Blood libel or ritual murder libel (also blood accusation) is an antisemitic canard which accuses Jews of murdering Christian children in order to use their blood as part of religious rituals. Historically, these claims—alongside those of well poisoning and host desecration—have been a major theme of the persecution of Jews in Europe.
Blood libels typically claim that Jews require human blood for the baking of matzos which they eat during Passover, although this element was allegedly absent in the earliest cases which claimed that then-contemporary Jews reenacted the crucifixion. The accusations often assert that the blood of the children of Christians is especially coveted, and, historically, blood libel claims have been made in order to account for the otherwise unexplained deaths of children. In some cases, the alleged victims of human sacrifice have become venerated as Christian martyrs. Three of these – William of Norwich, Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, and Simon of Trent – became objects of local cults and veneration, and in some cases their feast days were added to the General Roman Calendar.[who?] One, Gabriel of Białystok, was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Altogether, there have been about 150 recorded cases of blood libel (not to mention thousands of rumors) that resulted in the arrest and killing of Jews throughout history, most of them in the Middle Ages. In almost every case, Jews were murdered, sometimes by a mob, sometimes following torture and a trial.
The term 'blood libel' has also been used in reference to any unpleasant or damaging false accusation, and as a result, it has acquired a broader metaphorical meaning. However, this usage of the term remains controversial, and Jewish groups object to it.
It has been one of history's cruel ironies that the blood libel — accusations against Jews using the blood of murdered gentile children for the making of wine and matzot — became the false pretext for numerous pogroms. And due to the danger, those who live in a place where blood libels occur are halachically exempted from using red wine, lest it be seized as "evidence" against them.
The supposed torture and human sacrifice alleged in the blood libels run contrary to the teachings of Judaism. According to the Bible, God commanded Abraham in the Binding of Isaac to sacrifice his son, but He ultimately provided a ram as a substitute. The Ten Commandments in the Torah forbid murder. In addition, the use of blood (human or otherwise) in cooking is prohibited by the kosher dietary laws (kashrut). Blood from slaughtered animals may not be consumed, and it must be drained out of the animal and covered with earth (). According to the Book of Leviticus, blood from sacrificed animals may only be placed on the altar of the Great Temple in Jerusalem (which no longer existed at the time of the Christian blood libels). Furthermore, the consumption of human flesh would violate kashrut.
Also stated in Leviticus is that "it shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, in all your settlements: you must not eat any fat or any blood," and that "you must not eat any blood whatever, either of bird or of animal, in any of your settlements."
While animal sacrifice was part of the practice of ancient Judaism, the Tanakh (Old Testament) and Jewish teachings portray human sacrifice as one of the evils that separated the pagans of Canaan from the Hebrews (, ). Jews were prohibited from engaging in these rituals and they were also punished for doing so (, , , ). In fact, ritual cleanliness for priests even prohibited them from being in the same room with a human corpse ().
The earliest versions of the accusation involved Jews crucifying Christian children on Easter/Passover because of a prophecy. There is no reference to the use of blood in unleavened matzo bread, which evolves later as a major motivation for the crime.
The earliest known example of a blood libel is from a certain Damocritus (not the philosopher) only mentioned by the Suda, who alleged that "every seven years the Jews captured a stranger, brought him to the temple in Jerusalem, and sacrificed him, cutting his flesh into bits." The Graeco-Egyptian author Apion claimed that Jews sacrificed Greek victims in their temple. This accusation is known from Josephus' rebuttal of it in Against Apion. Apion states that when Antiochus Epiphanes entered the temple in Jerusalem, he discovered a Greek captive who told him that he was being fattened for sacrifice. Every year, Apion claimed, the Jews would sacrifice a Greek and consume his flesh, at the same time swearing eternal hatred towards the Greeks. Apion's claim probably repeats ideas already in circulation because similar claims are made by Posidonius and Apollonius Molon in the 1st century BCE. Another example concerns the murder of a Christian boy by a group of Jewish youths. Socrates Scholasticus (fl. 5th century) reported that some Jews in a drunken frolic bound a Christian child on a cross in mockery of the death of Christ and scourged him until he died.
Professor Israel Jacob Yuval of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published an article in 1993 which argues that the blood libel may have originated in the 12th century from Christian views of Jewish behavior during the First Crusade. Some Jews committed suicide and killed their own children rather than be subjected to forced conversions. Yuval investigated Christian reports of these events and stated that they were greatly distorted, with claims that, if Jews could kill their own children, they could also kill the children of Christians. Yuval rejects the blood libel story as a fantasy of some Christians which could not contain any element of truth in it due to the precarious nature of the Jewish minority's existence in Christian Europe.
In England in 1144, the Jews of Norwich were falsely accused of ritual murder after a boy, William of Norwich, was found dead with stab wounds in the woods. William's hagiographer, Thomas of Monmouth, falsely claimed that every year there is an international council of Jews at which they choose the country in which a child will be killed during Easter, because of a Jewish prophecy that states that the killing of a Christian child each year will ensure that the Jews will be restored to the Holy Land. In 1144, England was chosen, and the leaders of the Jewish community delegated the Jews of Norwich to perform the killing. They then abducted and crucified William. The legend was turned into a cult, with William acquiring the status of a martyr and pilgrims bringing offerings to the local church.
This was followed by similar accusations in Gloucester (1168), Bury St Edmunds (1181) and Bristol (1183). In 1189, the Jewish deputation attending the coronation of Richard the Lionheart was attacked by the crowd. Massacres of Jews at London and York soon followed. In 1190 on 16 March 150 Jews were attacked in York and then massacred when they took refuge in the royal castle, where Clifford's Tower now stands, with some committing suicide rather than being taken by the mob. The remains of 17 bodies thrown in a well in Norwich between the 12th and 13th century (five that were shown by DNA testing to likely be members of a single Jewish family) were very possibly killed as part of one of these pogroms.
After the death of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, there were trials and executions of Jews. The case is mentioned by Matthew Paris and Chaucer, and thus has become well-known. Its notoriety sprang from the intervention of the Crown, the first time an accusation of ritual killing had been given royal credibility.
The eight-year-old Hugh disappeared at Lincoln on 31 July 1255. His body was probably discovered on 29 August, in a well. A Jew named Copin or Koppin confessed to involvement. He confessed to John of Lexington, a servant of the crown, and relative of the Bishop of Lincoln. The church stood to gain from the establishment of a martyr's cult. Copin's confession was probably in return for the promise that his life should be spared. He is said to have confessed that the boy had been crucified by the Jews, who had assembled at Lincoln for that purpose. King Henry III, who had reached Lincoln at the beginning of October, had Copin executed and 91 of the Jews of Lincoln seized and sent up to London, where 18 of them were executed. The rest were pardoned at the intercession of the Franciscans or Dominicans. Within a few decades, Jews would be expelled from all of England in 1290 and not allowed to return until 1657.
Much like the blood libel of England, the history of blood libel in continental Europe consists of unsubstantiated claims made about the corpses of Christian children. There were frequently associated supernatural events speculated about these discoveries and corpses, events which were often attributed by contemporaries to miracles. Also, just as in England, these accusations in continental Europe typically resulted in the execution of numerous Jews — sometimes even all, or close to all, the Jews in one town. These accusations and their effects also, in some cases, led to royal interference on behalf of the Jews.
Thomas of Monmouth's story of the annual Jewish meeting to decide which local community would kill a Christian child also quickly spread to the continent. An early version appears in Bonum Universale de Apibus ii. 29, § 23, by Thomas of Cantimpré (a monastery near Cambray). Thomas wrote, "It is quite certain that the Jews of every province annually decide by lot which congregation or city is to send Christian blood to the other congregations." Thomas of Cantimpré also believed that since the time when the Jews called out to Pontius Pilate, "His blood be on us, and on our children" (), they have been afflicted with hemorrhages, a condition equated with male menstruation:
A very learned Jew, who in our day has been converted to the (Christian) faith, informs us that one enjoying the reputation of a prophet among them, toward the close of his life, made the following prediction: 'Be assured that relief from this secret ailment, to which you are exposed, can only be obtained through Christian blood ("solo sanguine Christiano").' This suggestion was followed by the ever-blind and impious Jews, who instituted the custom of annually shedding Christian blood in every province, in order that they might recover from their malady.
Thomas added that the Jews had misunderstood the words of their prophet, who by his expression "solo sanguine Christiano" had meant not the blood of any Christian, but that of Jesus – the only true remedy for all physical and spiritual suffering. Thomas did not mention the name of the "very learned" proselyte, but it may have been Nicholas Donin of La Rochelle, who, in 1240, had a disputation on the Talmud with Yechiel of Paris, and who in 1242 caused the burning of numerous Talmudic manuscripts in Paris. It is known that Thomas was personally acquainted with this Nicholas. Nicholas Donin and another Jewish convert, Theobald of Cambridge, are greatly credited with the adoption and the belief of the blood libel myth in Europe.
The first known case outside England was in Blois, France, in 1171. This was the site of a blood libel accusation against the town's entire Jewish community that led to around 31–33 Jews (with 17 women making up this total) being burned to death. on 29 May of that year, or the 20th of Sivan of 4931. The blood libel revolved around R. Isaac, a Jew whom a Christian servant reported had deposited a murdered Christian in the Loire. The child's body was never found. The count had about 40 adult Blois Jews arrested and they were eventually to be burned. The surviving members of the Blois Jewish community, as well as surviving holy texts, were ransomed. As a result of this case, the Jews garnered new promises from the king. The burned bodies of the sentenced Jews were supposedly maintained unblemished through the burning, a claim which is a well-known miracle, martyr myth for both Jews and Christians. There is significant primary source material from this case including a letter revealing moves for Jewish protection with King Louis VII. Responding to the mass execution, the 20th of Sivan was declared a fast day by Rabbenu Tam. In this case in Blois, there was not yet the myth proclaimed that Jews needed the blood of Christians.
In 1235, after the dead bodies of five boys were found on Christmas day in Fulda, the inhabitants of the town claimed the Jews had killed them to consume their blood, and burned 34 Jews to death with the help of Crusaders assembled at the time. Even though emperor Frederick II cleared the Jews of any wrongdoing after an investigation, blood libel accusations persisted in Germany. At Pforzheim, Baden, in 1267, a woman supposedly sold a girl to Jews who, according to the myth, then cut her open and dumped her in the Enz River, where boatmen found her. She apparently cried for vengeance, and then died. The body apparently bled as the Jews were brought to it. The woman and the Jews apparently confessed and were subsequently killed. That a judicial execution was summarily committed in consequence of the accusation is evident from the manner in which the Nuremberg "Memorbuch" and the synagogal poems refer to the incident.
In 1270, at Weissenburg, of Alsace, a supposed miracle alone decided the charge against the Jews. A child's body had shown up in the Lauter River. Supposedly, Jews cut into the child to acquire his blood and the child apparently continued bleeding for five days.
At Oberwesel, near Easter of 1287, supposed miracles again constituted the only evidence against the Jews. The corpse of the 16-year-old Werner of Oberwesel (also referred to as "Good Werner") apparently landed at Bacharach and the body supposedly caused miracles, particularly medicinal miracles. Also, there was apparently light coming from the body. Reportedly, the child was hung upside down, forced to throw up the host and was cut open. In consequence, the Jews of Oberwesel and many other adjacent localities were severely persecuted during the years 1286-89. The Jews of Oberwesel were particularly targeted because there were no Jews remaining in Bacharach following a 1283 pogrom. Additionally, there were pogroms following this case as well at and around Oberwesel. Rudolph of Habsburg, to whom the Jews had appealed for protection, in order to manage the miracle story, had the archbishop of Mainz declare great wrong had been done to the Jew. This apparent declaration was very limited in effectiveness.
A statement was made, in the Chronicle of Konrad Justinger of 1423, that at Bern in 1293 or 1294 the Jews tortured and murdered a boy called Rudolph (sometimes also referred to as Rudolph, Ruff, or Ruof). The body was reportedly found by the house of Jöly, a Jew. The Jewish community was then implicated. The penalties imposed upon the Jews included torture, execution, expulsion, and steep financial fines. Justinger argued Jews were out to harm Christianity. The historical impossibility[clarification needed] of this widely credited story was demonstrated by Jakob Stammler, pastor of Bern, in 1888.
There have been several explanations put forth as to why these blood libel accusations were made and perpetuated. For example, it has been argued Thomas of Monmouth's account and other similar false accusations, as well as their perpetuation, largely had to do with the economic and political interests of leaders who did, in fact, perpetuate these myths. Additionally, it was largely believed in Europe that Jews used Christian blood for medicinal and other purposes. Despite the unsubstantiated, mythical nature of these claims, as well as their sources, they evidently materially impacted the communities in which they occurred including both the Jewish and non-Jewish populations.
Simon of Trent, aged two, disappeared, and his father alleged that he had been kidnapped and murdered by the local Jewish community. Fifteen local Jews were sentenced to death and burned. Simon was regarded locally as a saint, although he was never canonised by the church of Rome. He was removed from the Roman Martyrology in 1965 by Pope Paul VI.
Christopher of Toledo, also known as Christopher of La Guardia or "the Holy Child of La Guardia", was a four-year-old Christian boy supposedly murdered by two Jews and three conversos (converts to Christianity). In total, eight men were executed. It is now believed that this case was constructed by the Spanish Inquisition to facilitate the expulsion of Jews from Spain.
In a case at Tyrnau (Nagyszombat, today Trnava, Slovakia), the absurdity, even the impossibility, of the statements forced by torture from women and children shows that the accused preferred death as a means of escape from the torture, and admitted everything that was asked of them. They even said that Jewish men menstruated, and that the latter therefore practiced the drinking of Christian blood as a remedy.
At Bösing (Bazin, today Pezinok, Slovakia), it was charged that a nine-year-old boy had been bled to death, suffering cruel torture; thirty Jews confessed to the crime and were publicly burned. The true facts of the case were disclosed later when the child was found alive in Vienna. He had been taken there by the accuser, Count Wolf of Bazin, as a means of ridding himself of his Jewish creditors at Bazin.
In Rinn, near Innsbruck, a boy named Andreas Oxner (also known as Anderl von Rinn) was said to have been bought by Jewish merchants and cruelly murdered by them in a forest near the city, his blood being carefully collected in vessels. The accusation of drawing off the blood (without murder) was not made until the beginning of the 17th century when the cult was founded. The older inscription in the church of Rinn, dating from 1575, is distorted by fabulous embellishments – for example, that the money paid for the boy to his godfather turned into leaves, and that a lily blossomed upon his grave. The cult continued until officially prohibited in 1994, by the Bishop of Innsbruck.
On 17 January 1670 Raphael Levy, a member of the Jewish community of Metz, was executed on charges of the ritual murder of a peasant child who had gone missing in the woods outside the village of Glatigny on 25 September 1669, the eve of Rosh Hashanah.
One of the child-saints in the Russian Orthodox Church is the six-year-old boy Gavriil Belostoksky from the village Zverki. According to the legend supported by the church, the boy was kidnapped from his home during the holiday of Passover while his parents were away. Shutko, who was a Jew from Białystok, was accused of bringing the boy to Białystok, piercing him with sharp objects and draining his blood for nine days, then bringing the body back to Zverki and dumping it at a local field. A cult developed, and the boy was canonized in 1820. His relics are still the object of pilgrimage. On All Saints Day, 27 July 1997, the Belarusian state TV showed a film alleging the story is true. The revival of the cult in Belarus was cited as a dangerous expression of antisemitism in international reports on human rights and religious freedoms which were passed to the UNHCR.
The attitude of the Catholic Church towards these accusations and the cults venerating children supposedly killed by Jews has varied over time. The Papacy generally opposed them, although it had problems in enforcing its opposition.
In 1911, the Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique, an important French Catholic encyclopedia, published an analysis of the blood libel accusations. This may be taken as being broadly representative of educated Catholic opinion in continental Europe at that time. The article noted that the popes had generally refrained from endorsing the blood libel, and it concluded that the accusations were unproven in a general sense, but it left open the possibility that some Jews had committed ritual murders of Christians. Other contemporary Catholic sources (notably the Jesuit periodical La Civiltà Cattolica) promoted the blood libel as truth.
Today, the accusations are almost entirely discredited in Catholic circles, and the cults associated with them have fallen into disfavour. For example, Simon of Trent's local status as a saint was removed in 1965.
In late 1553 or 1554, Suleiman the Magnificent, the reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, issued a firman (royal decree) which formally denounced blood libels against the Jews. In 1840, following the Western outrage arising from the Damascus affair, British politician and leader of the British Jewish community, Sir Moses Montefiore, backed by other influential westerners including Britain's Lord Palmerston and Damascus consul Charles Henry Churchill, the French lawyer Adolphe Crémieux, Austrian consul Giovanni Gasparo Merlato, Danish missionary John Nicolayson, and Solomon Munk, persuaded Sultan Abdulmecid I in Constantinople, to issue a firman on 6 November 1840 intended to halt the spread of blood libel accusations in the Ottoman Empire. The edict declared that blood libel accusations were a slander against Jews and they would be prohibited throughout the Ottoman Empire, and read in part:
"... and for the love we bear to our subjects, we cannot permit the Jewish nation, whose innocence for the crime alleged against them is evident, to be worried and tormented as a consequence of accusations which have not the least foundation in truth...".
In the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th century, there were many instances of the blood libel in Ottoman lands. However the libel almost always came from the Christian community, sometimes with the connivance of Greek or French diplomats. The Jews could usually count on the goodwill of the Ottoman authorities and increasingly on the support of British, Prussian and Austrian representatives.
In the 1910 Shiraz blood libel, the Jews of Shiraz, Iran, were falsely accused of murdering a Muslim girl. The entire Jewish quarter was pillaged, with the pogrom leaving 12 Jews dead and about 50 injured.
In 1983, Mustafa Tlass, the Syrian Minister of Defense, wrote and published The Matzah of Zion, which is a treatment of the Damascus affair of 1840 that repeats the ancient "blood libel", that Jews use the blood of murdered non-Jews in religious rituals such as baking Matza bread. In this book, he argues that the true religious beliefs of Jews are "black hatred against all humans and religions", and no Arab country should ever sign a peace treaty with Israel. Tlass re-printed the book several times and stands by its conclusions. Following the book's publication, Tlass told Der Spiegel, that this accusation against Jews was valid and he also claimed that his book is "an historical study ... based on documents from France, Vienna and the American University in Beirut."
In 2003, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram published a series of articles by Osama El-Baz, a senior advisor to the then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Among other things, Osama El-Baz explained the origins of the blood libel against the Jews. He said that Arabs and Muslims have never been antisemitic, as a group, but he accepted the fact that a few Arab writers and media figures attack Jews "on the basis of the racist fallacies and myths that originated in Europe". He urged people not to succumb to "myths" such as the blood libel.
Nevertheless, on many occasions in modern times, blood libel stories have appeared in the state-sponsored media of a number of Arab and Muslim nations, as well as on their television shows and websites, and books which allege instances of Jewish blood libels are not uncommon there. The blood libel was featured in a scene in the Syrian TV series Ash-Shatat, shown in 2003.
In 2007, Lebanese poet, Marwan Chamoun, in an interview aired on Télé Liban, referred to the "... slaughter of the priest Tomaso de Camangiano ... in 1840... in the presence of two rabbis in the heart of Damascus, in the home of a close friend of this priest, Daud Al-Harari, the head of the Jewish community of Damascus. After he was slaughtered, his blood was collected, and the two rabbis took it." A novel, Death of a Monk, based on the Damascus affair, was published in 2004.