On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth
- ISBN: 9780674240933
- Published By: Harvard University Press
- Published: January 2020
Magda Teter’s Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth is an analysis of the anti-Jewish blood libels and ritual murder accusations that pervaded Europe and persist today globally. This book traces the many documents (laws, letters, edicts, literature, art, etc.) that shaped the creation and spread of the accusations, and how these documents cemented the accusations in such a way that make them difficult to combat. Teter argues that these documents highlight how “cultures of knowledge” shaped the different responses to the accusations and their outcomes (5).
Anti-Jewish accusations, appearing to a mainstream audience during the Middle Ages, expanded beyond deicide and into ritual murder and sacrifice. Clergy and laypeople alike accused Jews of desecrating the Eucharistic Host and murdering Christian children for their blood. Accusers falsely alleged that this blood was used by Jews in the baking of matzah cracker, otherwise known as unleavened bread, eaten mainly during the Passover holiday. Teter’s contextualization prepares the reader for her thorough analysis in subsequent chapters.
Teter painstakingly combines textual and visual analyses to support her case that the Middle Ages witnessed a convergence of various socio-religious factors. These factors included the rising importance of Christian narratives in daily life and the increasing significance of blood libel accusations. Despite the rise of these factors, there were, strangely, more defenses of Jews by “secular and ecclesiastical authorities” (15). The case that demonstrates this most effectively, and that Teter devotes much of her book to analyzing, is the murder of a boy named Simon of Trent. This case represents what is arguably history’s most well-documented anti-Jewish blood libel. The ample documentation can be largely credited to Bishop Johannes Hinderbach, who wrote a famous account of the trial and preserved other related sources. He played a significant role in the affair and furiously attempted to discredit other accounts while promoting his own. Many of the records and writings that emerged following the trial drew primarily on his writings.
Teter argues that Hinderbach’s writings demonstrate how the Simon of Trent affair was not just about the perceived Jewish danger, but rather “a fight over records and memory” (44). While a strong focus on this historical episode is helpful and illustrative of her main argument, Teter could have better differentiated the nuances of various blood libel episodes from across Europe.
What sets Teter’s book apart, however, is her comparative analysis, which explores how blood libel and anti-Jewish accusations affected Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews differently. There are few Jewish literary responses to the accusations, but among what exists, there are differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic responses. Teter explains that although Sephardic Jews were not victims, they were directly impacted by the anti-Jewish beliefs engrained in Christian theology. Sephardic writings generally countered and refuted these beliefs. In contrast, Ashkenazi responses were far fewer in number and frequently appeared as songs and tales, and mostly in Yiddish instead of local languages (the latter were more common in Sephardic responses).
These ethnocultural differences are also explained by the fact that literary and visual portrayals of the cult of Simon of Trent varied regionally throughout Europe, as did Christian knowledge of Jews and Judaism and the sources for such knowledge. Teter stresses how important literary works were for cementing knowledge in different regional contexts. As regional variations merged into broader Christian historical chronicles, ideas about Jews morphed into generalized portrayals.
Teter argues that it was during the early modern period that ritual murder and blood libel accusations became rooted in the Euro-Christian imagination. The stories responsible for this, as Teter demonstrates, were used as evidence against accused Jews and drew on law and culture to create harmful ideas about them. The stories influenced subsequent trials and further reinforced negative ideas and tropes about Jews, explaining why these ideas became engrained during this era. Anti-Jewish accusations and libel continued, to varying degrees, into the 19th and 20th centuries.
Despite Teter’s scrupulous examination, she strays at times from her original intent which, again, is to demonstrate how the blood libel accusation became prominent in the European imagination. Nevertheless, the reader of Blood Libel will notice her attention to historical details and appreciate her painstaking analysis of a paper trail spanning centuries.
Teter’s book adds much to the existing literature on anti-Judaism and historical anti-Jewish hate. Although numerous scholars have written on the subject, Teter’s book provides an in-depth analysis of historical episodes of blood libel and digs deeper into not only the events of the Simon of Trent affair, but also the implications these episodes continue to have throughout Europe. Blood libels against Jews exist to this day, and Teter’s book offers a significant visual, literary, social, and legal analysis of this persistent aspect of antisemitism.
Megan Hollinger is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Ottawa.Megan HollingerDate Of Review:August 29, 2023