Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

The Sainted Toddler Who Sparked a Pogrom

Detail, woodcut of Simon of Trent, 1607.

Part XXVII in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Bianca Lopez. You can find the rest of the special series here

On the sixth of July, 1475, Cristoforo di Leonardo journeyed southward from his town of Termeno, in Northern Italy. He was going to the cathedral of Trent, because Cristoforo thought he was going to die, and was seeking help. Cristoforo had gotten into a fight with two of his neighbors. They stabbed him, threw him on the ground, hit him with a chunk of wrought iron, and left him for dead. The doctor had amputated three of his fingers, but the wound never fully recovered.

Cristoforo, like many medieval people in dire circumstances, prayed for help. He prayed to the little martyr Simon of Trent, and made a pilgrimage to Simon’s home town. Once there, Cristoforo bought an enormous candle, as heavy and tall as Cristoforo himself, to be given to the little saint. And as it turns out, Cristoforo did not die; after making his supplication to Simon, he emerged from his bed completely healed. Everyone who saw him proclaimed his sudden recovery a miracle, attributed to the little boy who had been murdered by the Jews.

Let’s rewind a bit. In 1475, in the city of Trent, located in a southern Alpine region in modern-day Italy, the body of a two-year-old Christian boy was allegedly found in the cellar of a local Jewish elder. Within hours, authorities under the command of the city’s bishop-prince, Johannes Hinderbach, arrested twenty-three Jewish men and women. They constituted almost half of the Trentine Jewish community. While the Jewish prisoners awaited sentencing, the little boy who was found dead, known as Simon, almost instantaneously became venerated as a Christian martyr. Trent’s residents became convinced that their Jewish neighbors killed Simon and used his blood to make Passover matzot—what we now call the “blood libel”. In the end, eight of those convicted were executed by hanging, despite a written warning from Pope Sixtus IV himself to Bishop Hinderbach ordering him to cease all legal proceedings against the city’s Jewish community. And it only got worse from there.

The Anti-Semitic Template

To twenty-first-century observers, this story seems to be a tragic example of typical medieval anti-Semitism. However, accusations of ritual murder directed towards Europe’s Jews did not appear out of nowhere. Preachers and princes fanned the fire of anti-Semitism in the later Middle Ages, causing relatively peaceful relationships between Christians and Jews to turn deadly. By doing so, Christian religious and civic leaders created a template for hatred Jews and encouraged ordinary people to participate in the spread of hate. This template belonged to a very deliberate project to turn people against minorities. Cultural historians have revealed the motifs of the ritual murder accusation narrative. Indeed, the narrative appears again and again across Europe at the end of the fifteenth century, with only slight variations. But how could a narrative inspire Christians to accuse their neighbors of murder? What convinced the Christians of Trent that Simon died as a holy martyr—not just the victim of an unfortunate accident, whose body was planted in the cellar of a Jewish resident?

The answers to these questions can be found in the ways that Christianity was practiced at the end of the European Middle Ages. Between 1300 and 1500, cities became increasingly socially fragmented and chaotic places. This had devastating consequences for European Jews. The bubonic plague continued to kill urban dwellers after 1348, and warfare and rebellion became the norm. Economic competition between those who had resources and those who did not turned people against each other. Through it all, many city mayors and magistrates forced Jewish communities into a serf-like role; Jewish householders were forced to pay exorbitant taxes to fund wars and to make up for local economic losses accrued through the labor force dying off from plague or war.

Not only that, but Jews also had financial obligations to the Holy Roman Emperors and the popes, who promised to “protect” Jewish communities from local persecution. Jews were forced into undesirable occupations that Christians either could or would not perform, such as money lending. This, as we explored in a previous article, naturally led to accusations of usury and violence.

In northern Italy and southern Germany, Christians regularly turned on their Jewish neighbors. Many of these incidents can be traced to the people being whipped into a frenzy by traveling preachers. As a result, over this time, Christian practices such as celebration of feast days, devotions to saints, pilgrimages, and fulfillment of sacraments like baptism and confession began to incorporate anti-Jewish elements. In certain locales, anti-Judaism even came to define what it meant to be Christian.

An Anti-Jewish Saint

Trent’s Christian residents directed an overwhelming amount of religious devotion towards Simon because they were convinced that he had been ritually murdered by Jews. After his death, supporters of the little martyr treated him as a saint, a soul that had ascended immediately to heaven after death. Local church officials accommodated, and even encouraged, the enthusiastic supporters that greeted those who venerated him (which historians typically call a “cult”). When the city’s priests prepared Simon’s body for the grave, they dressed the deceased in ornate funerary clothes and surrounded his body with sweet-smelling herbs. Most importantly, they made it accessible for city dwellers to visit and pray over in the local cathedral. As a result, the cathedral where his body was placed quickly became a site of local pilgrimage. In the months following his death, church notaries recorded hundreds of miracles—out of which over 200 survive—giving testimony to the enthusiasm for Simon’s worship that spread through Trent, and beyond to its mountainous hinterland.

However, Simon did not appeal to all local Christians in equal numbers. According to the miracle accounts, devotees of Simon tended to be male and Italian-speaking, even though Trent was primarily German-speaking. For instance, out of the first thirty-eight miracles recorded, Italian men from as far away as southern Italy reported the first twenty-eight. So for news of Simon’s saintly power to have that reach, it must have travelled through male networks: merchant affiliations and lay religious brotherhoods. This is the epidemiology of anti-Jewish hatred.

Pilgrimage and Religious Enthusiasm

Many of the men—and the fewer women—who travelled to Trent did so to try to get relief from a myriad of physical maladies. Some had been injured and feared imminent death, like Cristoforo at the beginning of this article. Others were paralyzed and hoped to miraculously walk. Some were blind. Some had broken bones. All of them came seeking help from a boy who had allegedly been murdered by the Jews.

Spontaneous healing attributed to a saint’s intercession was common in late-medieval Europe. Often a sick person’s last recourse was a prayer and some sort of material offering to a beloved, and usually long-dead, patron saint of one’s family or town. If the supplicant were healed, naturally, it would then be conserved a miracle attributed to the saint. This is a sort of a holy quid pro quo—pilgrims would give saints, like Simon of Trent, a gift in the hopes that those saints would intercede on the pilgrims’ behalf.  If a pilgrim was healed, that only helped further cement a saint’s reputation.

In one example, Margherita, a woman from a town near Verona, travelled to Trent by foot in the hopes that Simon would heal her hernia. Fighting through immense physical pain, she made the overnight journey northward to the Alps and slept at Trent cathedral. One morning she awoke and her hernia was gone. She left her crutches behind as a sign of thanks, and returned home.

Interactions with the Simon even took place unconsciously, while the supplicant was deep in prayer or asleep. One military doctor from southern Italy came to Trent suffering from immense pain. He described the miraculous intervention:

“Sleeping, [the doctor] saw in a dream a boy that touched him on the right side and removed his pain and waking he found that he was cured. Thanking the martyr, he made his way to Trent…” [My translation. Unedited sources, state archives, Trent.]

Such accounts were repeated again and again. Bishop Hinderbach’s officials carefully recorded every word.

Andreas Caranti, Martirio del Beato Simonino, Trent, ca. 1475. Click to enlarge.

Intercessory healing was not the only heavenly quid pro quo—and so pilgrimages and saints became big business in the Middle Ages. Pilgrims frequently would give a saint’s church expensive candles, oils, food, or money. By giving a gift, people felt they were entering into a relationship with a saint—one which, of course, they believed to be two-sided. In turn, the saint was believed to listen to prayers and requests and grant them. By the late Middle Ages, the church, especially in urban areas, was heavily bound up in the “saint relationship” economy.

Every pilgrim who came to the cathedral in Trent left something in thanks. Most gifts were inexpensive. But some of Simon’s patrons orchestrated grander gestures, such as public works of art and altarpieces for churches. One example, a monumental stone carving was commissioned depicting Simon’s supposed martyrdom; it was sculpted by Andreas Caranti and placed in the middle of the city in Piazza Salvadori, on a crowded residential street, where it hangs today. The carving dates to 1476, while the Jews of Trent still sat in jail awaiting their fate a year after the boy’s death. The carving depicts the story of the moment of Simon’s death. Obviously, this is not how it actually happened—the depiction is clearly meant to draw a link between Simon’s death and the old anti-Semitic chestnut that the Jews killed Christ.

The Tinderbox Ignites

Accusations against Jews of ritually murdering Christians also occurred in other parts of the Alps; these were often linked to the events in Trent. For example, under torture, a Jewish painter named Israel broke down and “confessed” to Trent’s mayor that that Jews from Regensburg, Bavaria, also used blood from Christian boys to make matzoh. Upon hearing this, Bishop Hinderbach wrote to the Bishop of Regensburg, who promptly rounded up the Jewish community of that city. The men and women of the Jewish community of Regensburg were tortured and executed in 1476.

The accusation in Regensburg had extra force since not only were ordinary Christians convinced

Giovanni Pietro da Cemmo, San Simonino, Brescia, ca. 1475. Click to enlarge.

of supposed Jewish evil (as happened in Trent), it was actively promoted by the religious and imperial authorities of that city. The Christians of Regensburg embraced the anti-Semitic narrative as part of their local devotions. Spontaneous pilgrimages to the cathedral occurred; word spread to nearby valleys. Votive gifts were given to the cathedral, and paintings of the—completely fictional—little Christian martyrs of Regensburg were given as tokens of devotion and to incur favor from these new saints.

And then another domino fell: the Jews of Regensburg “confessed” under torture that the Jews of Passau, another Bavarian town, stole the host from the city’s cathedral, desecrated it for their amusement, and plotted to kill Christian boys. The story metastasized, and accusations across the Alps led to the persecution of one urban Jewish community after another, all within a twenty-year time frame.

Resisting the Spread of Hate

But not all cities in the region were convinced by the ritual murder narrative, or even by the story of Simon of Trent. Christian Venetians, for example, did not venerate Simon; anti-Judiasm in general does not seem to have infected their local Christianity. The Doge of Venice condemned Simon’s cult and forbade any resident to construct a shrine to him within the city, or in any of Venice’s tributary towns. In the city of Rovereto, the doge’s officials outlawed devotions to Simon with the following decree:

“Under the protection of the most illustrious lordship of the doge of Venice, where justice was and would always be dispensed, where innocent people are not killed, where Christians do not plunder Jews, as it was in Trent.” [translation by historian Ronnie Po-chia Hsia]

Venetian ducal leadership successfully quelled the cult’s spread and prohibited the institutionalization of anti-Jewish saints. In so doing, they protected their local Jewish communities. The Jews of Venice remained under the protection of the doge while those to the north faced the torture chamber and the hangman’s noose.

In the end, what warped the minds of late medieval Christians to the point where ordinary Jewish people became a monolithic enemy of Christ? Some of it can be attributed to the distrust of others that came after the onslaught of plagues, fears about the end of the world fueled by itinerant preachers, and increased population density in central European cities. Yet, the rise of the ritual murder narrative, which began as a rumor and developed into a parable used by preachers, ended up as a legally-binding accusation. The accusation, in its final form, had enormous influence on Christian devotional practice, which made the narrative so compelling to ordinary people. And it linked neatly with the powerful economic interests of the Church by establishing lucrative local saints.

Trent’s Jews, a minority group that practiced a different faith, but who celebrated marriages and funerals with their Christian neighbors were transformed into an abstract evil presence poisoning European cities. In this case, the wheels of “progress” did not save Trent’s Jews. In the age of the Renaissance, Christian rulers and their subjects targeted minorities more than in earlier medieval centuries. Acting on false righteousness, the Christian majority spread hate and justified it through religious means, destroying lives and creating a system that perpetuated a cycle of violence for the next hundred years.

Epilogue: Rejecting the Project of Hate

Ordinary Christians in Trent did not initially hate their Jewish neighbors. That result only came after many years of anti-Jewish preaching and political machinations on the part of the Bishop of Trent and his advisers. When the authorities found little Simon stabbed to death in a Jewish man’s cellar, all of the groundwork had already been laid to immediately accuse the Jews of ritual murder.

We can learn something from this horrifying episode. We need to better recognize the signs of a template that might turn us against each other. Persecutions and pogroms do not come out of nowhere: politicians, religious leaders, and other hate-peddling zealots set the stage for persecutory violence through propaganda and cultural dogwhistles. Unlike Trent’s Christians, we can say no to those who might provoke animosities by refusing to accept the project of hate. We must.

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Bianca Lopez

The author Bianca Lopez

Bianca Lopez is currently assistant professor of medieval and Renaissance history at Southern Methodist University. Her research specialties are in the cult of the Virgin Mary, exclusion and inclusion, and late medieval economic behaviors. She is working on a project that charts the exclusion and exile of Slavic and Albanian laborers from Italy after the Black Death, and the spread of nativism in Italian cities. You can follow her work at https://smu.academia.edu/BiancaLopez