Holy Horrors: The Catholic Church And Anti-Semitism

Jewish doctors burnt alive during the Black Death from the World History by German physician Hartmann Schedel in 1493. (Credit: Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

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.

Blood Libel

Century after century, the Catholic church preached that jews were “Christ-killers.” St. Gregory called them “slayers of the Lord, murderers of the prophets, adversaries of God.” St. Jerome added “vipers” and “cursers of Christians.” St. Bernard of Clairvaux called them “a degraded and perfidious people.” When a bishop burned a synagogue at Callinicum, St. Ambrose wrote: “Who cares if a synagogue—home of insanity and unbelief—is destroyed?”

St. John Chrysostom wrote:

“The Jews sacrifice their children to Satan. … They are worse than wild beasts. … The synagogue is a brothel, a den of scoundrels, the temple of demons devoted to idolatrous cults, a criminal assembly of Jews, a place of meeting for the assassins of Christ.”

Liturgical chants cited “the perfidious Jews.” Passion plays depicted them cruelly mocking Jesus. The message had effect. Anti-Semitism became an adjunct of Christianity. Jews were clannish, separate, which fueled superstitious suspicions about them. Under such conditions,
it’s little wonder that scare stories spread.

In 1144 a 12-year-old boy named William was found dead near Norwich, England. Rumor spread that Jews had sacrificed him and used his blood in heinous rituals. A monk, Thomas of Monmouth, wrote a lurid account alleging that Jews routinely sacrificed Christian children. The tale spread like wildfire. A church to the martyr St. William was built at Norwich, becoming a site of pilgrimages and miracles.

Rapidly, the “blood libel” spread over Europe. In city after city, Jews were seized and killed as child-sacrificers. Examples:

In 1171 at Blois, France, thirty-eight Jewish leaders were sentenced to death because the mayor’s servant thought he saw a Jew throw a child’s body into the river—even though no body was found and no child was missing. The thirty-eight were given a chance to save their
lives by converting to Christianity, but they refused. They were locked in a wooden shed, which was burned.

In 1255 at Lincoln, England, the body of an 8-year-old boy named Hugh was found in the well of a Jew. Hysteria spread. Chronicler Matthew Paris wrote that “the child was first fattened for 10 days with white bread and milk and then almost all the Jews of England were invited to the crucifixion.” Jews desperately denied the monstrous accusation—to no avail. Eighteen were tortured and hanged as sacrificers. Little St. Hugh of Lincoln was revered at a shrine built to his memory.

In 1285 at Munich, 180 Jews were burned after a rumor spread that they bled a Christian child to death in their synagogue. In 1294 at Bern, Switzerland, all Jews were killed or expelled because of a ritual-murder tale. Later, Bern erected “the fountain of the child-devourer,” showing an evil-looking Jew holding a sackful of infants and swallowing one of them.

In 1475 at Trent, Italy, reports said a toddler named Simon had been sacrificed. Nearly all Jews of the city were tortured, tried, and burned. Lurid woodcuts portray the events. Simon of Trent was beatified as a Catholic martyr, his feast day was celebrated yearly, and many miracles were reported at his shrine in Trent.

In 1491, Jews being tortured by the Holy Inquisition in Spain were made to confess that they had sacrificed a Christian child in a cave near a village called La Guardia. They were burned, and all Jews in their community were murdered. ‘The holy child of La Guardia” became a religious legend—yet no such town, or sacrificed child, had existed.

In 1759 a Vatican investigative commission concluded that no Jews ever sacrificed any children: The tales were mere myth. But the blood libel persisted. In 1801 at Bucharest, Romania, Orthodox priests revived the accusation of ritual blood-drinking. Christians stormed the Jewish quarter and cut the throats of 128 people.

In the late 1800s, Orthodox monks in czarist Russia told of secret sacrifices, stirring hate that helped fuel later pogroms. In 1934, the German Nazi paper Der Sturmer inflamed passions by publishing a ghastly illustrated edition depicting Jews draining blood from the throats of innocent blonde children. In 1965 the Vatican finally ordered a halt to the “cult” of Simon of Trent. This was shortly after liberal Pope John XXIII ended church chants about “the perfidious Jews.”

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

Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 1 – Root Out Heretics

Secret Files of the Inquisition – Part 2 – Tears of Spain

Secret Files of the Inquisition – Part 3 – War on Ideas

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