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Berkeley Talks transcript: How a lie from medieval Europe spread antisemitism across the world

two images side by side: One is a book cover that reads
Magda Teter, author of the 2022 book Blood Libel, gave the Annual Pell Lecture at UC Berkeley on March 15, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Magda Teter)

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #167: “How a lie from medieval Europe spread antisemitism across the world.”

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can follow Berkeley Talks wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.

[Music fades out]

Hannah Weisman: Good evening everyone. I’m Hannah Weisman, executive director of the Magnus Collection of Jewish Art and Life. Thank you so much for coming out tonight for the Center for Jewish Studies’ Annual Pell Lecture. Before we get started, I just wanted to ask you to please silence any devices you have with you. Notice our emergency exits. We have one at the front and one at the back of the room. And to thank you all for coming and engaging with us.

If you’re new to the Magnus, our museum collections reflect global Jewish life and if you’re returning, thank you very much for continuing to engage with us. It’s my pleasure to introduce Ethan Katz who will be introducing our distinguished speaker. Thank you.

Ethan Katz: Thank you, Hannah. Good evening everybody. Can everybody hear me? OK, can everybody hear me now? My name’s Ethan Katz. For those of you who don’t know me, I teach in the Center for Jewish Studies and the history department. I’m the faculty director for something called the Antisemitism Education Initiative, which is a major programming under the Center for Jewish Studies where we put on a whole series of programs throughout the year on antisemitism education. We also do workshops for students, faculty and staff, and we’re actually called upon to do a lot of education work for other campuses.

And very excited to welcome tonight’s speaker. The Pell Lecture is always one of the major programs each year for the Center of Jewish Studies and, specifically, for the Antisemitism Education Initiative. I want to thank specifically the Joseph and Eda Pell Endowment for sponsoring this evening and for this Annual Pell Lecture that they sponsor each year, as well as a number of other important programs at the CJS.

The story of the blood libel is always one of the things that mystifies people, I think, more than almost anything when we talk about the history of antisemitism. Which I spend a lot of my time doing these days. And whenever I’m presenting antisemitic tropes historically, I always feel like I have to stop when I get to the blood libel and acknowledge that it seems like this preposterous thing, this idea that Jews murdered Christian children and used their blood for ritual purposes. And it always seems like something that’s really hard to explain.

What’s even harder to explain is its persistence. So, I end up usually saying, “This seems preposterous, but it has been remarkably persistent over time.” I’m glad that I’m not asked to explain how it’s been so persistent over time, at least until I read Magda’s book, because, in fact, it is really a difficult thing to explain and a mystery for scholars. Which is one of the reasons that her work is so remarkable and important and it’s something that comes up in all kinds of historical contexts.

Much closer to our own time, the Damascus blood libel of 1840 is something that I teach about a lot because I teach about Jews of the Islamic world a lot. And that’s the moment where we often say that European antisemitism is really introduced into the Middle East, into the Islamic world. It’s through this blood libel case in Damascus in 1840, which itself is in some ways still shrouded in mystery.

And, much more recently, the accusations of blood libel and sometimes intimations of blood libel can be much abused in contemporary conversations about Jews, about Israel, about antisemitism. And so, it’s a subject that continues to haunt us to the present and that really demands the kind of scholarly attention that Magda has given it in her recent book.

We’re very fortunate to have tonight’s speaker, Magda Teter here. She is a professor of history and the Shvidler Chair of Judaic Studies at Fordham University. She is previously the author of two important books before the book that she’s going to be talking about tonight, Jews and Heretics in Catholic Poland, published by Cambridge University Press in 2006. And Sinners on Trial, published by Harvard University Press in 2011, which was a finalist for the Jordan Schnitzer Prize, a very important book prize given by the Association for Jewish Studies.

The book she’s talking about tonight, Blood Libel: On The Trail Of An Antisemitic Myth, published in 2020, has been the recipient already of at least three major prizes: A National Jewish Book Award, the George L. Mosse Prize in cultural history from the American Historical Association and the Bainton Prize from the Sixteenth Century Society.

And despite the fact that it feels to me that the ink is still drying on the Blood Libel, she still has managed to write a new book in the interim, which is about to come out, which also sounds really exciting, which I learned about over coffee this morning, which is called Christian Supremacy: Reckoning with the Roots Of Antisemitism and Racism, and which I think promises to really bring a lot of needed attention to the relationship historically between anti-Black racism and antisemitism in a variety of historical contexts.

She is also very active publicly writing for places like the Huffington Post, the New York Review of Books, Public Seminar and elsewhere. And creating what is, to my knowledge, perhaps the most active Jewish studies program in the country measuring biweekly programming at Fordham, which is really impressive.

She’s also the recipient of a number of prestigious fellowships, including the Guggenheim, I should say both the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships. And she’s been a visiting scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, as well as the recipient of an NEH fellowship.

She has served as co-editor of the AGF Review and as vice president for publications of the Association for Jewish Studies. She told me today that she’s actually very diligent about getting enough sleep, which is very hard for me to believe when I read her list of work and accomplishments. She is also currently the president of the American Academy for Jewish Research. It’s a great pleasure to welcome Magda to Berkeley. Please join me in welcoming her.

Magda Teter: Thank you so much for this introduction and thank you for sparing me from asking you whether you know what blood libel is, because now you know, I don’t know that everybody would know what it is. It may sound strange, but I didn’t want to write this book and I’ll give you the proof of why I didn’t want to write this book.

When I was finishing my book before that, I had a little bit of time. Can everybody hear me? OK. I had a little bit of time in the Vatican Archives, where I was doing research and nerd that I am, I didn’t go around Rome and looked at sites. I said, “Well, I don’t want to waste the time, so let me pull some files just to look at them.” I knew of the existence of the trial records of Jews in the city of Trenton, the town of Trenton, 1475, that they were in the Vatican Archive.

I had the call number, I pulled the file and then I wrote what it was. I always take notes. I said, “This is a beautiful manuscript in parchment, 120 folios that are not useful for me but need to have seen.” This is my proof I didn’t want to write this book, I didn’t intend to write this book, but I ended up writing this book. But it wasn’t the book that I… the book that I’m talking about wasn’t the book that I intended to write even when I finally started thinking about the idea of blood libel.

And so this is what I proposed or I thought about in 2011. And it was only six chapters, it was a small little book, probably written fast and easy. We wouldn’t be here because nobody would be talking about it probably. But you can see that the Trent was just an afterthought. It was just part of a medieval, not a very central topic. Then as I followed sources where they led me, the book grew. And then now it’s this volume that it is right now with 10 chapters and an epilogue.

The book essentially in the initial concept was to explain this map. Why in the early modern period from late 16th century until the end of the 18th century, the anti-Jewish accusations against Jews supposedly killing Christian children, was taking place in Eastern Europe of what used to be the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and in a couple of cases in Italy. That was the idea of comparing Eastern Europe, which is what my specialty was, and Italy.

And as a scholar of the early modern period, we often say, “Oh, nobody wants to read about something that’s not modern. Everybody is interested in about modern stuff and nobody wants to read our things.” Well, be careful what you wish for. Because as my book was going into production, a shooting took place in California near San Diego in Poway, in which the shooter cited Simon of Trent, the character in my book, it turned out, saying, “You are not forgotten, Simon of Trent, the horror that you and countless children have endured at the hands of the Jews will never be forgiven.”

And there I was in 2019, a book that I thought had, not much anyway, relevance in 21st century America. After my book came out, literally a month after it appeared, a painting was released in Italy. This painting by a known and talented devotional painter in Italy that had to be condemned by the Bishop Ambrogio Spreafico for its anti-Jewish, antisemitic content. And the bishop was forced to make a statement about the false accusations against Jews that were made over centuries for them killing Christian children. This whole thing is about this story of Simon of Trent, that is a toddler, whose body was found under a Jewish home during the Eastern Passover season in 1475. And which resulted is the essentially destruction and end of the small Jewish community in the now northern Italian town of Trento. All the men were arrested, tortured, and then eventually executed. Women were arrested and put under house arrest with children and eventually converted to Christianity.

And it became clear as I was finishing and as I was writing the introduction that the story that seemed to be old had still resonance. Here is a Facebook page that was devoted to quote ritual murder that was eventually removed in 2018 after four years of the Anti-Defamation League’s request from Facebook. In 2015, the British movement at the Lincoln Cathedral met to pay tribute to Hugh of Lincoln. Again, a boy whose death resulted in the prosecution and persecution of Jews of Lincoln in 1255. And, of course, I was aware of the Middle Eastern use of the blood libel motif in cartoons.

But those instances were not my guiding principle in trying to write this book. But with the Poway shooting, it became clear that this is still an active and resonating libel myth that continues to have a meaning. Typically, the blood libel is seen as a medieval story, as a medieval libel, as a medieval accusation. And many maps, many scholars put dots on the map, saying, “This is where things happened.”

As I was writing the book and as my husband and I were preparing the map for the publication of the book, I felt very uncomfortable with this static depiction with dots on the map because it means that they tell you as if they were facts that these things happen. And what my research on the history of this accusation of this lie made me realize that there were places where these accusations took place.

There are facts of Jews being accused, but not all stories that are told are necessarily actual facts or events that took place. We created a website, thebloodlibeltrail.org, where you have interactive maps including also other iconography here. This shows you very nicely, answers the question whether these libels were in fact medieval accusations. And you can see that the majority of them, about two dozen more or less in the medieval period, the majority of them come to us from literary resources. That is, we know them from stories, we don’t know them, that they actually happened, that they took place. We sometimes know that these legends were created later on and retrofitted into a different thing. But on maps, they look as dots, as if they happened and they become facts. Stories become seen as facts.

But the trials or the stories are by comparison with the so-called early modern period, which for us historians means mid 15th century until the end of the 18th century, it becomes clear that this is not necessarily a medieval story, that this is, in fact, an early modern story. And in the narrative that historians have produced was that, “Oh, this is a medieval accusations.” And you probably see in the media sometimes the use of medieval as this dark ages of intolerance and hatred. And then we have the progress towards our modern times of tolerance. In fact… oops, going back, this is an early modern story. It’s not in terms of only in terms of quantity, but also in terms of quality. That is, the sources that come to us are majority of legal sources. That is, we actually know Jews were accused of such things and they were tried and they sometimes were tortured and they sometimes not always as we’ll see in a moment were executed.

The literary stories are in a minority. This is very different from the medieval and the early modern. And here you have an example of the map of whether there were legal proceedings or not. In the early modern period, you can see that the majority we know of no even trace, not even in the tales that there were some legal proceedings. This is not necessarily the case for the early modern period.
The accusations, the blood libel as an accusation in the real sense where real people are suffering and are affected by it is a product of the so-called early modern period, 15th century on.

In fact, the medieval period is a period of condemnation of these accusations. The popes, the emperors in the medieval period, condemned accusation, condemned Christians for accusing Jews of such things. And here we have a list of these condemnations from the 13th century until the last one in 1544. In terms of, again, the period where you have the period between when the popes were in fact condemning them. You see that there are some legal proceedings. And then again, the numbers are different after the popes stop condemning these accusations. After there are no longer public figures who are officially and publicly condemning such anti-Jewish labels.

And yet there is another interesting question is that if I did a random survey of people who know a little bit about blood libels or the so-called ritual murders, they probably think about the outcomes that Jews were executed as a result of that, just as the Jews were in Trento. But when you look at the historical sources in the majority, Jews were actually not executed. Not all anti-Jewish accusations ended up with the condemnations of Jews. The question was why we think and in the popular understanding, and even in historiography, we think of that as ending for Jews in that lethal way. And the reason of that is that it is the trials or stories that ended with Jews being condemned that are publicized, that are written about, that are disseminated, especially by those in whose interest it was to condemn Jews or to prove that Jews were doing it.

The trials in which Jews were acquitted or which never made it to trial, accusations that were submitted to courts but never made it to trial, were of no interest to being publicized because it meant that it complicated these stories, these anti-Jewish stories. And the only example where these are noted that Jews were not prosecuted is when the anti-Jewish writers wanted to say that Jews bribed the officials. That are the only kind of examples that even note of the fact that Jews had defenders and were not accused. But the point is not always did everybody believe in these stories and there were always defenders of Jews in each case, including deeming them innocent.

Why 15th century do we have this sudden shift in quantity, in quality of these accusations? And the answer is Simon of Trent, the story of Simon of Trent. Not the first one and not the last one, as we’ve seen from the maps. After the boy disappears at the beginning, people think that he drowned. Trento has a lot of canals and two different rivers are connected in that area.

At the beginning, people thought that Simon simply fell into one of the canals and drowned. But then with time, rumors began to circulate that it’s Passover and perhaps Jews had done this. Their houses were searched, nothing was found, but then his body washed up under the house of a Jewish family on Easter Sunday. They dutifully notified the authorities that the body of the boy was found and then they were arrested and then the trial took place.

The narrative, however, of what supposedly had happened was already set a few days after their arrest, before the full trial even took place, before any confessions were made, before torture was applied.

The interest was in making Simon a martyr. Why? 1475 was a Jubilee year and a lot of pilgrims were going to Rome for the Jubilee. And the bishop of Trento wanted them to stop by. And we now create different tourist attractions, but in the medieval and early modern period pilgrimage sites were this kind of tourist attraction.

He began to promote the story of Simon and his supposed martyrdom at the hands of Jews through the new media technology that just emerged a few decades earlier. I know decades seems like a long time, but in that period of time, decades is not as fast as it is for us. But they were living in the middle of a media revolution.

The printing press allowed for the dissemination of stories, allowed for the dissemination of images. We’re inundated with images, but people on the medieval period could only see them in churches, maybe on facades of ornate buildings, but they didn’t really live with images to the extent that we live now or that they became later on. These are the first mass-produced images, the print allows for that.

The bishop immediately took advantage of the printing press and began to disseminate the news of this new martyr killed by Jews. And here you have one of the Broadside showing his supposed martyrdom. And here you have the narrative that was written and published on April 4th. Simon’s body is found on March 26th. And here you have a Broadside showing him as a relic with pilgrims coming in.

The story of Simon clearly developed a language of iconographic language in the story and is also important the history of the printed book because it is the first example of when the text and the image are in correspondence with each other. It produced… This is the first book that is published in the history of printing that has on the page what the text says is illustrated on the side. And it’s not just generic image of crucifixion of Jesus or some saint, but it actually shows what is said.

That 12-page book had 12 such volumes facing each other and each of them had texts and images. I won’t be showing you the text, but it shows the whole story, the whole narrative through text and images. Here is the supposed martyrdom, here is Simon’s body, here is the discovery of Simon’s body with Jews showing it to the Christian authorities. Then you have the sight of pilgrimages, his body on the altar and the execution of Jews in the aftermath of the trial.

This book was published three days after Pope Sixtus IV sent his envoy to investigate the whole trial because he heard the stories, but he also, as a pope, knew that popes had condensed such accusations and he was also nervous about fake relics and potential idolatry and potential problems that might be taking place. But the people in Trento wanted to make that story known and visible.

The pope condemned the accusation and prohibited naming Simon a martyr and a Beautus, a blessed or eligible for being venerated. Still, despite these prohibitions, the bishop didn’t stop and kept promoting the cult with printed materials, with investing in art, poetry, songs, tales, art in churches, printed materials and so on and so forth. And importantly, an avid reader, a consumer of these newly published books, he realized the power of print and power of books. He worked to insert Simon into history books that were being published at the time, world history books from creation until the moment they are found.

And here is an example of one of the earliest insertions of the Simon story in this very important work by Giacomo Filippo Foresti of Bergamo, that traces the history of the world from creation until 1485, which is when it was printed. Here you have an image, and that was an image that was used for the advertising of this event.

Now ubiquitously, now if you Google “blood libel,” if you Google quote unquote ritual murder, that image will come up. That comes from a chronicle, well-known chronicle, the Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493. And over there is a pirated edition from 1475 that also… from 14… sorry, I always transpose things, from 1497.

And eventually, when Simon becomes part of the understanding of world history and he’s inserted in these major chronicles, over 100 years later, Rome recognizes the cult and inserts him into a liturgical calendar, the Martyrologium Romanum in 1583, an important moment for anybody who knows anything about history, this is after the Gregorian reform of the calendar, which is also leading to the reform of the liturgical calendar.

And here Simon has one line on March 24th that in Trent a boy was cruelly killed by Jews. So that is the recognition of… the fact or recognition of the cult that before that, as I called, was a rogue cult, unrecognized cult, by Rome. It was finally abolished in 1965, but its traces remain across the town.

And I spoke with someone earlier who visited Trent and so many of these things. Again, going back to these maps, libels before 1475, largely known from literary sources, not necessarily trials of Jews, occasional trials. And if they did take place, they result in very strong condemnations from both secular lay authorities and the Catholic Church, the popes. And here you have the libels after 1475.

That is the turning point that makes the story so ubiquitously known because it becomes embedded in books and knowledge that is consumed. Not only that, it invents an iconographic language of depicting these libels, these lies. Before that, we don’t really have any iconographic depictions of how Jews are supposed to have done this supposed crime.

But after Simon and the investment that the bishop has made, we begin to see a language. Suddenly the stories that may have been transmitted through either one-line chronicles or rumors or tales carried by pilgrims in the sites that may have resulted in some kind of veneration, now they were imaginable because they were depicted visually.

We see three types of depictions. We see the so-called martyrdom of Simon that is depicting Jews in the act of martyring him, the body of Simon, the Simon as a victim, bloodied and lying on the altar and the Simon in glory that replicates the iconography of Jesus after resurrection. Including that banner of martyrdom that you see.

But each of those motives is disseminated differently in different geographic areas. In Italy, on the Italian peninsula and in what is now northern Italy, it’s the Simon and glory that is dominant. So kind of sanitized. And if you look at this, well, you really have to look at what’s going on. You can see there’s a knife, there’s some blood, there’s some gory items going on, but the boy is a cute little boy.

That’s not the case in Northern Europe. Over the Alps in the German areas and in Eastern Europe, you begin to have a focus on the more cruel and gory iconography. Depicting the dead Simon often accompanied with some anti-Jewish iconography. Here you have the Judensau, the Jewish sow, of Jews and devil in this act, and Simon depicted on top. And the image that I showed you before, again this supposed martyrdom in the Nuremberg Chronicle. And ubiquitous Northern European depictions are various renditions of the same Jews in the act of killing that you see throughout centuries.

And again, I’m flashing through that. Here’s a 19th century depiction of Simon of Trent, and here is an 18th century Eastern European Polish depiction of Trent. That really depicts and develops a language that spreads especially in Northern Europe.

The other thing is how these become facts, how these stories and lies and rumors become facts. And one of them is the role the printed chronicles take place. The genre of a world history emerges in late medieval period and it talks about the creation of the world and the main events through Bible and post-biblical history until whenever they are written.

And then in the print, when print comes in, these chronicles become bestsellers and are put in print. And they talk about anything. This is Noah’s Ark, by the way, as one of those world events. But in those chronicles, there are some that are quite voluminous, there are about a dozen of stories about Jews, post-biblical Jews, and they’re all negative. They are talking about Jews being expelled from France or other places, being burned or attacked, usually as a punishment for something that they did wrong or bad: They killed children, they are burned or they desecrate things, they pierce sacraments and so on and so forth.

These are the only stories about Jews that happen to be entered into these general history books. Even if you are not an anti-Jewish person, even if you are not looking for stories about Jews, you’re just interested in learning history, that’s all you get. The image of the Jew as the evil, criminally intent group is there. And what needs to be done to bring things to justice is to do something bad to Jews. To persecute them, to expel them, to burn them, to plunder them, and so on and so forth.

And these are usually one-sentence chronicles. Here’s another example, which is interesting. In 1538 is the first mention of the expulsion of Jews from Spain. It takes a long time before it enters the consciousness. But the other story of how facts are made is this story of this page. I mentioned in 1247, Pope Innocent IV issued a very explicit condemnation of these accusations against Jews. When this monumental history of the church was written, the writer or the [inaudible] who worked in the Vatican archives included the [inaudible] condemning Jews, condemning Christians for accusing Jews of killing Christian children. And he proceeded it with a short introduction that a girl was killed in this French town. And then the Pope issued this condemnation.

The book is volume 13 of a multi-volume, this size, I’m not kidding you, book. Nobody bought it. Only maybe monastic libraries bought it, but nobody bought it. [Inaudible] printers would print abridged additions of this work in one volume so you can buy it and read it at home. What do they get rid of? The primary sources. And they only leave those introductions. What’s left is Jews are accused of killing a Christian girl. And that enters as a fact of history, not that the Pope condemned it.

And then these chronicles also include images, always signaling a story related to Jews, usually bigger than the other illustrations as in this case. Or here, this is the story of the Simon of Trent published in a book, Cosmographia, by Sebastian Münster, a Protestant. Just so you are not wondering is it a Catholic thing? It’s not just a Catholic thing. There’s a different emphasis.

Obviously, Sebastian Münster doesn’t think that Simon was a blessed child to be venerated, but he accepted the story. And here, we have another example of signaling either the story of Simon or another story about Jews. Here is a story of Jews poisoning wells and here is a story from Münster of Jews being burned at the stake. These ways, this chronicle signaled for the readers to pay attention.

Here is a story about Jews, and as I said, all of them were negative. Here’s my spreadsheet of trying to connect and figure out where these stories and how they are transmitted. Eventually, a big fact that changes the dynamic of these accusations is the insertion of Simon in this Martyrologium Romanum for the Catholic world. And this essentially helps explain this map. Not only because this is in the Catholic areas. And the recognition of Simon as a legitimate cult gives legitimacy to further accusations.

And it also means that the popes later on are unwilling to issue a condemnation of such accusations. They help behind the scenes. They say, “Yes, the pope had prohibited such accusations, but they are no longer willing or able to publicly condemn such accusations because it would challenge, potentially, the whole liturgical calendar and the whole system of beliefs in saints.” And this is 16th century after the reformation.

So the church is unwilling to challenge its own doctrines and beliefs. And again, we’ve seen these maps of the impact of the recognition of Simon of Trent on the accusations and the fact that they take place especially in Eastern Europe.

And the first story of Simon enters in Polish in 1579. So what these chronicles tell you is that what George Mosse was saying, that it essentially shows you the development of culture as a state or habit of mind. These chronicles and these stories about Jews that feature so prominently, the blood libels and these anti-Jewish accusations, create a habit of thinking among Christian Europeans of Jews as these killers, as these dangerous people among them.

And then they are used in the modern times because they are treated as facts. The same stories then enter antisemitic works, most notably the Nazi propaganda in preparation and then especially in the middle of the so-called final solution. In 1934, Der Stürmer, which was a Nazi popular rag, anti-Semitic rag, issued a whole issue devoted to ritual murder.

And it is no incident that it was published in 1934 with the images that you will find now familiar of using exactly the images from the early modern works that I showed you, is because the Nuremberg Chronicle with this image was published in a facsimile edition after Hitler came to power in 1933. It reintroduced that iconography for the German readers and for the Nazi propagandists. Not only that, this issue uses all those pre-modern chronicles that mention any kind of anti-Jewish story as proofs and as facts that Jews did this, in order to push it as the antisemitic propaganda.

Once it entered into the Nazi ecosystem of knowledge, it enters all kind of anti-Jewish, antisemitic works at the time. Here you have 1942 issue of a fascist Italian magazine, La Difesa della Razza, which was supposed to be a little bit more highbrow than the Nazi Der Stürmer. And again, you can see it takes the images of Simon from these images, from the Der Stürmer.

Here, at the height of the final solution, they issue both so-called scholarly works and more popular works in different languages in the areas that Nazis want to justify their genocidal policies. And again, you can see the images that I showed you earlier from the 15th and 16th century that were published in Northern Europe.

And that Nazi iconography and the Nazi transmission of the pre-modern act enters the current ecosystem of neo-Nazi and white supremacist knowledge. And that is, you can see on the web and also in the Middle Eastern anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli iconography in the cartoons. And here you have obviously that basin and the children in this way.

And that’s where the shooter in Poway gets his knowledge. He is not doing scholarly research in early modern chronicles. He is reading the neo-Nazi white supremacist websites, which take their sources from the Nazi publications. Which in turn take their sources from the early modern chronicles that I’ve been discussing.

Other lessons to be learned as I’m wrapping up: Leadership matters, it’s not always effective, but it matters. We’ve seen it in terms of quantitative and qualitative type of accusations. When the popes and lay authorities explicitly condemn these accusations, it gives tools for those who want to defend Jews or who want to make a statement that authorities are condemning it. Again, it doesn’t always work, but it is a tool.

Diverse sources of knowledge matter. This map can be explained not only by the story of Simon of Trent, but also by the literature that was available to the readers in these various areas.

In Germany, though, you had these anti-Jewish representations of Jews as killers and in various chronicles, you also had a literature that explained to German readers Jewish ceremonies and rights. These were not neutral sources, they were polemical anti-Jewish sources, but they were based on Jewish sources, Hebrew sources, often written by Christians who were familiar with them, who were able to debunk those myths.

For instance, Johannes [inaudible], in his description of Jewish ceremonies, he describes the Passover rituals, which were often served as a justification for anti-Jewish libels saying that Jews prepared the matzah and they only use water and flour, nothing else. And he adds, “And it doesn’t taste good.” He doesn’t have to explicitly say, “Oh, and they don’t put any blood in it,” because he just can say this water and flour and that explains that.

In Italy, the Italian writers were using Jewish sources to prove the truths of Christianity. And in fact, they found that these accusations were detrimental to the efforts of converting Jews. The Italian Catholic policy was tried to convert Jews. But in Eastern Europe, in Poland, the literature that was available for consumption was only the literature that was based on these chronicles. Only the anti-Jewish stories were available to readers if they wanted to read anything about Jews. They couldn’t read about Jewish ceremonies, rituals or how to convert Jews, they were only reading about Jewish cruelties and other such stories.

The other lesson to learn is that visual culture matters. And I’m sure you all think about the role of memes and the power of those. But the fact is that in Italy, this iconography made a difference versus the iconography that is disseminated in Northern Europe.

And the final point I want to make is that there was no uninterrupted line between the stories that we’ve seen from the medieval early modern period until now. They reemerge and are used and sometimes introduced by scholars in a scholarly context in very specific moments in time. National historiographies that emerged in the 19th century began to publish sources and among those sources were often these anti-Jewish stories. And they end up part of these narratives, casting Jews as these dangerous others.

The other thing is that these sources also reemerge at the time of 19th century anti-Jewish accusations that resurfaced with the political and racial antisemitism. So many of the primary sources about the pre-modern stories are, in fact, reproduced and published, both by antisemites and by defenders of Jews in the 19th century in the aftermath of these trials. Like in [inaudible] or other places, including the papal bulls that were defending Jews against that.

And the resurgence of interest in Simon of Trent as a proof again that Jews, in fact, were doing this. In Russia, the Beilis Affair led to the creation of all kinds of primary sources about these different accusations, trial records and so on, which are now lost due to war.

And finally, a very important work by Cecil Roth that publishes a 1759 report that was produced by the Holy Office of the Inquisition stating that Jews did not do such things, was published in 1935 as a response to Der Stürmer. So, this kind of polemic response and the use of pre-modern sources came in very specific moments of historical events. And that again is the… we’re also living in this moment now with resurgence of antisemitism that people are looking at some of the longer history of that. I’ll stop here. Thank you.

Ethan Katz: Thank you so much, Magda, for a really rich and fascinating lecture. Magda’s happy to take questions. There is someone going around with the microphone, so if you put your hand up, we’ll get to you as soon as we can.

Audience 1: Thank you very much for a very interesting and illuminating talk. I would be interested to know more about the emergence of this blood libel before Norwich in [inaudible]. Do you see any connections to the Christ pillar myth, for instance, but also to Ancient Greece legends about Jews sacrificing Greeks and all these other stories which are around?

Magda Teter: Yeah, so the Greek story is there, but it never is mentioned and resurfaces in this. And we know, as scholars, about it, but there’s no connection with those medieval stories. There’s no documentable connection. And if somebody finds it, I’d be happy… I would be very interested to see it. But when the stories emerge in 12th century, with the first narrative being written in the second half of the 12th century about the supposed death of William of Norwich, whose body was found in 1144, the narrative is written in the… probably finalized in the 1180, so decades after his death. And it is actually lost and it resurfaces in a smaller version in the 16th century that is then published in a printed book and enters circulation. So, he enters circulation late in this century. But why did it emerge in that time?

Why the 12th century, why do these stories begin to emerge in that time? There are a couple of reasons. One is that we see a shift in this period in the veneration of Jesus, from Jesus the God in this resurrected form that you see in much of the almost… if you conjure up the Byzantine iconography of Jesus as God, even on the cross, but very clean, very triumphant to the Jesus as the suffering man. And the shift in liturgy over Easter to focus on the passion rather than resurrection of Jesus.

Once you introduce the motif of the passion and the suffering of Jesus, there is more emphasis on… Jews begin to play more of a role in it and it becomes more negative and detrimental rather than resurrection and the salvation in that story. And you also have… this is what Sara Lipton’s wonderful book, Dark Mirror, documented, that in 1160s you have the development… and again in a very specific theological moment, of anti-Jewish iconography and the Jewish nose.

And that is, again, trying to teach Christians to worship this humiliated bloody Jesus rather than the triumphant God. And saying that if you don’t worship him, then you are like Jews, Jews who rejected him, Jews who killed him. That story becomes, and iconography begins to reflect, Jews as killers at that point.

It’s not that the idea of Jews as killers is a new idea. We see it… Augustine talks about it in the fifth century and others have talked about it, is that in the 12th century it’s iconographically being depicted. So, it becomes more visually important and visible to Christians and they begin to think about Jews in those terms.

And the reason why Gavin Langmuir, who taught down the road at Stanford, thought that this reads like an invention of the blood libel myth. And it sounds very familiar, but it sounds familiar because it uses the liturgical language. The story of William of Norwich uses the liturgical language of Jesus rather than the invention of the story in such a way. It’s that moment of transformation in Christian liturgy and worship and focus on worship.

Ethan Katz: Maybe you don’t need the mic, I’m not sure.

Audience 2: I’m going to assume you’ve heard about QAnon?

Magda Teter: Yes.

Audience 2: What is concerning to me is that the most, having read a lot about it I actually lost a friend to it… what’s concerning to me is that QAnon is a repackaging apparently of the protocols of the elders of Zion mixed with some other stuff mixed with the blood libel. That Hillary Clinton and Tom Hanks are drinking the blood of kids, of the Hollywood elite liberals, globalists, cabal, whatever you want to… whatever code words you’re using [inaudible]. And I’m wondering if you can comment on how this has come from there to here?

Magda Teter: Yes, you are right. And QAnon people who promote that also use a more neutral language. Not talking, “Oh, Jews do it, they will…” what is it chrome something therapy? Adrenochrome, right. The scientific language this, and of course the liberal leads and things like that, that is coded often to code Jews in it. But it is also an entry to antisemitism, that is people will then start googling this and they end up in, oh, Jews did it historically, look at that. Even though people maybe like the readers of early modern chronicles don’t start on the anti-Jewish note or don’t necessarily know about it, once they enter and start investigating, they end up on the antisemitic trail in that way.

But it’s definitely using that trope and it’s again… and when you look at the images that have been circulating, they are taking it from Der Stürmer and from the Nazi publications. Somebody contacted me, he’s like, “Do you know this image?” I’m like, “Yeah.” It wasn’t this one that everybody can find, but an obscure image. And sure enough it comes from one of the Nazi publications.

Audience 3: Thank you. Following on the previous question. I’m wondering how effective polemics against this is? I would count your book as part of that and the example you gave of Cecil Roth and even the popes at certain times. And I’m wondering how important, effective those are and how much that has to do with truth telling? Or in some sense what you’ve talked about is that it’s, why does this become popular and what kind of counterarguments can be effective?

Magda Teter: I’d say, I saw it because as I was writing the book, that was my kind of, “Oh, it’s so depressing because people are essentially reading what they are reading and believing the sources they are reading.” It’s not that counterarguments were not known. The pope stated it, the emperor stated it, there were other writers who were stating it. It’s not that it was not known. But once it entered certain, what people considered authoritative sources of knowledge, they believed those sources of knowledge.

And there was a wonderful quote that I have in the book that I found where one of the anti-Jewish writers says, “Well, who do you believe, the fathers of the church or the rabbis?” If the rabbis bring you the pope’s condemnation, but you have these authoritative lives of saints or these other chronicles that are respected, who do you believe? Them? And maybe they forced it. And that’s why I said the lesson learned is the diverse sources of knowledge that blundered this message. Otherwise, it’s what scholars today and sociologists today have confirmation bias. You believe what you believe and the facts that support your beliefs. And any counterfacts, you always find a way to discount them as who do you believe, the church fathers or the rabbis?

Ethan Katz: One last question.

Audience 4: You mentioned that there is a palpable difference in the iconography of Italy focusing more on the glory as opposed to the Northern Europe’s emphasis on the torture. And I was wondering, can you elaborate more on how that form of antisemitism manifested in Italy as opposed to Northern Europe?

Magda Teter: In Italy, you do not have until the modern period that kind of virile and demonization of Jews. And one of the reasons is that the principle goal of the church, which was a very important dominant power, was to convert Jews. Even creating ghettos in Italy, was in order to convert Jews. To make them realize that the reason that they are suffering and being put in these discriminatory positions is because they rejected Christ. But if they convert, all these restrictions will end. And that was the primary goal.

And in Northern Europe, that was not necessarily the issue and in Poland, as well. It was to discourage Jewish-Christian contacts. It was to create rifts and animosity, and that’s the main difference. The other difference is also the number of Jews. There are many fewer Jews in Italy than there are in Northern Europe in the German lands and than in Eastern Europe.

And then the other thing is that it’s a longer history of iconography, of looking what is consumed, what is produced. And you have much more negative, again, for trials of Jews, the scenes of Jews during crucifixion in Northern Europe, and also circumcision of Jesus. Much more malevolent kind of depiction of Jews as circumcised in Northern Europe. But also the anti-Jewish iconography develops in Northern Europe, not in Southern Europe. So, that’s why you have these differences.

And the first time where I saw the replication of these negative stories in Italy was in the second half of the 18th century. And where do they get this information from? From a book written by a Polish writer, a Polish Dominican friar who wrote in Latin. Again, it gets reintroduced in a different way. And then, of course, it takes more root, but it really is the focus on conversion and that is detrimental. If you want to bring people into faith, you are not demonizing them because they will reject you. Thank you so much.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

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