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

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two images side by side: One is a book cover that reads "Blood Libel" and the other is a person looking at the camera and smiling

Magda Teter, author of the 2020 book Blood Libel , gave the Center for Jewish Studies’ Annual Pell Lecture at UC Berkeley on March 15, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Magda Teter)

In Berkeley Talks episode 167, Magda Teter, professor of history and the Shvidler Chair of Judaic Studies at Fordham University and author of the 2020 book Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth , discusses how an anti-Jewish lie that originated in medieval Europe has persisted throughout history and spread antisemitism across the world.

Known as blood libel, the superstitious accusation — that Jews ritually sacrifice Christian children at Passover to obtain blood for unleavened bread — first emerged in the 12th century, but became a dominant narrative in the 15th century.

“Why in the 15th century do we have this sudden shift in quantity, in quality, of these accusations?” asked Teter, during the Center for Jewish Studies’ Annual Pell Lecture on March 15. “The answer is Simon of Trent, the story of Simon of Trent.”

Simon of Trent, who lived in what is now Italy, went missing in 1475 at age 3. He was first believed to have drowned in a canal or river in the area, but with time, rumors began to circulate that perhaps the Jews were responsible for his disappearance, which occurred during Passover. Their houses were searched, and nothing was found.

But then, the toddler’s body washed up under the house of a Jewish family on Easter Sunday. The family notified authorities that the boy’s body had been found. They were arrested, and a trial took place.

“The interest was in making Simon a martyr,” said Teter. “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. We now create different tourist attractions, but in the medieval and early modern period, pilgrimage sites were this kind of tourist attraction.”

The bishop began to promote the story of Simon and his supposed martyrdom at the hands of Jews through the printing press, which had emerged in Europe a few decades earlier. For the first time, images and stories could be mass produced and disseminated widely.

“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 were now imaginable because they were depicted visually.”

Over the following decades, the lie that Simon of Trent was cruelly killed by Jews was inserted into chronicles, including the well-known Nuremberg Chronicle , published in 1493. And the story became part of the understanding of world history. But it was Rome including the story in a liturgical calendar, the Martyrologium Romanum, in 1583, says Teter, that changed the dynamic of the accusations for the Catholic world.

“What these chronicles tell you is 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.”

Once the lie entered into the Nazi ecosystem of knowledge, says Teter, it was included in all kinds of anti-Jewish, antisemitic works at the time.

“And that Nazi iconography and the Nazi transmission of the pre-modern act enters the current ecosystem of neo-Nazi and white supremacist knowledge,” Teter says.

In 2019, a shooter killed one person and injured three others at a synagogue in Poway, California. He cited the story of Simon of Trent as one of the reasons behind his actions.

Learn more about the Center for Jewish Studies at UC Berkeley.

Watch a video of Teter’s lecture below.

Magda Teter, a professor of history and the Shvidler Chair of Judaic Studies at Fordham University, and author of the 2020 book Blood Libel, gave the Center for Jewish Studies’ Annual Pell Lecture on March 15.

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