Holy Horrors: Christian persecution of Jews

Jews burned to death in Strasbourg in February 1349 during the Black Death. Jews were blamed for the plague epidemic in Europe and accused of poisoning the wells. (Credit: dou Tielt, Pierart, c. 1353, illustration from illuminated manuscript, Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique)

Excerpt from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, by James A. Haught (Prometheus Books, 2002). Reprinted with permission from the author.


The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 commanded that all Jews in Catholic lands must wear distinguishing labels or garments—a badge of shame similar to the yellow star later imposed by 20th century Nazis. This, plus Vatican orders confining Jews to ghettos, ostracized them as a hated class.

But a different action of the 1215 council inadvertently led to worse consequences for Jews. This action was the passage of the doctrine of transubstantiation: that the host wafer miraculously turns into the body of Jesus during the mass.

Soon, among superstitious people, rumors spread that Jews were stealing the sacred wafers and mutilating them or driving nails through them, to crucify Jesus again. Reports said the pierced host bled, or cried out, or emitted spirits, or turned into a dove or an angel and flew away.

On this charge, Jews were burned at the stake in 1243 in Belitz, Germany—the first of more than a hundred slaughters.

In 1298, a priest spread the host-nailing story in Nuremberg, and 628 Jews were killed, including Mordecai ben Hillel, the famous scholar. That same year, a Bavarian knight named Rindfliesch led an armed brigade that stormed through defenseless Jewish towns to avenge the tortured host. He exterminated 146 communities in six months.

In 1337 at Deggendorf, Bavaria, the entire Jewish population, including children, was burned after stories of host-defiling spread. In the Catholic church, a display of sixteen oil paintings was created, showing Jews mutilating wafers with hammers, thorns, and fire. Priests
attached explanatory signs like this one: ‘The Holy Host is being scraped to the very blood by wicked Jews.” For centuries, as many as 10,000 pilgrims came to the church yearly to view the gallery. The practice continued through the 1960s.

In 1370 at Brussels, someone reported seeing a Jew break a wafer, and virtually all Belgian Jews were massacred. One report said 100 were burned, and another said “500 Jews were dragged through the streets of Brussels and, without distinction of sex or age, mutilated until dead.” In the cathedral, eighteen tableaux were painted, showing Jews nailing wafers, some of which bled. The display remained until recent times.

Host-desecration rumors and massacres continued randomly in Catholic lands. In 1453 at Breslau, a woman alleged that a Jew stabbed a wafer, and forty-one were burned to death. In 1492 at Mecklenburg, Jews were tortured until they “confessed” to host-defilement, and
twenty-seven were burned. In 1510 at Spandau, a tortured Jew “confessed” that he made a wafer bleed and sent it to rabbis of the region. This caused thirty-eight to be burned at Berlin.

As late as 1761, Jews were executed at Nancy, France, on the utterly imaginary allegations.

Excerpted from Holy Horrors by James A. Haught. Copyright © James A. Haught, 2002. All rights reserved.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He is also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book is Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught has won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He is in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His website is haught.net.

Holy Horrors
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books (30 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 1573927783
ISBN-13: 978-1573927789

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