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Blood Libel: Ariel Toaff's Perplexing Book

A week after its publication, Ariel Toaff has withdrawn his Pasque di sangue (in English: Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders) from circulation. Hopefully this will elegantly end an unfortunate episode.  The book’s thesis is unambiguous:  Jews crucified Christian children and used their blood ritually. The author’s disclaimers, like that which appears in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, are unpersuasive. The argumentation of the thesis is also elusive.

Discussions of the negativity Jews expressed about Christianity during the festivals of Purim and Passover and the prominence of blood-imagery in especially Passover rituals (chapters ten and eleven) are followed by the opening words to chapter twelve, which say: “The use of the blood of Christian children in the celebration of Passover was apparently framed by precise rules, or at least this is what the depositions in the Trent trial indicate." Mere juxtaposition—of itself, and by itself: abstract imagery morphing into “acting out”—is at once the totality of the “proof” brought to suggest Jews committed ritual murder, as well as its vague disclaimer, found in the words "or at least." But, as it proceeds, the book neglects its disclaimer, recasting as unimpeachable the confessions made by the Jews tried for the (supposed) murder of the child Simone at Trent in 1475. The reader is equally to accept as true the tale of a Christian boy allegedly murdered by Jews in 415, although the sole teller is the Church historian, Socrates, no more reliable than his counterpart who wrote that during the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 611 C.E., the Jews murdered 50,000 Christians. An article based on such evidence would be rejected by the journal I have been editing for twenty years, Jewish History, as methodologically flawed.

To disparage this book is not, as some have suggested, to challenge academic freedom. It is to decry bad historiographical method. The question is not whether historians have the right to assess the veracity of ritual murder charges, but whether their arguments must adhere to generally agreed rules of historical reasoning. Here, the rules were plainly ignored. Toaff, professor of medieval and Renaissance history at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, chose to put his uncritical trust in the literal words of Christian chroniclers, court notaries, and tendentious modern polemicists. In particularly in its final chapters, his book glides from images of martyrdom found in Hebrew Crusade chronicles, alongside maledictions of Christianity in the mouths of exhausted and many times massacred Ashkenazic Jews, to the supposed reality of ritual murder, framed as vendetta. And he does so on the sole basis of the appearance of these images and maledictions in the depictions of Simone’s death elicited by torture from the accused. More likely, as I see it, the accused were recasting older imagery as a real event in order to satisfy their tormentors. Jews, no doubt, had also imbibed what Christians were saying, which they may well have regurgitated when “put to the question.” Under duress, their mentality may have come to gibe with that of their prosecutors.

Toaff might at least have raised these possibilities, but he never does. For this would have meant abandoning a narrative mode which, as it is now, is but a skein of speculations offered as self-evident truth by an omniscient author. It is this totally self-confident narrative that makes this book so treacherous. The tale is told as though its author were vouchsafed with the “truth.” The passage from the verifiable to the hypothetical is completely unmarked.  And it is for this reason that the book wreaks such havoc, of itself, for what it says, on the author, and no less on its publisher Il Mulino.

What the book never confronts is the other side of the coin, to query whether charges of ritual murder, blood libels, or host desecration were intrinsic to Christian discourse, regardless of Jewish actions. A short time ago, Bernard Joassart, head of the Bollandists, the Jesuit students and collectors of Saints Lives in Antwerp, wrote me, saying: "Cette affaire du meurtre rituel a traîné longuement dans la conscience catholique - et je ne suis pas sûr que tous ont révisé leur jugement." Joassart was following in the path of Bollandist predecessors like Hippolyte Delehaye (Joassart is also Delehaye’s biographer), Francois Halkin, and Francois Van Ortroy, who nearly a century ago described ritual murder and blood libels as inanité. Embroiling himself with Jesuit authorities in Rome, who, at that time, were touting ritual murder libels, Van Ortroy wrote a scathing review denouncing G. Divina’s 1902 Storia del Beato Simone (the title says all), which calls the charge of killing Simon of Trent in 1475 true. Yet it is precisely Divina, together with Benedetto Bonelli’s, Dissertazione apologetica sul martirio del beato Simone da Trento of 1747, whom Toaff repeatedly cites, far more, in fact, than the trial records themselves (condemned in their own day by the Dominican legate Bishop Battista de’ Giudici and seconded, if indirectly, by the then Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV) to prove that ritual murders actually took place. Toaff thus finds himself squarely on the side of Van Ortroy’s arch-conservative opponents (as he could have known from my recent Jewish Dogs: An Image and Its Interpreters [Stanford, 2006], which he cites in his notes).

Alas, ritual murder, blood libel, and host libel charges have been integral to ecclesiology from the earliest. The story of the Jewish boy of Bourges, whose father threw him into a furnace rather than letting him take communion was being told already in the mid-sixth century. The boy stands for the Eucharist, just as in like fashion, Werner of Oberwessel, said to have been martyred in 1287, was identified with the corpus verum (the Eucharist), the corpus mysticum (the church), as well as with Christ’s real person (Acta Sanctorum, April 2: 699-700).  The purpose of the charges was to demonstrate the Eucharist’s unassailability, even when it was being pursued by those whom first John Chrysostom (fourth century) and eventually Pius IX (nineteenth century) called “Jewish Dogs,” who were said to be bent on defiling the Corpus Christi in all its religious and social forms. As put by the chronicler William of Breton (d. 1223), each year the Jews immolabant et communicabant, they sacrificed and—literally—took communion with the heart of (that surrogate Eucharist) a Christian boy. This idea, moreover, Breton continues, was commonplace in the Capetian palace about 1179, four centuries before Trent. Nor was it something wrung out of a Jew through torture. Indeed, tales of ritual murder are often essentially a collection of topoi, with only the purported vicitm’s name, the place, and date changed. And as Miri Rubin explains in her Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews (New Haven, 1999), these tales, which she calls useful tales of exemplification, confer legitimacy—and legitimize Christian response.

If, then, these accusations could develop out of Christian need—and without Jewish input—why should we believe ritual murder actually occurred? Thomas of Monmouth’s account of William of Norwich, for one, is a later concoction, out of thin air. Yet Toaff treats Thomas’s “facts” as real, just as he never bothers to say that the 1329 murder charge in Savoy was rejected as folly by Christian judges. Toaff would have us believe that the specific charge of mixing blood in the haroset (the fruit and nut mix eaten on Passover to recall the mortar Jewish slaves used in Egypt) was true. He is also distracted by his inexplicable sub-theme that all “deviant” Jewish behavior was of Ashkenazi origin—Jews from German regions—as were the Jews in Trent in 1475. However, the custom of eating haroset on lettuce, as was charged at Savoy, is sefardi and italqi. Ashkenazim accompany haroset with horse-raddish. The late Isadore Twersky whom Toaff cites to show Ashkenazim were haughty, said the same of Spanish rabbis, whereas Italians freely absorbed from all Jewish traditions (Italia Judaica I, Rome, 1983, pp. 390-391).

Also perturbing are the constant references to practical (magical) kabbalah, which was more typical of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as indeed are the origins of most works of this nature that Toaff cites. Earlier references to Jewish magic, treated as reliable, often come from the writings of Bishop Hinderbach of Trent, the chief antagonist in 1475. In citing Hinderbach in this context, Toaff’s method reminds us of the original seventeenth century Bollandists (as opposed to their twentieth century heirs), who strove to validate the chronology of their sources, but failed to ask whether what the sources said was true. Yet Pasque di Sangue can also be disingenuous. Toaff brings legitimate sources on the use of animal blood for medicinal purposes, which he then melds (sia animale che umano, p.103) with supposed confessions about the need for human blood. But these confessions are reported at a distance, and once again by drawing on Bonfelli and Divina, as well as the fifteenth century Franciscan Alfonso de Espina, whose Fortalitium fidei against Jews makes hairs stand on end.
Ultimately, Pasque di Sangue comes across as the product of deliberate imagination rather than reasoned historical thought. To correct the book, as Toaff proposes, would mean to phrase the whole hypothetically and to discard a raft of tendentious (especially secondary) sources, leaving the book with essentially nothing to say. A pity, for Toaff’s materials could have led to a master book about beliefs and their reception, for which a starting point could have been chapter ten, which discusses Christian and Jewish attitudes toward blood. As its stands now, Pasque di Sangue is full of “sound and fury.” It signifies nothing more.