In an address following the tragic shootings in Tucson earlier this month, Sarah Palin’s use of the phrase “blood libel” to describe the intentions of those linking the violence to political rhetoric drew swift criticism. Many took exception to her loose use of a term that refers to a very specific accusation against Jews that has a long history of painful employment. We asked Magda Teter, a professor of History and of Jewish Studies at Wesleyan University, to explain the history invoked by the term “blood libel.” Teter is the author of the forthcoming Sinners on Trial: Jews and Sacrilege after the Reformation. Her piece, below, gives much-needed historical context to this modern political moment.
When Sarah Palin used the term “blood libel” in response to the shooting in Arizona that left six people dead and severely injured others, including Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords, she stirred a controversy. To defend herself in the midst of the controversy, Palin defined the term “blood libel” very broadly as “being falsely accused of having blood on your hands.” Despite her broad definition, blood libel is a term that refers very specifically to the historical accusation that Jews killed Christian children to obtain their blood. A false accusation, to be sure, but one with a long and painful history, marking centuries of Jewish-Christian relations.
As an anti-Jewish accusation, the blood libel emerged in the Middle Ages, first in the twelfth century following the massacres of the First Crusade, when Jews were accused of an act of “ritual murder”: crucifying a Christian in enmity of Christianity and reenactment of the Passion of Jesus. But in the thirteenth century, “ritual murder” accusations turned into the “blood libel,” perhaps because of the increasing centrality of blood imagery in Christian ritual and worship at the time. In 1236, Jews in Fulda, Germany, were accused of killing several Christian children in order to collect their blood for medicinal purposes. Emperor Frederick II ordered an inquiry, which, of course, found no Jewish need for blood.
Still, many more such accusations took place, resulting in 1247 in a papal bull condemning “the unpraiseworthy zeal” and “detestable cruelty on the part of Christians” who had launched such accusations. The bull prohibited any similar charges against Jews under “ecclesiastical punishment without appeal.” Despite such strong condemnations, the accusation against Jews became an enduring transnational phenomenon, which lasted for over eight hundred years, from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries, and, as the Sarah Palin incident suggests, still has a resonance in the twenty-first. Other medieval anti-Jewish tales waned, such as that of the desecration of the host or poisoning of wells, but the blood libel adapted to changing cultural climates.
Indeed, Sarah Palin is not the first to use “blood libel” in a political context. Despite being condemned by popes and monarchs alike, “blood libels” against Jews can, in fact, be barometers of the reach and limits of the power and authority of European rulers, certainly in the premodern era, and can reflect cultural and political transformations of the society at large, since the efficacy of condemnations of such accusations were related to the power and influence of the individuals who issued them. Similarly, the way in which blood libels were used illustrates political aspirations of those who raised the charges.
In the premodern period the accusation was tinged with religious rhetoric, and sometimes religiously motivated political and economic goals. In the modern period, however, the blood libel acquired a more secular and even scientific meaning, often with racial connotations. But even in modern times, such accusations against Jews were not void of political goals. In the premodern period, political goals related to ritual murder and blood libel accusations may have been related to efforts to establish cult sites—as was the case in Trent in 1475, where a local bishop, Johannes Hinderbach, used the death of a child, Simon, to create and promote a new cult site. The case resulted in a protracted power struggle between the bishop and the papacy. Although in the immediate aftermath Pope Sixtus IV did not permit the establishment of the cult, in 1588 it was officially sanctioned by Pope Sixtus V, despite the still standing official condemnations of accusations against Jews by the Holy See.
Pope Sixtus V’s official sanction merely recognized facts on the ground—popular devotion to the Little Simon—and was strongly related to the profound crisis the Catholic Church was undergoing in the aftermath of the Reformation. The Church recognized the power of popular piety, and was loath to condemn popular, albeit problematic, cults. The immediate needs to strengthen the ranks of the Catholic Church took precedence over the centuries-old papal condemnations of blood libels against Jews. This sent a double message, leading many Catholics, including members of the clergy, to doubt that the popes had ever condemned accusations against Jews. It wasn’t until centuries later, in 1965, that the cult was suppressed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and its reassessment of the Church’s attitudes toward Jews following the Holocaust.
Despite papal efforts to the contrary, both the laity and the Catholic clergy continued to launch accusations of ritual murder or blood libel against Jews in areas far from direct papal influence. Poland (both premodern and contemporary), where immediate political and economic needs allowed for the exploitation of the anti-Jewish accusation, is a prime example. Most recently, in 1946 in Kielce, over 40 Jews were killed as a result of mob violence that was triggered by allegations that Jews had kidnapped a Christian boy to extract his blood. In a fragile political climate following World War II, neither the state nor the Church authorities condemned the violence, for fear of antagonizing a vast section of the Polish society. Politics, again, took precedence over moral condemnations of blood libels. And so, even if Palin has misused the term “blood libel,” as she claimed blood libel against herself, she has made for herself a place in a long history of the use of “blood libel” to achieve political goals.