and Christians in post-Reformation Poland. Teter is one of the only historians writing in English who is familiar with source material in Polish and in Hebrew, and her wide erudition allows her to place these trials in the many contexts — religious, political, economic, emotional — in which they took place.
An important aspect of her analysis is the insight that, in many cases, the real conflict was between Catholics and Protestants, and that the Jews were merely convenient pawns in the power struggle between Christians. Sinners on Trial is an important contribution to early modern European history that gives Jewish history an integral but not exclusive place.