Jewish ritual murder

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Anti-semetic image depicting the murder of a young boy by a group of Italian Jews, from a Latin edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle, first published in 1493. The view shows the ritual torture and murder of Simon of Trento [the Jews depicted all wear the yellow badge], born in Trento (Trient), Prince-Bishopric of Trent, Holy Roman Empire in 1472. At age three he was missing. His body was alledgedly found in a Jewish home in Trento. The boy's disappearance was blamed on the city's jewish communinity, whose leaders confessed a ritual murder under torture. This caused a major blood libel. Fifteen Jewish Trento citizens were sentenced to death and burned at stake. Hartmann Schedel’s "Liber Chronicarum: Das Buch der Croniken und Geschichten" (commonly referred to as the Nuremberg Chronicle, based upon the city of its publication), was the first secular book to include the style of lavish illustrations previously reserved for Bibles and other liturgical works. The work was intended as a history of the World, from Creation to 1493, with a final section devoted to the anticipated Last Days of the World. It is without question the most important illustrated secular work of the 15th Century and its importance rivals the early printed editions of Ptolemy's "Geographia" and Bernard von Breydenbach's "Perengrinatio in Terram Sanctam" in terms of its importance in the development and dissemination of illustrated books in the 15th Century. Published in Nuremberg by Anton Koberger, the book was printed in Latin and 5 months later in German (translated by George Alt), and enjoyed immense commercial success. A reduced size version of the book was published in 1497 in Augsburg by Johann Schonsperger.[1]

Simon was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church (veneration was permitted in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V). On 28 October 1965 (the same day as the publication of Nostra aetate by Pope Paul VI), archbishop of Trent Alessandro Maria Gottardi abolished the cult of Simon, and the yearly procession with his relics was suppressed. His relics, removed from their resting place in Saints Peter and Paul church in Trent upon the cult's suppression, were returned there in 2021, together with an exhibit about him curated by the Museo diocesano tridentino. In 2020, the Italian artist Giovanni Gasparro painted a depiction of Simon's death. He was afterwards, of course, accused of "Antisemitism" for this painting which sold to a private collector.

Jewish ritual murder is the alleged murder by a Jew or Jews for ritual purposes. Argued libelous allegations involving alleged use of blood from non-Jews are often termed blood libel (blood accusation).


Ritual Murder in Bavarian Localities (Blutzeugen)

Such allegations often rely on unreliable witnesses. See also Holocaust testimonial evidence and witch-hunt on the unreliability of witnesses for a wide variety of reasons.

The occurrence of the blood libel epitomizes some aspects of the nature of the Bolshevik experiment, and becomes an indicator of the limits (and triumphs) of the Soviet attempt to modernize society. Ritual murder accusations grew out of the power of slander and denunciatory frenzy that enveloped Soviet society. But the accusation also resulted from the encounter between Jews and peasants in the context of a system that violently promoted urbanization and new socioeconomic structures. The intensity of the anti-religious propaganda inadvertently played a role in maintaining this powerful anti-Jewish myth, as the attack on circumcision and kosher slaughtering reinforced anti-Jewish stereotypes. Finally, the transformation of ritual murder echoes the process of Jewish women’s empowerment: only in Soviet society could Jewish women become perpetrators of ritual murder.[2]

Regardless, several authors and books have argued for the reality of some incidents of Jewish ritual murder or some incidents of murders by Jews with ritualistic aspects (possibly by some religious extremist, occult/Kabbalah-influenced, anti-Gentile, and/or insane individuals). Some examples include My Irrelevant Defense: Meditations inside Gaol and Out on Jewish Ritual Murder (1938) by Arnold Leese and Jewish Ritual Murder: A Historical Investigation Hellmut Schramm (published in 1943 in National Socialist Germany).

Martyrdom of Michael of Sappenfeld (1540)

The boy Michael Bisenharter (42 months old; sometimes written Pisenharter) from Sappenfeld (near Eichstätt) was abducted by Jews in 1540 and tortured and killed by Jews in Titting (Altmühltal). Michael was beatified (seliggesprochen) by the Roman Catholic Church. In the second half of the 20th century, this case was classified a "blood libel legend", but for 500 years it was "the truth", a "fact". The most famous engraving of Michael was done by Dutch Flemish artist Raphael Sadeler the Younger.[3] Even today (2023), a panel painting of Michael can be seen in the Catholic Church "St. Sebastian und Anna" in Sappenfeld (Dorfstraße 23, 85132 Schernfeld).

Michael Pisenharter was three and a half years old when he was found dead in a forest near his home village of Sappenfeld in the diocese of Eichstätt, in 1540. As was the practice at the time, the Jewish community was immediately deemed responsible for the murder. This time, however, the authorities refused to pursue the inquiry any further. Otto Henry (1502–59), Count of Palatinate-Neuburg and prince-elector of the Palatinate, who had recently converted to Lutheranism, forbade Michael’s father from continuing the investigation and accusation. Otto Henry’s refusal to investigate the Jews caused a strong reaction in the community. As Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia demonstrates, the accusation that Michael of Sappenfeld had been the object of ritual murder emerged at a moment of scholarly debate on the veracity of blood libel accusation in mid-sixteenth century Germany. In fact, Michael’s legend was included in the Ains Judenbüchlins Verlegung, a systematic defense of blood libels published in 1541 by the Catholic theologian Johann Eck. 15 It was in this context that the murder ballad ‘Ein hübsch new lied von Zweyen Juden und einem Kind, zu Sappenfelt newlich geschehen’, illustrated with a woodcut and recounting the ritual crime, was printed and disseminated. The woodcut shows Michael tied to a column with his naked body covered in lacerations and is reminiscent of Christ’s flagellation. The boy is being tortured by a Jew recognizable by his caricaturized features. Despite Otto Henry’s rejection of the case, the child’s body was carried to the Jesuit church of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist and was displayed there as a martyr. Nevertheless, sources evince that the child’s shrine in Eichstätt received only temporary fame, and that his veneration was concentrated in the decades immediately following his death. The cult of Michael of Sappenfeld received new attention in the early seventeenth century with the inclusion of the story of the boy’s martyrdom in the large hagiographical compilation Bavaria Sancta, written by the Jesuit Matthäus Rader (ca 1561–1634). This richly illustrated hagiographical compilation was commissioned by Maximilian I Wittelsbach, Duke of Bavaria (r. 1597–1651), in 1614. It included saints, blesseds, and venerateds from the lands ruled by the dukes, but also from the terra Bavarica — nearby territories that had been part of the Bavarian patrimony in the early Middle Ages. The collection was first published in Latin, and later translated into German as Heiliges Bayerland. Based on a thorough use of primary sources, Rader reconstructed ancient and modern Bavarian sanctity to promote Catholic piety and to enhance Maximilian’s political aspirations. Four cases of alleged ritual murder of Bavarian children emphasized the compilation’s anti-Jewish leaning. In this context, it seems clear that part of Rader’s interest in the story of Michael of Sappenfeld was rooted in his interest in promoting local martyrs and specifically those connected with the Jesuit Order. The legend of the martyrdom of Michael of Sappenfeld was included in the third volume of Bavaria Sancta, published in 1627. Following the structure used throughout the compilation, his life was illustrated with a sheet-size copper engraving of his martyrdom. The engraving was done by Raphael Sadeler the Younger, possibly after sketches by the court painter Mathias Kager. The composition departs from the woodcut that illustrated the song ‘Ein hübsch’, and shows the boy tied with ropes to a column. This image does not conform to Michael’s legend, as his proportions are those of a ten- or twelve-year-old boy, whereas Michael was three and a half at the time of his death. Moreover, the wounds are represented in a very distinctive way. The mutilation of the hands and feet are anatomically unrealistic, as is the blood that pours from them. Elegiac couplets at the bottom of the page praising Michael and establishing analogies between Jews and beasts complete Sadeler’s engraving. All in all, this image appears as a recreation of the legend of Michael’s martyrdom according to visual conventions of early seventeenth-century art, which are used throughout this compilation. And yet, Rader’s account of Michael of Sappenfeld’s martyrdom is quite different from that of the lives of most saints and blessed people, and quite different from that of the victims of ritual murder.
Rader did not present Michael’s life following the usual succession of anti-Jewish tropes and rhetorical strategies, but instead relied on a long, detailed, and documented account of the purported historical facts surrounding the boy’s murder. In the margins and throughout the text, Rader points out that his study is based on manuscripts, poems (probably including the ballad ‘Ein hübsch’), legal documents preserved in the archive of Eichstätt, and on Eck’s study of the blood libel accusation. Rader further emphasizes the historical authority of his sources by pointing out that Eck himself had obtained forensic information on Michael’s body from the physicians and surgeons involved in the case. As we shall see in what follows, this emphasis on forensic truth is also present in a second engraving of Michael of Sappenfeld included in Rader’s work. In the fourth volume of Rader’s hagiographical compilation, entitled Bavaria Pia and finished in 1628 (though published only in 1704), an image of Michael’s wounded corpse engraved by Sadeler the Younger is included as an appendix. This image of Michael is radically different from the one included in the third volume of Bavaria Sancta. Before delving into the reasons that led to the creation of this image, let’s take a closer look at what it represents. Michael’s corpse is shown against a black background, and his proportions correspond to those of a toddler. His eyes are closed, and his open mouth shows a faint smile. In this depiction, the wounds are carefully delineated and correspond to those described by Rader as per Eck’s firsthand forensic information. Michael has a cross-shaped wound on his right shoulder, orderly prick wounds on his stomach, legs, and feet, and various parts of his body have been flayed. The inscription below emphasizes the truth conveyed in this image. Instead of the couplets that accompany the rest of the engravings, Rader included the following sentence: ‘The image and proportions of the holy child’s body, who was savagely tortured and killed in Hietingen by the Jews when he was three years and six months old, reduced here to a ninth of its actual size’. A measurement line indicating the exact proportion of Michael’s body is engraved between the image and the inscription, allowing future replications of the boy’s image to be made according to his actual size. This engraving is meant to be a forensic presentation of the holy body, Michael’s true image. The purported forensic quality of the child’s image filters through Christological imagery, in this case the Man of Sorrows. This allusion was a common visual strategy used by artists to increase the perceived holiness of the alleged martyrs of ritual infanticide. A physician’s intervention can be found in the representation of Michael’s corpse. In the text placed just above the engraving, Rader writes: ‘The image and measures of this child’s holy body have been sent to me from Eichstätt by the most noble and excellent Dr. Thomas Thiermair, physician’. A resident of Munich, Thiermair was particularly interested in venesection, phlebotomy, and other medical areas related to veins and blood. In his dissertation, published in 1608, he even paid close attention to the practice of phlebotomy on the bodies of children. Thiermair’s involvement in the hagiography of Michael of Sappenfeld was no coincidence as his family had been closely involved in the accusation of ritual murder against the Jews in Michael’s case. Thiermair’s grandfather was the secretary and notary for Eichstätt’s bishop for twenty years, which likely coincided with the years in which the boy’s body was found. Though Rader does not elaborate on this fact any further, it is possible that Thiermair’s grandfather was personally involved in the early stages of the blood libel accusation. What is certain is that his uncle Hildebrand Thiermair was one of the fiercest prosecutors of the Jews in this case. In fact, the Count Palatine condemned Hildebrand for writing a poem in which he accused the Jews of Michael’s death and, according to Rader, the count even commanded that Hildebrand’s tongue be cut off. Without additional evidence, it is impossible to know if Thiermair reconstructed Michael’s body from Eck’s description or if he copied it from an existing image. However, the obvious stylistic difference between the engraving included in the third volume of Bavaria Sancta and the engraving of Michael’s corpse in the Bavaria Pia strongly suggests that the latter was engraved after a drawing made by the physician Thiermair, and not after sketches of Bavarian court artists. [...] The image of the wounded corpse was key evidence of the ritual crime, and thus proof of Michael of Sappenfeld’s sanctity.[4]

21st century

In 2007, Ariel Toaff, an Israeli university professor, controversially published Passovers of Blood: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders' (Pasque di sangue. Ebrei d'Europa e omicidi rituali) where he made claims argued to support some of the claims related to Jewish ritual murder, causing great controversy. A week after its publication, Ariel Toaff withdrew the book from circulation, in order to "re-edit the passages which comprised the basis of the distortions and falsehoods that have been published in the media". The revised book was republished the following year.

See also

External links

Ariel Toaff


Older writings


  1. Murder of Simon of Trento
  2. Elissa Bemporad: How the Ritual Murder Accusation Persisted in the Soviet Landscape, in "Legacy of Blood – Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets, Chapter 4, Oxford University Press (2019)
  3. Raphael Sadeler II (1584–1632), Flemish engraver; son of Raphael I; brother of Jan II and Philip. Born and died in Antwerp; 1601-1604 in Venice; thenceforth in Munich.
  4. Dr. Cloe Cavero de Carondelet: Wounds on Trial – Forensic Truth, Sanctity, and the Early Modern Visual Culture of Ritual Murder, Chiara Franceschini, SACRIMA 1 (Turnhout, 2021), pp. 71–74