Blood Libel and Saint Simon of Trent 1475

St Simon of Trent Allegedly Murdered by Jews

The case of Simon of Trent highlights Catholic Europe’s erroneous belief in blood libel that asserts the use of Christian blood in Jewish religious rituals.

The Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of Saint Simon of Trent every March 24th. Simon was two and a half years old when his body was discovered in a ditch near the homes of Trent’s small Jewish population. The “martyrdom” of Simon is one of the best examples of blood libel, the belief that Jews kidnapped children in order to use their blood during important religious rituals.

Although stories of blood libel had circulated throughout Europe in the Middle Ages for centuries, the case of the Trent murder was highly pursued at the top levels of Church leadership and served to rekindle virulent anti-Semitism throughout Europe.

Jews Considered Enemies of the Church

The story of Simon’s disappearance and death took place in 1475 in Trent, a city in the Holy Roman Empire linking Italy with Southern Germany. The events took place at a time the Catholic Church was reasserting power and social control, following a long period of internal schism and leadership turmoil that began in the 14th Century with the Avignon papacy. The Council of Constance, which resulted in the restoration of papal authority under Pope Martin V, was still a vivid memory in 1475.

Within this climate, the events in Trent permitted the Church to renew more vigorously persecution of non-Catholic groups such as the Hussites in Bohemia and other heretics that dared to challenge the official positions of Catholic beliefs.

These enemies of the faith included the Jews, often labeled infidels. This was not a new development. Historian R. Po-chia Hsia, in his book Trent 1475, writes that, “The blood libel against the Jews of Trent…was neither the first nor the last in a long series of anti-Jewish charges in European history.”

During the outbreak of Bubonic Plague in the 14th Century, for example, Christians blamed the Jews, setting off another round of charges involving blood libel. Nachum T. Gidal, formerly a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, states, “Once again Jews were the scapegoat…”

Confession of the Jews at Trent Obtained by Torture

When thorough investigations were made, the Jews were exonerated. During the Crusades, the Church opposed the persecution of Jews. In an early 13th Century case of blood libel, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II declared that the accusations were lies. R. Po-chia Hsia draws an analogy to the persecution of witches. The Malleus Maleficarum, for example, was published in 1486 and began an extended period of witch hunting and persecution.

This persecution, like the one against the Jews, was also built on the false assumption that actual covens existed that practiced diabolical rites. In his study of the benandanti, Carlo Ginzburg demonstrates that the presumptions drawn by the Church in the late Middle Ages regarding witchcraft were based on rumor and popular fears. Witches that confessed did so under torture. There was no organized, under-ground society of witches.

It was also torture that led to the confessions in Trent in 1475. The Trent Jews testified that they had found the body but they were arrested nonetheless and subjected to torture. This eliminated any prospects of due process. The confessions further consolidated the power of Trent’s prince-bishop Johannes Hinderbach, who would spend the rest of his life pursuing the canonization of young Simon.

Impact of the Term Blood Libel on Jews and Historians

The term “blood libel” has found its way back into the American vernacular in large part because of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s use of the term on January 12, 2011. In a video and on her Facebook Notes, Palin referred to “journalists and pundits” manufacturing a blood libel. Members of the Jewish community were outraged. Blood libel is a cogent reminder of centuries of rabid persecution, culminating in the Holocaust.

Beyond the insensitivity of using such a term inappropriately, there is the danger of revisionism. In this case, redirecting the meaning and focus of “blood libel” detracts from the historical record and runs the risk of trivializing the horrific acts of the past. The same can be said, for example, of terms like “survivor,” when discussing World War II.

Understanding Jewish Rituals and Practices

Few members of Europe’s intelligentsia made efforts to understand Jewish beliefs and practices. The common notion that Jews were the killers of Christ and that their rituals were conducted behind closed doors gave rise to blood libel as well as other accusations. But it was Christians who ostracized Jews, forcing them to live apart from Christians. Additionally, the Church made every effort to forcibly convert Jews. The Reformer Martin Luther urged that Jewish children be taken from their homes, placed with Christian families, and raised as Christians. One of his final works was Against the Jews and Their Lies (1543).

The 1475 Trent case centering on young Simon was only one example of the application of blood libel against the Jews. But its notoriety produced a plethora of stories, some shared under oath at the trial in 1475, of secret Jewish blood rituals tied to missing Christian children. Blood libel is a painful term and using it outside of the historical context is like scratching an old wound.