Object of the Semester – Winter Semester 2021/22

The Trent Ritual Murder Accusation (1475) and Its Consequences

Angelika Königseder/Carl-Eric Linsler

In 1989, the Vatican declared that “there was never any Jewish ritual murder.”[1] The very fact that this obvious truth still bore repeating at the close of the 20th century shows the longevity and momentous significance of this absurd charge of supposed ritual murder of Christian children, underscoring its impact, past and present, on the Jewish community.
The first medieval ritual murder legend emerged in 1144 in the English city of Norwich and spread from there across Western Europe to German-speaking lands and northern Italy;[2] by the 16th century it had also reached Poland, and as of the 19th century it had found a footing in the Ottoman Empire. The charge of ritual murder against the Jewish population regularly led to violent attacks and was often driven by material interests.[3]
The preposterous accusation revolves around the notion that Jews would – preferably around the Christian holiday of Easter – kidnap a Christian child (usually a boy), submit him to the tortures of the Passion of Jesus in order to ridicule the Christian faith,[4] and finally kill him. The blood allegedly garnered in this action was supposedly used for religious and medicinal purposes. The accusation of ritual murder represents an extremely powerful anti-Jewish conspiracy fantasy: Jews are construed as inhuman, dangerous, downright demonic murderers and enemies of Christianity. The victims of these supposed deeds were meanwhile frequently elevated to the status of martyrs. Although leading representatives of the church regularly condemned these accusations, many locations connected with these stories became pilgrimage sites.[5]
On Easter Sunday 1475, a Jewish family in Trent found the body of two-year-old Simon, who had been missing since Holy Thursday, in their cellar and informed the local Bishop, Johannes Hinderbach.[6] He had the members of Trent’s small Jewish community arrested and tried in court. After “confessions” elicited under torture, the accused were executed and their property confiscated.[7]
“The Martyrdom of St. Simon of Trent”
ALAVA – TU Berlin, inventory number 7684

This unsigned painting (oil on wood, 46 x 47 cm) depicting the alleged ritual murder of Trent shows a group of nine men and one woman taking part in the slaughter of a blond, naked boy. Four scowling, bearded men hold the kneeling, weeping child on a table while one of them plunges a knife into his neck and another appears to be squeezing his carotid artery. A kneeling figure at the lower edge of the painting holds a bowl to catch the blood pouring from the wound. On the left-hand side stands a woman holding a candle, its flame casting a dim light on the scene. Behind her, a bearded man with a fanatic expression appears to be reading aloud from a book. In the background, a figure stands watch by a door that appears to be slightly ajar; his presence emphasizes the conspiratorial character of the scene.  

According to what we know today, the painting comes from northern Italy or southern Germany, and dates to the mid-16th century: At an auction in Vienna in 1929 it was described as being from the “Alpine School [Alpenlandische Schule]. Middle of the 16th century.”[8] The auction catalog also includes the first reference to the title “The Martyrdom of St. Simon of Trent.” Eight years prior, the painting had been described at another auction as “Southern German, around 1550. Depiction of a ritual murder.”[9] This makes it the oldest object in the Langerman Collection. The assumption that the painting’s subject is indeed the supposed ritual murder of Trent is supported by the image composition, which appears to be based on the famous woodcut included in the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493.[10] However, whereas the torment of the boy in the woodcut is much more reminiscent of the crucifixion of Jesus, and the main characters are clearly marked as “Jews” by the “yellow ring” badges, the anti-Jewish character of the oil painting originates from the scene’s resemblance to ritual slaughter.
The 1475 ritual murder accusation of Trent is of particular importance in the history of antisemitism because of the ensuing inquisition trial.[11] For Bishop Hinderbach’s intention was not to investigate the guilt or innocence of the Trent Jews over little Simon’s death; rather, he wanted to exact “confessions” from his prisoners – with the help of torture – that would prove, among other things, that Christian blood was a necessary component in Jewish rituals. The resulting “historical proof”[12] of ritual murder circulated through all of Europe, thanks to copies of the interrogation protocols, poems, books and stories; and this so-called proof served as a precedent for later ritual murder trials. Attesting to its notoriety are the numerous pictures and woodcuts depicting the alleged ritual murder of Simon of Trent. At the same time, Bishop Hinderbach built up a cult of martyrdom around Simon, which persisted until it was banned in 1965 by a papal decree.[13]

The ritual murder charge also can be found – in a slightly altered form – in modern antisemitism. The allegation that the blood of the murder victim was used for ritual purposes was supplemented by accusations of racial defilement, murder by ritual slaughter, and sexual perversion.[14] In addition, the accusation of ritual murder – like nearly all antisemitic stereotypes – has proven to be very adaptable to and compatible with different contexts: In Islamic societies, for example, one finds it invoked in connection with the Mideast conflict, in order to demonize the Israeli state and “the Jews” in general,[15] and by the same token the right-wing extremist QAnon movement conjures up an international secret cabal that purportedly kidnaps and tortures children and extracts adrenochrome from their blood to use as a “rejuvenating agent.”

[1] Cited by Rainer Erb, “Die Ritualmordlegende: Von den Anfängen bis ins 20. Jahrhundert,” in: Susanna Buttaroni/Stanisław Musiał (eds.), Ritualmord. Legenden in der europäischen Geschichte, Vienna 2003, pp. 11-20, here p. 19

[2] On the emergence and spread of the ritual murder legend before 1475, see: Wolfgang Treue, Der Trienter Judenprozeß. Voraussetzungen – Abläufe – Auswirkungen (1475–1588), Hanover 1996, pp. 33-40.

[3] See Erb, “Die Ritualmordlegende,” p. 13.

[4] See Treue, Der Trienter Judenprozeß, p. 30.

[5] See Erb, “Die Ritualmordlegende,” p. 12 f.; Rainer Erb, “Ritualmordbeschuldigung,” in: Handbuch des Antisemitismus. Judenfeindschaft in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Bd. 3: Begriffe, Theorien, Ideologien, published by Wolfgang Benz, Berlin 2010, pp. 293-294; Anna Esposito, “Das Stereotyp des Ritualmordes in den Trienter Prozessen und die Verehrung des ‘Seligen’ Simone,” in: Susanna Buttaroni/Stanisław Musiał (eds.), Ritualmord. Legenden in der europäischen Geschichte, Vienna 2003, pp. 131-172, here p. 133.

[6] See David L. Dahl, “Ritualmordvorwurf in Trient (1475),” in: Handbuch des Antisemitismus. Judenfeindschaft in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Bd. 4: Ereignisse, Dekrete, Kontroversen, published by Wolfgang Benz, Berlin 2011, pp. 356-358, here p. 356 f.

[7] See Diego Quaglioni, “Das Inquisitionsverfahren gegen die Juden von Trient (1475–1478),” in: Susanna Buttaroni/Stanisław Musiał (eds.), Ritualmord. Legenden in der europäischen Geschichte, Vienna 2003, pp. 85-130, here p. 91.

[8] Auktionshaus C. J. Wawra/Auktionshaus Glückselig/Kunsthändler Richard Leitner (eds.), Versteigerung der hinterlassenen Sammlung des Herrn Emil Weinberger Wien, Vienna 1929, p. 115, lot 460.

[9] Albert Werner/Alfred Wawra (eds.), Versteigerung einer hervorragenden Sammlung von Gemälden alter und neuer Meister sowie von Kunst und Kunstgewerbe des 14. bis 18. Jahrhunderts, Vienna 1921, p. 62, lot 652.

[10] See Hartmann Schedel, Register des Buchs der Croniken und Geschichten mit Figuren und Pildnussen von Anbeginn der Welt bis auf dise unnsere Zeit, Nuremberg 1493, p. CCLIV. Accessible online at: https://doi.org/10.11588/diglit.8305#0500.

[11] For details, see: Quaglioni, “Das Inquisitionsverfahren;” Treue, Der Trienter Judenprozeß.
[12] Quaglioni, “Das Inquisitionsverfahren,” p. 100.
[13] See Dahl, “Ritualmordvorwurf in Trient,” p. 357 f.; Quaglioni, “Das Inquisitionsverfahren,” p. 86; Esposito, “Das Stereotyp,” pp. 143-153.
[14] See Erb, “Die Ritualmordlegende,” p. 15.

[15] See ibid., pp. 12 and 18 f., note 1. On the accusation of ritual murder in Islamic countries, see, by way of example: Malte Gebert, “Fatir Ziun (Mustafa Tlas, 1983),” in: Handbuch des Antisemitismus. Judenfeindschaft in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Bd. 6: Publikationen, published by Wolfgang Benz, Berlin 2013, pp. 196-197.