Libels (Blood and Otherwise): A Quick Primer

Simon of Trent in the Palazzo Salvadori

I never thought I’d see the day that “blood libel” was trending at Twitter, but here we are. And even though the Wikipedia page for “blood libel” is currently embroiled in a mini edit war over whether to include this most recent popular reference to it under the “Contemporary” trivia section and a simultaneous rush to edit in as many instances of non-Jewish blood libel as possible* , guides to the history of blood libel are popping up all over the web even as I type, so I’m sure you all have adequate tools for determining just how outraged you ought to be over the whole thing without my input. This is all for the best, really, since for the most part I try to keep this blog ambivalently apolitical.**

My only worry is that in all this hubbub, the indexical value of “blood libel” is being overlooked.  The reason why we need a special phrase like “blood libel” to denote lies told about what Jews do with the blood of baby Christians is the sheer number of libels which Jews have had to contend over the years.

Take for instance, the “ass libel.” According to Josephus’s Against Apion*** , deep within the holiest of holy chambers in the Temple at Jerusalem Jews secretly keep a golden statue of an ass-headed man which they worship. The Greeks of Late Antiquity and the medieval Christians after them found the idea of worshiping a donkey uniquely hilarious for reasons that escape me, though I suppose it’s just a very specific manifestation of the ever-present Christian fear that the Jews are up to naughtiness when no one’s there to police them.

Then there’s the “leper libel,” which charges that the real reason Moses was allowed to lead the Jews from Egypt was that they were actually a leprous mob that the Egyptians drove out for public health reasons. As descendants of lepers, the Jews’ natural resistance to disease was thought to have been compromised sufficiently that they could no longer safely be around unclean animals like the pig, and thus the Jewish prohibition against eating pork. And further, since they had all been infected with Leprosy Lite since birth, Jews were also thought likely to cause leprosy outbreaks amongst their Christian neighbors.

Leper, ass, and blood form the Big Three of Jewish libels, but we might add to them a demi-relation, the “sow libel,” more properly the story of the Judensau (literally, “The Jew’s Pig”),**** a late medieval German belief that Jews secretly did naughty things to pigs when Christian backs were turned. Jewish rabbis were often depicted lifting a sow’s tails in order to go peering up its ass, while below Jewish children suckled from the teats. Less often, the slur progressed to full on accusations of pig fucking.*****

So as you can see, it’s vitally important we keep our libels straight. If we let us the phrase “blood libel” come to mean any pernicious lie told about a group of outsiders by the majority, the next thing you know we’ll have to start using “ass blood libel” and “leper blood libel,” and then where will we be?

  1. * I count 103 edits over the last six hours. []
  2. ** Though I can note that it is probably advisable to avoid the casual usage of inflammatory language when one is making a speech responding to accusations that one uses inflammatory language too casually. []
  3. *** Or Contra Apionem for purists and Konami fans. []
  4. **** Which I’ve mentioned here before, back in the waaaay early days of the blog. []
  5. ***** Wikipedia has a rather extensive Image gallery, for those interested. []

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Karl Steel

    Oh, I thought the “ass libel” was your snarky reference to the “male Jews menstruating from the ass” libel (I kid you not), one of the weirder of the set.

    Thanks for this, by the way.

    • Got Medieval

      Great. Now we’re in for a blood ass blood libel.

  • JRC

    I am NOT going to click on the image gallery.

  • sara

    I seriously just clicked straight from a news item about that speech to your blog to see if you’d posted anything. Thanks for this.

  • Samantha

    Well, for what it’s worth, now those of us giving academic papers about the medieval blood libel over the next few months will have to prepare to field questions about Sarah Palin…

    • Pierre Corneille

      If I get any questions from the audience when I present a paper, I’m happy.

    • Nick

      Just make it very clear that paper has been in work for months and that you aren’t going for that “ripped from the headlines” feel that so completely fails to permeate academic conferences.

  • Western Dave

    Did the belief that Jews poisoned wells and had horns make it to the libel level? Or were they merely smears.

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  • Walwyn

    Two questions:
    o – Was this exclusively applied to the Jews, or was it also sometimes used against other minorities?
    o – What is the current state of opinion about the Ariel Toaff book?

    • Got Medieval

      As fas as I know, Ariel Toaff has been pretty well discredited.

      As for other minorities, of course there are libels for them, too, and some of them you could even call “blood libels”. The Montanists, for instance, were accused of ritual child-killing by Nicene Christians.

  • Jonathan Jarrett

    The Greeks of Late Antiquity and the medieval Christians after them found the idea of worshiping a donkey uniquely hilarious for reasons that escape me, though I suppose it’s just a very specific manifestation of the ever-present Christian fear that the Jews are up to naughtiness when no one’s there to police them.

    In fairness, for this one alone it should be noted that it wasn’t just Christians making such accusations about the Jews and the Jews also happily applied it to Christians in the early days of the Church. The rest, though, no, no defence except that of otherness.

  • Leon Shernoff

    And that’s even without “host desecration”, where medieval Jews, in their compulsion to kill Jesus as many times as possible, would kidnap communion wafers and stab them, causing them to bleed, and causing outraged Christians to descend on the neighboring ghetto with fire and fury.

    Apparently some smears are so deranged and contemptible that they’re not included under “libel”. Which brings us back to Palin…

  • Mithras

    Interesting about “Judensau”, since in one of Hitler’s speeches in early 1922 he railed against foreign minister Walther Rathenau, and the crowd responded by shouting, “Rathenau, Judensau!” Hitler went on to talk about how the Jews were seducing young “Aryan” girls, contaminating the German people. I don’t know if the crowd was referencing the bestiality libel or just using a play on Rathenau’s name.

    • Jay C

      Probably a combination of both: antique libels, and unfortunate euphony of syllables: the original doggerel rhymed very well in the original German:

      “Knalt ab den Walther Rathenau/die gottverdammte Judensau.”

      (“Shoot down Walther Rathenau/the goddamned Jewish sow”)

      • Got Medieval

        It’s generally believed to be a deliberate reference.

  • Dragon-King Wangchuck

    Or Contra Apionem for purists and Konami fans.

    I give this reference a thumbs Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start. I would totally play a run-and-gun game where the player’s special forces type character has to infiltrate a heavily guarded temple and defeat a giant donkey-headed stage boss.

  • Jeffrey

    Thank you for your info. I lie on my couch surfing, now edified. (I linked from racialicious) Wouldn’t a blood libel about Jewish menstruation be a schmear?

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  • Elizabeth Upton

    This post is linked on dailykos — congratulations!!

  • m

    “worshiping a donkey uniquely hilarious for reasons that escape me” — Weren’t donkeys associated with virility? Richard Bulliet has written about how how pagan ideas about donkeys came into Judaism and Christianity

  • faustusnotes

    more importantly, surely this post has given all Americans everywhere cause to stop and think about how poorly they are served by their misspelling of the word “arse.” Here we have Jews being accused of an ass libel, and also looking up a pig’s ass? Doesn’t make sense without some spelling adjustments.

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  • Rex Canalae

    “…found the idea of worshiping a donkey uniquely hilarious for reasons that escape me…”

    Ezekiel 23:20, perhaps?

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