Although the first known instance of blood libel against Jews was in the writings of Apion, an early 1st century pagan Greco-Egyptian who claimed that the Jews sacrificed Greek victims in the Temple, no further incidents are recorded until the 12th century, when blood libels began to proliferate in Christian Europe. Blood libel accusations have often asserted that the blood of Christian children is especially coveted, and historically blood libel claims have often been made to account for otherwise unexplained deaths of children. In some cases, the alleged victim of human sacrifice, child or adult, has become venerated as a martyr, a holy figure around whom a martyr cult might arise. A few of these have been even canonized as saints.
Although broadly discredited, these libels have persisted among some segments of Christians to the present time, and recently Muslims as well. In Jewish lore, blood libels were the impetus for the creation of the golem of Prague (a commonly known Jewish legend) by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal.
Many popes have either directly or indirectly condemned the blood accusation, and no pope has ever sanctioned it, though the assertions are usually spread and promoted by local clergy.
In general, the libel alleged something like this: a child, normally a boy who had not yet reached puberty, was kidnapped or sometimes bought and taken to a hidden place (the house of a prominent member of the Jewish community, a synagogue, a cellar, etc.) where he would be kept hidden until the time of his death. Preparations for the sacrifice included the gathering of attendees from near and far and constructing or readying the instruments of torture and execution.
At the time of the sacrifice (usually night), the crowd would gather at the place of execution (in some accounts the synagogue itself) and engage in a mock tribunal to try the child. The boy would be presented to the tribunal naked and tied (sometimes gagged) at the judge's order. He would eventually be condemned to death. Many forms of torture would be inflicted during the boy's "trial", including some of those used by the Inquisition on suspects of heresy. Some of the alleged tortures were mutilation (including circumcision), piercing with needles, punching, slapping, strangulation, strappado and whipping, while being insulted and mocked throughout.
In the end, the half-dead boy would be crowned with thorns and tied or nailed to a wooden cross. The cross would be raised and the blood dripping from the boy's wounds, particularly those on his hands, feet, and genitals, would be caught in bowls or glasses.
Finally, the boy would be killed with a thrust through the heart from a spear, sword, or dagger. His dead body would be removed from the cross and concealed or disposed of, but in some instances rituals of black magic would be performed on it.
The earlier stories describe only the torture and agony of the victim and suggest that the child's death was the sole purpose of the ritual. Over time and as the libel proliferated, the focus shifted to the supposed need to collect the victim's blood for mystical purposes.
The story of William of Norwich (d. 1144) is the first known case of alleged ritual murder, which was made by a Christian monk. It does not mention the collection of William's blood nor of any ritual purpose to the alleged ritual murder. In the story of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln (d. 1255) it was said that after the boy was dead, his body was removed from the cross and laid on a table. His belly was cut open and his entrails removed for some occult purpose, such as a divination ritual. In the story of Simon of Trent (d. 1475) it was highly stressed how the boy was held over a large bowl so all his blood could be collected.
According to Walter Laqueur,
"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 descriptions of torture and human sacrifice in the antisemitic blood libels run contrary to many of the teachings of Judaism.
Most obviously, 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. Blood from slaughtered animals may not be consumed, and 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, consumption of human flesh violates kashrut.
While animal sacrifice was part of the practice of ancient Judaism, the Tanakh (Old Testament) and Jewish teaching 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 were punished for doing so (, , ). In fact, ritual cleanliness for priests prohibited even being in the same room as a human corpse ().
Proponents of the blood libel, such as British fascist Arnold Leese ("Jewish Ritual Murder" 1938) and sympathetic contemporaries, claim that proof of ritual murder is contained within scripture. The neo-Nazi site www.JRBooksOnline.com lists Psalm 137 as proof that Jews engaged in ritual child murder, citing the line "Happy will be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the stones" (www.jrbooksonline.com/leese). However, in the context of the rest of Psalm 137, this verse expresses a desire for vengeance following Babylonian massacres of the Jews. In context, then: "O daughter of Babylon who is [to be] destroyed, happy will be he who repays you as you have done to us; happy will be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the stones." ()
Professor Israel Jacob Yuval of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published an article in 1993 that argues that the blood libel myth 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 found that they were greatly distorted with claims that if Jews could kill their own children they could also kill Christian children. Yuval rejects the blood libel story as a Christian fantasy that was impossible due to the precarious nature of the Jewish minority's existence in Christian Europe.
Socrates Scholasticus 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.
March 20 (Passover), the first blood libel in Europe against Jews. Jews of Norwich were accused of both ritual murder and blood libel after a boy, William of Norwich, was found dead with stab wounds. The legend was turned into a cult, with William acquiring the status of martyr and crowds of pilgrims bringing wealth to the local church. 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. On Feb 6 1190, all the Norwich Jews were found slaughtered in their houses, except a few who found refuge in the castle. Jews would later be expelled from all of England in 1290 and not allowed to return until 1655.
An early blood libel against Jews 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 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:
The case of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln is mentioned by Chaucer, and thus has become well known. A child of eight years, named Hugh, son of a woman named Beatrice, disappeared at Lincoln on the 31st of July. His body was discovered on the 29th of August, covered with filth, in a pit or well belonging to a Jewish man named Copin or Koppin. On being promised by John of Lexington, a judge, who happened to be present, that his life should be spared, Copin 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, on reaching Lincoln some five weeks afterward, at the beginning of October, refused to carry out the promise of John of Lexington, and had Copin executed and ninety-one of the Jews of Lincoln seized and sent up to London, where eighteen of them were executed. The rest were pardoned at the intercession of the Franciscans (Jacobs, "Jewish Ideals," pp. 192-224).
At Pforzheim, Baden, the corpse of a seven-year-old girl was found in the river by fishermen. The Jews were suspected, and when they were led to the corpse, blood allegedly began to flow from the wounds; led to it a second time, the face of the child became flushed, and both arms were raised. In addition to these miracles, there was the testimony of the daughter of the wicked woman who had sold the child to the Jews. A regular judicial examination did not take place; it is probable that the above-mentioned "wicked woman" was the murderess. That a judicial murder was then and there committed against the Jews in consequence of the accusation is evident from the manner in which the Nuremberg "Memorbuch" and the synagogal poems refer to the incident (Siegmund Salfeld, Das Martyrologium des Nürnberger Memorbuches (1898), pp. 15, 128-130).
At Weissenburg, a miracle alone decided the charge against the Jews. According to the accusation, the Jews had suspended a child (whose body was found in the Lauter river) by the feet, and had opened every artery in its body in order to obtain all the blood. Again, supernatural claims were made: the child's wounds were said to have bled for five days afterward, despite its treatment.
At Oberwesel, "miracles" again constituted the only evidence against the Jews. The corpse of the eleven-year-old Werner is said to have floated up the Rhine (against the current) as far as Bacharach, emitting radiance, and being invested with healing powers. In consequence, the Jews of Oberwesel and many other adjacent localities were severely persecuted during the years 1286-89. Emperor Rudolph I., to whom the Jews had appealed for protection, issued a public proclamation to the effect that great wrong had been done to the Jews, and that the corpse of Werner was to be burned and the ashes scattered to the winds.
The statement was made, in the "Chronicle" of Konrad Justinger of 1423, that at Bern in 1294 the Jews had tortured and murdered a boy called Rudolph. The historical impossibility of this widely credited story was demonstrated by Jakob Stammler, pastor of Bern, in 1888.
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 as a saint, and was canonized by Pope Sixtus V in 1588. His status as a saint was removed in 1965 by Pope Paul VI, though his murder is still promoted as a fact by a handful of extremists.
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. He was canonized by Pope Pius VII in 1805. Christopher has since been removed from the canon, though once again, a handful of individuals still claim the validity of this case.
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 stolen by the accuser, Count Wolf of Bazin, as an easy but fiendish means of ridding himself of his Jewish creditors at Bazin.
At 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 seventeenth century, when the cult was founded. The older inscription in the church of Rinn, dating from 1575, is distorted by fabulous embellishments; as, for example, that the money which had been paid for the boy to his godfather was found to have turned into leaves, and that a lily blossomed upon his grave. The cult continued until it was officially prohibited in 1994 by the Bishop of Innsbruck. (source ).
The only child-saint 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, a Jew from Białystok, was accused in bringing the boy to Białystok, poking him with sharp objects and draining his blood for nine days, then bringing the body back to Zverki and dumping 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, July 27, 1997, the Belorussian 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 and were passed to the UNHCR.
In 1883, about 150 French children were murdered in a horrible way in the suburbs of Paris, before the Jewish Passover holiday. Later research showed that the Jews had killed them and taken their blood. ... A similar incident took place in London, when many English children were killed by Jewish rabbis. ...
The attitude of the Roman Catholic Church towards these accusations and the cults venerating children supposedly killed by Jews has varied over time. The church sometimes opposed them, but it generally did little to stop them, and in some cases gave its clear approval. Pope Benedict XIV permitted the continuation of the cult of Anderl von Rinn as a local cult, but refused to canonize him as a saint. On the other hand, Pope Gregory X issued a letter rejecting the blood libel accusations.