‘Blood Libel,” a scholarly book on antisemitic atrocities during the late Middle Ages, is reviewed in the Sept. 23 issue of The New York Review of Books. One point in that review resonates today.
Blood libel refers to the belief that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood for sacramental purposes. That this idea is ludicrous on its face did not stop it from gaining widespread acceptance throughout the Middle Ages.
The scattered, usually small Jewish communities throughout Europe, were ordinarily protected by both papal and secular authorities. Jews paid taxes to the king while the papacy at that time had a policy of tolerance toward them. Consequently, the antisemitic incidents incited by a belief such as blood libel were contained as local aberrations.
But then one such incident would not be contained. In a northern Italian city of Trent in 1475, toward the end of the Middle Ages, Simon, a Christian toddler, went missing. Even before a body could be found, antisemitic rumors began to circulate. Then Simon’s body was discovered in a conduit near a house inhabited by Jews. A number of Jews were arrested, accused of murdering the toddler, an instance of the blood libel fantasy.
At that point, in the usual course of affairs, several outcomes would have ensued, ranging from the intervention of papal or secular authorities to dismiss the charges to the conviction and execution of a variable number of Jews in the area. And the incident would have receded into the background of history.
But this time, Johannes Hinderbach, an ambitious German speaking bishop, whose installation by the Holy Roman Emperor had been opposed by the Italian pope, seized the opportunity to secure and legitimize his position. To this end, he had his physician fabricate a report of the kidnapping, circumcision and crucifixion of the child, including how under torture the Jews admitted their guilt. Eight Jewish men were executed, and Jewish women and children were forced to convert. Hinderbach, again with the help of his physician, built on this beginning to establish a cult of “Simono,” ascribing to it various miracles
Pope Sixtus IV and the local duke, papal and secular authorities, condemned these proceedings. But these efforts to discredit Hinderbach and his cult of the “Little Simon” failed because the bishop countered with a successful media campaign, including poems and woodcuts depicting both the atrocities of the murder and the miracles wrought by Simon. Hinderbach’s success in promoting himself through Simon’s case would still have, in all probability, remained a local affair except for one additional factor.
The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450 made Hinderbach’s version of what had happened to Simon in that little, northern Italian town of Trent, widely available in books that spread quickly throughout Europe.
A technological invention explodes the transmission of dangerous misinformation — the printing press then, the internet and its social media now. In my lifetime, I have seen us move from a centralized media world wherein most people trusted Walter Cronkite and his ilk as sources of truth, to our present highly polarized media environment in which virtually anybody can create a platform, much as Hinderbach did more than 600 years ago, from which to sow discord and distrust.
Being convinced to subscribe to beliefs that defy common sense and empirical observation, such as those on which the blood libel is based, only requires a presentation by a skilled practitioner, a spokesperson such as the good bishop, who plants the seeds of misinformation into fertile soil from which can sprout millions of converts convinced that the misinformation is, in fact, true.
It all sounds too familiar.