The Origins of the Blood Libel

A new book traces the roots of the lie that even today supplies anti-Semites their rationale.

From the cover of Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth by Magda Teter.

From the cover of Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth by Magda Teter.

June 2 2020
About the author

Avi Woolf is an editor and translator residing in Israel. His Twitter handle is @AviWoolf.

A Christian child has gone missing or been found dead. Rumors start to fly thick and fast about the guilt of the neighboring community, strange people known for their demonic customs. They “obviously” kidnapped the child to do horrible things to him—maybe even to draw out his blood to drink it. A local official hears these rumors and arrests many members of the accused community to put them on trial for their crimes, subjecting them to horrible torture to get them to confess—while the other members of the community race to stop the proceedings before the imprisoned die in jail or are convicted of the insane charges.

It sounds like a somewhat hackneyed plot from The Twilight Zone, or a badly written political allegory. But it was the lived reality—and terrifying fear—of Jews across Europe for the better part of a thousand years, from the time of the Crusades until just after the Shoah. Until the  modern era, “blood libel” was the most powerful and dangerous of anti-Jewish accusations.

How did this accusation even come to be, let alone come to be widely repeated? How is it that even literate and educated people came to believe, or at least consider possible, such outrageous falsehoods? And how were the Jews able to fight against it, if at all?

Magda Teter seeks to answer these questions in her new book Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth. Teter, a professor of history and Judaic studies at Fordham University, relies heavily on primary sources, and also draws on a wide range of scholarship, including some of the most recent, thorough work on blood-libel trials (such as that of Penn State historian R. Po-Chia Hsia). She carefully reconstructs the origins and eastward spread of the blood libel from Western Europe through Italy and Germany to the East European lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.


Teter’s wrenching book tells a knotty story of how legal assumptions about guilt and innocence, blind trust in the authority of chronicles and local traditions, and the spread of new technologies turned an idea that contradicted reason and Jewish sources into “common knowledge.”

There were no blood libels against Jews prior to the 11th century; even in that century they were few and far between. The earliest accusation of Jewish murder of Christian children for which documentation survives didn’t even mention blood and, as Teter notes, it

led to [the] rise of a local cult, but it survived only in a few mentions in monastic chronicles and in one elaborate narrative of [the deceased child’s] “life and passion” written as a document advocating for his sainthood. This longer narrative, however, lay forgotten until the 19th century, when it was rediscovered and printed.

This is not to say that other kinds of accusations against Jews didn’t proliferate. There were claims that Jews poisoned wells. There were claims that they wished to desecrate and violate holy relics or the transubstantiated body of Jesus. But the notion that Jews wished to kill children for their blood on Passover was rare—until the 1475 accusations in the north Italian city of Trent:

The death of a toddler named Simon, whose body was found in a canal under a Jewish house in Trent during the Easter-Passover season in March 1475, unleashed a chain of events that would eventually lead to the end of papal protection of Jews against blood accusations. The unusually lengthy and uniquely well-documented trial that followed Simon’s death led to the arrest, torture, and execution of nearly all the male Jews of the tiny Jewish community of Trent and, by 1478, the conversion of its women and children, ultimately ending the Jewish presence in Trent for centuries.

The Jews were quick to report the discovery of the boy’s body to the authorities, but the suspicion very quickly fell on them. Although “the body was retrieved fully dressed, there were apparently wounds underneath the clothing,” Teter writes, and they supposedly “emitted blood when Jews were present, a proof, it was believed, of Jews’ culpability in the boy’s death.” That the suspects vehemently denied the accusations prior to their being repeatedly tortured mattered not at all.

In a fictionalized, Hollywood version of the story, those fighting for justice would eventually be able to get some high authority, perhaps even a king or the pope, to step in and bring an end to the outrages. The bad guys would even get their comeuppance.

But in Trent, the bad guys won again and again. Complicated medieval rules of jurisdiction allowed Trent’s prince-bishop, Johaness Hinderbach, to dominate the proceedings, prevent the pope and secular rulers from intervening in the trial, and ensure that his own damning account of the libel would be widely known in culture and legal records.

Time and again, the Jews of Trent appealed, at great cost and effort, to anyone they could think of to help their community—all to no avail. Not only were the “perpetrators” “punished,” but Hinderbach’s efforts—he ran what Teter characterizes as a “massive public-relations campaign”—helped to ensure this would remain not a local, isolated story, but a continent-wide one. The Trent affair resulted in “the cult of ‘Little Simon,’ or Simonino, which gave birth to a lengthy documentary, literary, iconographic, and legal legacy. The existence and dissemination of Simon’s story and cult helped further reinforce European Christians’ belief that Jews murdered Christian children.”

Icons of Simon and paintings graphically depicting his “martyrdom” went up in churches across Europe. After Trent came a “flurry of incendiary literature and copycat accusations.” The Jews of Europe endured horrible abuse in retribution for the calumny invented by their accusers.

The imagined mutilation of children by hated neighbors was repaid severalfold in the all-too-real exacting of an eye for an eye. In one 1598 case in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, three accused Jews “were waterboarded, including with vodka, then shaved, stretched on the rack, and their skin burned.” One of them agreed to convert to Christianity “in hopes of being spared, but when he learned he would still have to die but as a Christian, he balked.” A century and a half later, in 1747 in the same realm, “eight Jews were sentenced to what the court termed ‘the most serious and cruel punishment,’ which included live impaling, flaying, quartering alive, and on one instance the removal of a heart.” Readers of Teter’s book require a strong tolerance for such grim accounts.


Perhaps Teter’s most valuable insight is that the blood libel was not primarily a medieval story. It was an early modern one. Most of the trials mentioned in Teter’s book occurred from the 15th century onward—which is to say, after the spread of the printing press in Europe. Printing is usually praised uncritically as a tool of enlightenment (indeed, of the Enlightenment) in Europe, but it also facilitated the spread of blood libels.

It would be wrong to think that blood libels were the lot of illiterate commoners living near Jews and that educated intellectuals would know better. Sometimes they did, but as Teter notes, sometimes they didn’t. In fact, the commoners knew more than they’ve been credited with: Christians who lived alongside Jews for long enough often knew their neighbors well enough to know when accusers were spouting nonsense about them. But it’s different when your knowledge of Jews comes more from books supposedly providing the facts. Much like the Internet today, each book copied from another, relying on “historical evidence” in the form of uncritical copying of chronicles or the prosecutors’ version of blood-libel stories. “Whom should Christians trust: the esteemed Christian scholars” propagating the lies “or the Jews and their defenders? Rumors and lore became ‘facts’ once they entered reputable printed books.”

And then they were believed. The 17th-century jurist Hugo Grotius was the author of important works on natural law—works that helped to strengthen the idea of a degree of equality among people regardless of religion or culture—and has known renown for his work even till today. You might think someone like him would be among the first to reject the blood-libel nonsense, not least because, as the historian Arthur Eyffinger has demonstrated, Hebraic ideas and texts inspired so much of Grotius’ own work.

Nevertheless, when it came not to Jewish ideas but to the Jews themselves, he equivocated. Teter relates:

Even an erudite scholar like Grotius, a champion against torture, could not discount historical books that presented example after example of “what the Jews . . . did.” And even though he conceded that “among the Dutch, Jews have not been suspected of such atrocities,” he suggested this was so “either because, treated more mildly, they become milder too, or they are recent immigrants who live carefully.” But turning to stories found in historical chronicles, Grotius added, “Certainly, it was not for frivolous reasons that they were expelled long ago from the entire Netherlands, no less than from France, to say nothing of Spain, where I do not deny they were treated unfairly.”

If the whole world hates you, they must have some reason.

Of course, Europe’s Jews did not just all lie down and take it. They stood ready, whenever accusations were made, to appeal to higher secular or religious authorities who usually conceded that blood libels were entirely contrary to Jewish law and tradition and helped get prisoners released. Sephardi Jews especially published thundering defenses against blood libels and other anti-Semitic accusations, which formed a foundation of refutation that later generations were able to cite and build upon.

Christian scholars increasingly familiar with Jewish sources and languages, including those not very favorable to Jews as a whole, tended to reject blood libels as nonsense based on their own studies. The senior leaders of the Catholic Church generally played a positive role in condemning the concept—although, as Teter explains, the story is complicated and the Jews sometimes had enemies even at those levels of religious authority.

Sometimes the Jews’ efforts worked, and the accused were released or left alone. Sometimes, help came too late to save those languishing in prison. In the end, according to Teter, the decline of blood-libel trials in the modern era can be attributed to gradual changes to legal norms and shared cultural beliefs. These included: the increasing rejection of using torture to extract confessions of guilt, the growing presumption of innocence advocated by Enlightenment-inspired thinkers in the second half of the 18th century, the “good-government” legal culture of places like Italy from centuries before that, and more widespread familiarity with the actual customs of contemporary Jews. Despite these welcome changes, belief in the horrible myth never entirely disappeared.


While painstaking and meticulous in its treatment of the blood libel in the medieval and early modern periods, Teter’s book is too rushed in its coverage of the libel in the 19th and 20th centuries. Teter carefully explains how the libel survived among some Catholics for various reasons and died among Protestants, but gives us little explanation as to why it spread throughout the Russian Orthodox-dominated Russian empire or what role was played by modern secular state education and literary culture. While she alludes to the same mechanism that caused the blood libel to spread in the first place—a reliance on older sources and confirmation bias, with literary culture and books copying off earlier works “proving” the blood libel and confirming existing biases—it would have been good if Teter had analyzed this more deeply. After all, if blood libels in the period covered by most of the book involved trials, libels in the modern era contributed to riots and pogroms and the Holocaust.

The lessons from Teter’s book are sobering, even depressing. All the detailed, scholarly rebuttals in the world did not stop even “educated” and “enlightened” people from believing, or at least being willing to believe, a horrible fantasy that fit what they believed could be true—just as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that “warrant for genocide,” as the scholar Norman Cohn called it, continues to sell despite having been exposed as a lazy forgery long ago.

At least one great Jewish leader in modern times understood this dynamic and its tragic reality: the Revisionist-Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky.

Contrary to the Jewish approach so meticulously documented by Teter—of advocacy and pleading with the “sensible” segment of the non-Jewish population—Jabotinsky considered such efforts not only pointless but also beneath the dignity of a proud nation that should see itself as standing among equals. As he put it an article written around the time of one of the last formal legal blood-libel inquiries, the infamous 1911-1913 arrest and trial of Mendel Beilis in the Russian empire:

The masses do not listen to these arguments and pay them no attention. Their reaction to the long list of “not guilty” verdicts is that the Jews have suborned the courts. Their reaction to the long list of texts forbidding the use of blood is that one additional text permits it—and that’s the one you’ve refused to cite. The whole train of argumentation disappears into the void, like water from a leaky bucket. . . .

How much longer will this go on? Tell me, my friends, are you not tired by now of this rigmarole? Isn’t it high time, in response to all of these accusations, rebukes, suspicions, smears, and denunciations—both present and future—to fold our arms over our chests and loudly, clearly, coldly, and calmly put forth the only argument which this public can understand: why don’t you all go to hell?

What kind of people are we that we have to justify ourselves before them? And who are they to demand it of us? What is the point of this whole comedy of putting an entire people on trial when the verdict is known in advance? How does it benefit us to participate voluntarily in this comedy, to brighten up these villainous and humiliating proceedings with our speeches for the defense?

Our defense is useless and hopeless, our enemies will not believe it, and apathetic people will pay no attention to it. The time for apologies is over.

More than anything, Zionism was for Jabotinsky not about “eliminating” anti-Semitism but standing up to it. As the Israeli satirist Efraim Kishon put it, the point of Israel was not to end anti-Semitism, it was to tell anti-Semites to go jump in a lake.

The state of Israel does indeed serve today as both a refuge and a source of support and pride for Jews everywhere; it is not for nothing that there was such an outpouring of support for Israel among Jews from all over in the wake of the great show of Jewish strength in the Six-Day War, even among those who intended to remain within their countries in the Diaspora. But there is nevertheless very little that can be done to stop poisonous false beliefs from spreading outside the Jewish state—aside from fighting them wherever they show up.

And show up they do. Belief in the blood libel or in variants of it has not disappeared; it’s just mostly moved house from Jews at large to the Jewish state, which is now regularly and libelously accused of, for instance, stealing the organs of Palestinians and burying them alive by everyone and everything from the leadership of the Palestinian Authority to community newspapers in Toronto. The canonical version survives, too; an Egyptian scholar recently claimed on television that Orthodox Jews use blood to make matzah. And lately Jews everywhere have been accused of harboring and spreading the coronavirus.

So the task of fighting libel, or at least not bowing before it, goes on. It is not and probably never will be final, and therefore the best that can be hoped for are local and temporary victories for truth. That makes the task no less vital; it is, after all, a matter of life and death.

More about: Anti-Semitism, Blood libel, History & Ideas