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Trent 1475

Trent 1475: Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial

Copyright Date: 1992
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Trent 1475
    Book Description:

    On Easter Sunday, 1475, the dead body of a two-year-old boy named Simon was found in the cellar of a Jewish family's house in Trent, Italy. Town magistrates arrested all eighteen Jewish men and one Jewish woman living in Trent on the charge of ritual murder-the killing of a Christian child in order to use his blood in Jewish religious rites. Under judicial torture and imprisonment, the men confessed and were condemned to death; their womenfolk, who had been kept under house arrest with their children, denounced the men under torture and eventually converted to Christianity. A papal hearing in Rome about possible judicial misconduct in Trent made the trial widely known and led to a wave of anti-Jewish propaganda and other accusations of ritual murder against the Jews.In this engrossing book, R. Po-chia Hsia reconstructs the events of this tragic persecution, drawing principally on the Yeshiva Manuscript, a detailed trial record made by authorities in Trent to justify their execution of the Jews and to bolster the case for the canonization of "Little Martyr Simon." Hsia depicts the Jewish victims (whose testimonies contain fragmentary stories of their tragic lives as well as forced confessions of kidnap, torture, and murder), the prosecuting magistrates, the hostile witnesses, and the few Christian neighbors who tried in vain to help the Jews. Setting the trial and its documents in the historical context of medieval blood libel, Hsia vividly portrays how fact and fiction can be blurred, how judicial torture can be couched in icy orderliness and impersonality, and how religious rites can be interpreted as ceremonies of barbarism.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16189-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    Pearl Berger

    More than five hundred years ago, the Jewish community of Trent was victimized by the accusation of ritual murder. “Prozess gegen die Juden von Trient,” an elaborate manuscript account of those tragic circumstances, forms the basis for the present volume, which examines the events and describes the participants, both accusers and accused.

    Yeshiva University Museum received this manuscript in 1988 as a gift from Erica and Ludwig Jesselson, universally acknowledged patrons of Jewish culture—its artifacts, its spirit, and its future. The manuscript was presented with the hope that the stories it records would be heard. Good fortune led us...

    (pp. xv-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xxiv)

    A German ritual murder trial of Trent that was acquired manuscript of the in December 1987 at an auction at Sotheby’s was presented in 1988 to Yeshiva University Museum in New York.¹ Copied by one person, in standard late fifteenth-century German chancery hand, the Yeshiva manuscript (YM) consists of 614 folios, numbered consecutively by the copyist. Illuminated initials are found throughout the manuscript. In addition, folio 2v contains illuminated borders in gold, red, blue, and green and also the coat of arms of the house of Württemberg. At the top of this folio, written in a different hand, is a...

    (pp. xxv-xxviii)
  8. [Illustration]
    (pp. xxix-xxx)
    (pp. 1-13)

    Divine service for Good Friday had just concluded. As Johannes Hinderbach walked out of the cathedral, Master Andreas Unferdorben approached “the most reverend prince.” He told the bishop that his son Simon had been missing since about the twelfth hour last night, or, “according to the way Germans reckoned time,” roughly five in the evening. With the help of friends, Andreas had been looking for his boy, who was not quite two and a half, all over the city and in the neighboring villages. Fearing that Simon might have fallen into a ditch, the search party walked along the canals...

    (pp. 14-25)

    A part from the trial proceedings, almost no sources document the conditions of the small Jewish community in Trent, which consisted of three households. Yet the trial record, with its extensive transcription and translation of the prisoners’ verbal statements, has preserved for posterity the voices of the men and women of that community. And from the stories they told about themselves, of the humdrum daily routine and the drama of persecution, we can imagine their world before it was shattered and see, however fleetingly, a picture of their lives.

    Divided into three households, the Jewish community in Trent consisted of...

    (pp. 26-33)

    It was almost supper time on 26 March 1475 (Easter Sunday), and Samuel’s house was bustling with activity. The men of the community—Samuel, his son Israel, Tobias, and Engel—were praying in the synagogue. Brünnlein, the mistress of the household, was in the kitchen overseeing the preparation of dinner.¹ Her daughter-in-law, Anna, had been sick for weeks and was lying in bed in her room.² Brünnlein sent the cook, Seligrnan, down to the cellar to fetch water. Connected to an outside ditch, the cellar, where water was stored, also served as the monthly ritual bath for the women. As...

    (pp. 34-50)

    Towering over the city of Trent, the Castello del Buonconsiglio, a formidable fortress built between 1239 and 1255, was modified several times during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when it became the residence of the prince-bishops. Although windows and openings were added to the inner court and the façade facing the city, the castle still retained the character of a massive stronghold, constructed out of wood and ashlar. Built into the city wall, the Buonconsiglio consisted of three levels, divided into rooms and chambers for various functions, including separate areas for the prince-bishop, the captain, and the podestà. A round...

    (pp. 51-60)

    I ohannes Hinderbach wrote a letter on May 1 to Raffaele Zovenzoni, poet laureate of Trieste, inviting him to compose verses in honor of the “blessed martyr Simon,” so that the people would know of his miracles. Expressing his regret that just punishment could not yet be meted out to the Jews, Hinderbach complained of the various machinations devised by the Jews to turn Archduke Sigismund against the trial.¹ Against the intervention of a secular prince, only Christian piety could prevail. “Blessed Boy, lament bitterly to the Emperor and Duke,” wrote Zovenzoni in his hymn to Little Simon. A native...

    (pp. 61-68)

    Jakob von Sporo informed his colleague, Giovanni de Salis, on 5 June that permission had arrived from Innsbruck to resume the trial against some Jews but not others. Together, the captain and the podestà would finish up the legal proceedings against the Jewish householders, including Engel, who was under the jurisdiction of the castellan, the nobleman Hans Regner, and also Old Moses, Vital, Israel, and “the Other Seligman;” they could not, however, proceed against the women and the other household servants.¹

    The next day, they moved against Samuel, who had hitherto refused to confess to a detailed ritual murder scenario....

    (pp. 69-80)

    In the early summer months of 1475, Bishop Hinderbach vigorously promoted the cult of Simon. To correspondents in Venice, Vicenza, Innsbruck, and Rome he sent letters, distributed Tiberino’s treatise and little images of Simon’s martyrdom. Mobilizing a network of humanists, preachers, jurists, and courtiers, Hinderbach hoped to defeat the spokesmen of the Jewish communities, who were pleading their cause with the emperor, the archduke, and the pope.¹ They accused Hinderbach of undertaking the trial only to lay his hands on Jewish money; moreover, the Trent Jews had been severely, unlawfully tortured and summarily executed.

    In a letter dated 23 July,...

    (pp. 81-94)

    As summer turned into the golden days of October, with sunshine flooding the vineyards around Trent, the affair reached an impasse. Much was at stake. Christians and Jews, pope and emperor, commoner and magistrate, all had their attention on Trent. The attitude in Rome seemed ambivalent, reflecting in part, the usual opacity of the curia, and specifically, Sixtus’ preoccupation with the Jubilee and Italian politics.¹ Hinderbach needed allies. In confronting the apostolic commissioner, Hinderbach emphasized his role as secular prince of a territory, owing allegiance only to the emperor. Before long, news from Innsbruck strengthened his hand.

    Captain Jakob von...

    (pp. 95-104)

    Israel, the twenty-three-year-old son of Mayer of Brandenburg, made a living copying Hebrew books, illuminating them with gold and color tints. Widely traveled, searching for work and adventure, he ended his journey in Trent. Israel was tortured, like the others, after he was arrested while fleeing the city. On 21 April, the dav when Sigismund temporarily suspended the trial, Israel asked for baptism, hoping to escape execution. Baptized Wolfgang, he was released from his cell but kept within the Buonconsiglio, as a living demonstration of Christian justice and charity.¹

    After the arrests, the magistrates confiscated all Jewish properties. In early...

    (pp. 105-116)

    Besides the expected confessions extracted under torture, the testimonies of the Jewish women revealed much about their lives, both before and after the disaster that destroyed their families. They told about conditions of their house arrest and how they received help from Christian neighbors. Their testimonies allow us to reconstruct the web of relationships and behavior that constituted the three Jewish households, particularly, their own gender roles within the small community. In short, their confessions represented as much a gendered discourse of ritual murder as fragmentary narratives about the lives of Jewish women.

    One of the demands of the apostolic...

    (pp. 117-131)

    In a stern letter dated 3 April 1476, Pope Sixtus IV warned Bishop Hinderbach, “After the return of the venerable Brother Baptista, Bishop of Ventimiglia, whom we sent to you due to the trial of the Jews, with full knowledge that we have appointed a commission from my venerable brethren cardinals of the Holy Roman Church for this matter, from which commission a strong prohibition has been issued, we learn, nevertheless…. you are undertaking everyday new measures against the aforementioned Jews.” Sixtus threatened suspension of his office, ordering Hinderbach to desist from “doing anything further against the Jews or their...

    (pp. 132-136)

    “Little Simon” lived on for a long time. In Trent, a chapel in St. Peter’s was dedicated to his “martyrdom.” Vigorously promoted by Observant Franciscans and humanists, his cult spread to many communities in northern Italy and southern Germany.’ During the general Church Council (1545–1563) that defined the doctrines and character of the Counter-Reformation, Little Simon attracted many visiting ecclesiastical dignitaries. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V conferred official sanction on the local cult. Into the seventeenth century, poems, hagiographies, paintings, and other iconographic representations celebrated the death of the innocent child.

    Defenders of the cult emerged when skeptics criticized...

    (pp. 137-140)
  22. NOTES
    (pp. 141-168)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 169-173)