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The Myth of Ritual Murder

The Myth of Ritual Murder: Jews and Magic in Reformation Germany

Copyright Date: 1988
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Myth of Ritual Murder
    Book Description:

    From the mid-fifteenth century to the early seventeenth, German Jews were persecuted and tried for the alleged ritual murders of Christian children, whose blood purportedly played a crucial part in Jewish magical rites. In this engrossing book R. Po-Chia Hsia traces the rise and decline of ritual murder trials during that period. Using sources ranging from Christian and Kabbalistic treatises to judicial records and popular pamphlets, Hsia examines the religious sources of the idea of child sacrifice and blood symbolism and reconstructs the political context of ritual murder trials against the Jews."This volume combines clarity of thinking, elegance of style, and exemplary scholarly attention to detail with intellectual sobriety and human compassion."-Jerome Friedman,Sixteenth Century Journal"Hsia has… succeeded in turning established knowledge to illuminatingly new purposes."-G.R. Elton,New York Review of Books"This meticulously researched and unusually perceptive book is social and intellectual history at its best."-Library Journal"A fresh perspective on an old problem by a major new talent."-Steven Ozment, Harvard UniversityR. Po-chia Hsia, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is also the author ofSociety and Religion in Münster, 1535-1618

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16191-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-vii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  6. CHAPTER ONE Introduction: Ritual, Magic, and Murder
    (pp. 1-13)

    During his stay in england between 1773 and 1774, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–99), the Göttingen professor of mathematics and astronomy famous for his incisiveAphorisms—those witty commentaries on contemporary mores and culture that won the later admiration of Goethe and Hegel—wrote a number of letters home that reflected on his observations of the London theater. Enchanted by Shakespeare, Lichtenberg never failed to record his reactions to performances of the various masterpieces. In his third “English letter,” dated 30 November 1775, Lichtenberg recalled a visit to a performance ofThe Merchant of Venice, with the famous Shakespearean actor...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Endingen
    (pp. 14-41)

    Situated between the black forest and the rhine, the Breisgau is a lush, fertile region irrigated by the Rhine and its tributaries with narrow, long, agricultural valleys extending from the elongated river plain gently upward onto the slopes of the Black Forest. The Breisgau occupies the heartland of the Upper Rhine valley and is today that part of Germany which borders on France and Switzerland. Settled in early Germanic times by the Alemanni, the Upper Rhine had a pattern of civilization resembling a parallel string of towns on both sides of the Rhine, with Strasbourg, Colmar, and Mulhouse on the...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Consolidation of a Discourse
    (pp. 42-65)

    The endingen trial of 1470 remained a regional affair. Four years later, however, another ritual murder trial on the periphery of the empire, in Trent, quickly won widespread attention. In fact, during the two generations before the Reformation, the various legends, histories, memories, and “cases” of ritual murder coalesced into a single tradition of discourse. Alleged magical murders of Christian children by Jews not only furnished the stuff of stories and histories but also reinforced the social knowledge about Jews as expressed in ritual murder discourse; and, for Christians in the Holy Roman Empire, these stories of murder served as...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Regensburg
    (pp. 66-85)

    In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the jewish community in the imperial city of Regensburg was the largest in the Holy Roman Empire, but it was a community that had outlived its golden age.¹ The elders remembered a time when their ancestors advanced credit to the city patriciate to support long-distance trade and raised large loans for the secular lords and prelates of the church. But the pogroms of 1349–50 and increasing imperial taxation led the Jewish community, like the larger city in which it existed, into a prolonged period of economic decline. Crippled by repeated financial exactions, the...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Freiburg
    (pp. 86-110)

    The largest city in the breisgau, freiburg straddles the crossroad between Alsace and the Black Forest, between north Baden and Switzerland. Traveling from west to east in 1503, it took Duke Philip of Burgundy and his party one day to reach Freiburg from Ensisheim, the capital of the Austrian Upper Rhine, and another two days from Freiburg to reach Villingen in the Black Forest.¹ In the thirteenth century, Freiburg developed rapidly as the gateway to the silver mines of the mountains, and after the silver ores were exhausted, the city continued to flourish as the major regional market town.² Entering...

  11. CHAPTER SIX The Professors and the Jews
    (pp. 111-135)

    One should lie and do whatever, so that the jews are destroyed because they try daily and unceasingly to bring about the ruin of Christian blood.” Thus confessed Michael Hun to the magistrates of Freiburg. One is tempted to dismiss this statement as the ravings of a thief and murderer who confessed to his hatred for the Jews under interrogation. But anti-Jewish feeling was by no means limited to the common people, the rural folk and rougher sorts who had daily contacts with the Jews in the small towns and villages of the Upper Rhine. Writings on Jews and on...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Christianity Disenchanted
    (pp. 136-162)

    In his anti-judaic writings, luther identified the essence of Jewish magic as the use of the Hebrew language as a system of magical signs. The belief in the power of blood, so crucial in ritual murder and Host desecration discourses, was undermined by the theological revolution of the Reformation. When miracles, pilgrimages, Marian devotion, and the veneration of saints became points of ridicule, manifestations of old superstitions, and fabrications of an unscrupulous Roman clergy, as the Protestants charged; when the eucharistie doctrine of transubstantiation was challenged by the symbolic interpretations of the sacrament, as Karlstadt, Zwingli, Müntzer, and others reasoned;...

    (pp. 163-196)

    The jewish community in worms had a long, continuous, and venerable history, dating back to the eleventh century, and despite many persecutions the community survived and flourished in the early modern period.¹ The Jewish cemetery, a monument to this long tradition, still exists today, across town from the former ghetto, which now constitutes a clearly recognizable neighborhood in postwar, industrial Worms.² After the expulsion of Jews from Regensburg in 1519, few imperial cities tolerated Jews; among these, Worms and Frankfurt protected the largest urban concentrations of Jews during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

    In 1563 a ritual murder trial divided...

  14. CHAPTER NINE The Stuff of Legends
    (pp. 197-225)

    Moses von orb was not the only jew to appeal on behalf of his relative at the Imperial Chamber Court. In the second half of the sixteenth century, other Jews implicated in ritual murder trials voiced petitions all the way up to the emperors. The explicit condemnation of ritual murder trials by Charles V in 1544, renewed by Ferdinand I in 1562, Maximilian II in 1566, and Rudolf II in 1577, provided the legal bulwark in the Jews’ defense against the blood libel.¹ The imperial courts—the Chamber Court in Speyer and the Aulic Court (Reichshofrat) in Prague (later Vienna)—...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 226-230)

    In the two generations before the Reformation, ritual murder and Host desecration trials reached a climax in the Holy Roman Empire. For princes and magistrates, one trial fed into another and past convictions justified new suspicions, until the blood libel took on an overwhelming momentum of its own. The individual trials represented much more than instances of crime and punishment. As symbols of the murderous magic of Jews, the trials furnished the historical “reality” for the articulation and consolidation of a discourse of ritual murder, which in turn sustained new accusations, inquests, and convictions.

    During this phase, there was a...

  16. Sources
    (pp. 231-242)
  17. Index
    (pp. 243-248)