The Legend of jewish Sorcery

Renegade Editor’s Note: This is clearly written from a pro-jewish perspective, but it still allows us some insight into their history in Europe.

By Joshua Trachtenberg
From Jewish Magic and Superstition [1939]

THE anomalous position of the Jew in the modern world is but a latter-day version of the fate that has dogged his footsteps ever since he wandered forth among strange and hostile peoples. In no time and place, however, was his status—and his plight—so manifestly unique as in medieval Europe. The essence of that uniqueness lay in his ambiguous relationship to the Christian society in which he led his precarious existence, on the one hand influenced by all the objective forces which molded his environment, on the other, shut off from that environment by insurmountable walls of suspicion and animosity. His wilful persistence in his religious and cultural “difference” from the intolerant Christian civilization of the day, the dogmatic enmity fostered by the Church, his minority status coupled with an effective economic competition with his non-Jewish neighbors, all these combined to create an attitude of envy and hatred. But these alone do not tell the whole story; we must admit a further element into the psychological complex which determined the attitude of Christian toward Jew—an element which today has lost its force in the composition of anti-Semitism, but which in the Middle Ages loomed very large. For it contributed the emotion of fear, even of superstitious dread, in an age when superstition was the prevailing faith not alone of the masses, but of many of their leaders as well.

Sorcery was a very real and terrifying phenomenon in those days, and many medieval Christians looked upon the Jew as the magician par excellence. The allegiance to Satan, attributed to Jews with an insistence that almost drowned out its true implication, was not merely a form of invective or rhetoric. Satan was the ultimate source of magic, which operated only by his diabolic will and connivance. Christian writers make it quite clear that this is the connection to which they refer.1 Secular and religious authorities took action time and again against the Jews expressly on this count, and the Inquisition occasionally availed itself of the charge to get around the restrictions of ecclesiastical law which excluded the Jew from its legitimate hunting grounds.2

The masses also were quick to seize the opportunity afforded by this accusation, and mass attacks upon the Jews frequently followed the levelling of the charge. To cite but one instance: the most violent mob assault upon Jews in England, which overwhelmed every major Jewish community and took a tragic toll of martyrs, had its inception at the coronation of Richard I in London on September 3, 1189. On that occasion a Jewish delegation bearing gifts and pledges of allegiance was driven from the palace, publicly accused of having come to cast their enchantments over the newly crowned king, and was set upon by the crowd; the outbreak spread rapidly through the city and the land, took more than half a year to spend itself and left in its wake a trail of horrible butcheries.3 Such manifestations, in greater or lesser degree, were the usual concomitant of a like accusation.

The striking feature of the Christian apprehension of Jewish sorcery is that it adhered not to certain specific Jews, who had aroused it by their actions, but rather to the entire people, en masse. Consequently every innocent Jewish act which by its strangeness laid itself open to suspicion was considered a diabolical device for working magic against Christians. The custom of throwing a clod of earth behind one after a funeral brought a charge of sorcery in Paris, in the early years of the thirteenth century, which might have had dire consequences if a certain Rabbi Moses b. Yeḥiel had not succeeded in persuading the king of its utterly harmless character.4 The practice of washing the hands on returning from the cemetery aroused the same suspicions of sorcery and provoked some bloody scenes.

So onerous did these recurrent accusations become that the rabbis of the Middle Ages found it necessary—forced to this step, no doubt, by Jewish public opinion—to suspend some of these customs. In the case of the clod-throwing, though “many were obliged to disregard the usage for fear that the Gentiles would accuse them of sorcery,” custom was proof against fear. But in other instances fear triumphed. The mourning rites of “binding the head” and “overturning the bed” lapsed during the Middle Ages for this reason. In Talmudic times fear of the same accusation had led Jewish authorities to excuse the head of the household from the rite of “searching out the leaven” on the eve of the Passover in places owned in common with a non-Jew; during the Middle Ages there was a strong but unsuccessful agitation to suspend this rite altogether, even indoors, “because we have Gentile serving-girls in our homes” who might spread the alarm. In Provence, however, the ritual cleansing of the public oven in preparation for Passover baking was neglected “because of the Gentiles’ suspicion of sorcery.” When a fire broke out in a Jewish house its owner dared expect little mercy from the mob, for he was a sorcerer seeking to destroy Christendom, and his punishment was commonly simultaneous with his crime. The rabbis of the time were therefore unusually tolerant about violations of the prohibition to put out fires on the Sabbath and on the Day of Atonement. At the slightest danger they set this prohibition aside, “for this is a matter of life and death, since they accuse us and persecute us.” We read of a lamb, slaughtered in fulfillment of a ritual obligation, which was cut up and buried secretly in sections, “so that the matter may not become known and they say, ‘it was done for magical ends.’”5 To such measures were Jews driven by fear of arousing the suspicions of their neighbors.

Jews were stoned as sorcerers. But it needs little knowledge of human nature to believe that the very vice became a virtue when Christians themselves had need of a little expert magic on the side. If Jews were magicians, their every act a charm, then their magic devices could aid as well as harm. R. Isaac b. Moses of Vienna, in the thirteenth century, tells that once when he was in Regensburg over a holiday, “a Gentile who had much power in the city fell dangerously ill, and ordered a Jew to let him have some of his wine, or he would surely die; and I gave this Jew permission to send him the wine (although it was a holiday) in order to prevent trouble, though there were some who disagreed and forbade this.” Apparently Jewish wine possessed occult healing powers; perhaps this Gentile had in mind wine that had been blessed by Jews. It would be interesting to know how effective the cure was but R. Isaac carries his anecdote no farther.

The mezuzah (a Biblical inscription attached to the doorpost) was also an object of suspicion, and at the same time, of desire. That it was regarded as a magical device by Christians we know, for a fifteenth-century writer admonished his readers to affix a mezuzah to their doors even when they occupied a house owned by a non-Jew, despite the fact that the landlord might accuse them of sorcery. Indeed, the Jews in the Rhineland had to cover over their mezuzot, for, as a thirteenth-century writer complained, “the Christians, out of malice and to annoy us, stick knives into the mezuzah openings and cut up the parchment.” Out of malice, no doubt—but the magical repute of the mezuzah must have lent special force to their vindictiveness. Yet even Christians in high places were not averse to using these magical instruments themselves. Toward the end of the fourteenth century the Bishop of Salzburg asked a Jew to give him a mezuzah to attach to the gate of his castle, but the rabbinic authority to whom this Jew turned for advice refused to countenance so outrageous a prostitution of a distinctively religious symbol.6

In the field of medicine in particular was the reputed Jewish magical skill called upon to perform miracles. According to the popular view, demons and magic were often responsible for disease, and medicine was therefore the legitimate province of the sorcerer. Jewish physicians, though by no means free from the general superstitious attitude, were among the foremost representatives of a scientific medicine in the Germanic lands. Their wide knowledge of languages, the availability of Arabic-Greek medical works in Hebrew translation, their propensity for travel and study abroad, their freedom from the Church-fostered superstition of miraculous cures, relics, and the like, these often conspired to make of them more effective practitioners than their non-Jewish competitors. Paradoxically, their scientific training, such as it was, made them superior magicians in the popular view, and every triumph of medical science enhanced the Jew’s reputation for sorcery.

This accounts for the popularity of Jewish doctors in Northern Europe throughout this period, despite stringent Church prohibitions, constantly reiterated by popes and synods (Vienna 1267, Basel 1434, etc.), and the caveat of the clergy that these Jews would turn their magic against their patients. But who would risk his life in the hands of an inferior Christian physician for the sake of theological doctrine when a powerful Jewish doctor-magician could be called in? In 1657, when a Jewish doctor was given permission to practice in the city of Hall, in Swabia, the clergy epitomized the medieval clerical position in a public statement: “Es sei besser mit Christo gestorben, als per Juden-Dr. mit dem Teufel gesund worden”! But this pious preference was reserved for whole moments; when the issue was joined the ministrations of Satan were not rejected. For those who are interested there are lists of Jewish physicians practicing in Northern Europe during the Middle Ages. We know of most of them only because their names have been preserved in Christian documents, recording their services to Christian rulers and prelates, their receipt or loss of privileges, or the occasional tragic reward of their efforts. For if the patient risked his life when he called in a Jewish doctor, that doctor also risked his when he rolled up his sleeves and set to work. If his ministrations were successful he was a magician and might expect to be treated as such, with fear and respect, and active animosity; if he failed, he was a magician, and could expect to be called upon to pay promptly for his crime. The first Jewish physician we hear of in the West was one Zedekiah, court physician to Emperor Charles the Bald toward the end of the ninth century, magician, of course, as well as—or because?—physician. He marked the type to the end: accused of poisoning the Emperor in 877, he no doubt suffered the appropriate punishment.7

Another form which the charge of sorcery took was the recurrent accusation against Jews during the Middle Ages of feeding poisons to their enemies. Not alone were physicians accused of poisoning their patients, but Jews in general were considered especially adept in this art. In the Rhineland, in 1090, we learn of Jews dealing in various drugs and salves, and since the exotic elements of the medieval pharmacopoeia were imported from the East, we may surmise that during this period such items were part of the regular stock in trade of Jewish merchants. We hear rather often of Jewish trade in drugs, throughout the Germanic lands. But drugs and poisons were almost synonymous terms to the medieval mind—and to the equation we may add sorcery as well. “Poisoning was for a long time closely associated with sorcery and magic. Mysterious deaths might be attributed to the one or the other, and both purported to employ occult and sensational forces of nature. The same word was used in the Greek and in the Latin language for poison and sorcery, for a drug and a philter or magical potion. The fact that men actually were poisoned supported the belief in the possibility of sorcery, and this belief in its turn stimulated excessive credulity in poisons which were thought to act at a distance or after a long lapse of time. . . . Popular credence was strong as to the possibility of wholesale poisoning.”8

When, in 1550, the Polish king Sigismund Augustus demanded of Ivan IV (the Terrible) that he admit Lithuanian Jews into Russia for business purposes, by virtue of former commercial treaties between the two countries, Ivan replied, “It is not convenient to allow Jews to come with their goods to Russia, since many evils result from them. For they import poisonous herbs into our realms. . . .” Luther wrote, “If they [the Jews] could kill us all, they would gladly do so, aye, and often do it, especially those who profess to be physicians. They know all that is known about medicine in Germany; they can give poison to a man of which he will die in an hour, or in ten or twenty years; they thoroughly understand this art.” If there is high praise hidden in these words it was wholly unintended. In 1267 Church councils at Breslau and Vienna forbade Christians to purchase foodstuffs from Jews, for these were likely to have been poisoned—a sample of the kind of legislation this belief occasioned. In the middle years of the fourteenth century thousands of Jews (and also lepers) were massacred, accused of having plotted wholesale murder by poisoning wells. Such charges and mass persecutions preceded, in fact, the Black Death, dating back, in France, to 1320.9

These accusations, general in character, stemmed logically from the view of the Jew as sorcerer. They were accompanied by other charges, which indicate that he was accredited with the more particular skills of medieval sorcery. During the early Christian centuries the Church had been rocked by the controversy over the doctrine of transubstantiation. But the popular mind, thrusting subtleties to the wind, had driven straight to the main point, accepting that dogma in its furthest literalness. The rôle which the host, the body of Christ, played in popular superstition and magic throughout the Middle Ages was already evident as early as the fourth century; what more natural than that the Jews, magicians and enemies of Christianity, should be charged with utilizing the wafer of the Eucharist in their own diabolic schemes? The absurdity of attributing to Jews an acceptance and utilization of this most un-Jewish of dogmas never occurred to their accusers. The record is replete with accounts of mutilations of the host by Jews—and, of course, the attendant miracles and persecutions. But direct attack upon the body of Jesus was apparently too simple and gross a procedure to satisfy the crafty Jews, and they frequently resorted to a more recondite method of wreaking their venom upon the Christians and their Lord. Annually, if we are to believe the reports, they would fashion from wax an image of the founder of Christianity, and by their magic art transmit through this image to its model and his followers the pangs and tortures they visited upon it.10

This last is a form of the famous image magic known and used universally. By sticking pins into, or burning, or otherwise mutilating an image of one’s enemy it is believed that he will be caused to experience in his own body the effects of such action. Christians did not hesitate to impute to their Jewish neighbors frequent resort to this technique, not only, as we have seen, with respect to the body of Christ, but of their Christian contemporaries as well. In 1066, for example, the Jews of Treves were accused of having made a waxen image of Bishop Eberhard, which, after having it baptized by a priest whom they had bribed, they burned on a Sabbath (!); is it necessary to add that he promptly fell ill and died?11

Of all the charges against the Jewish people the one that has enjoyed the hardiest tenacity and the utmost notoriety, and has produced the direst consequences, is the ritual murder accusation. In its popular version it foists upon Jewish ritual the requirement of Christian blood at the Passover service. The subject of much study and infinitely more polemics, its absurdity has been conclusively established, but the true nature of the accusation has never been made sufficiently clear.12 The legend as we know it has experienced several redactions. In its pristine form it was the product of ancient superstition—and of the idea of the Jew as sorcerer.

One of the most pervasive beliefs was in the great utility for medicinal and magical purposes of the elements of the human body. Medieval magic is full of recipes for putting to occult use human fat, human blood, entrails, hands, fingers; medieval medicine utilized as one of its chief medicaments the blood of man, preferably blood that had been freshly drawn, or menstrual blood.13 The ritual murder accusation was the result of these beliefs.

There is on record at least one accusation against a Jew, dating from the thirteenth century, of despoiling a servant girl, whom he was said to have drugged, of some flesh which he intended to put to a magical or medicinal use. This was the motive which was believed to have prompted many assumed ritual murders. One of the first medieval references to this accusation, made by Thomas of Cantimpré early in that century, attributed the need for Christian blood to the widespread Jewish affliction of hemorrhages (some later accounts changed the malady to hemorrhoids), which could be cured only by the application of this blood. The Jews of Fulda (Hesse-Nassau), accused in 1235 of murdering five children, are said to have confessed that they did so in order to procure their blood for purposes of healing. Matthew Paris’s contemporary account of the alleged crucifixion of Hugh of Lincoln by Jews in 1255 ascribed to them the intention of using the boy’s bowels for divination. To skip a century and a half, in May, 1401, the city council of Freiburg (in Breisgau) wrote to Duke Leopold requesting the total expulsion of the Jews from their city, the foremost count against them being that they periodically slaughtered a Christian child, for “all Jews require Christian blood for the prolongation of their lives.” The only Christian statement on the ritual murder charge against the Jews of Tyrnau in 1494 explains their need of this blood on several grounds: “Firstly: they [the Jews] were convinced by the judgment of their ancestors that the blood of a Christian was a good remedy for the alleviation of the wound of circumcision. Secondly: they were of the opinion that this blood, put into food, is very efficacious for the awakening of mutual love. Thirdly: they had discovered, as men and women among them suffered equally from menstruation, that the blood of a Christian is a specific medicine for it, when drunk. Fourthly: that they had an ancient but secret ordinance by which they are under obligation to shed Christian blood in honor of God in daily sacrifices in some spot or other.” As late as the beginning of the eighteenth century it is reported that in Poland and Germany tales were told and songs sung in the streets “how the Jews have murdered a child, and sent the blood to one another in quills for the use of their women in childbirth.”

It is evident from these instances that the suspicion of magic was behind the accusation of child murder. There is no mention of the Passover, of kneading the blood into the unleavened cakes, or drinking it at the Seder service, all of which are late refinements. The records of the early accusations are meaningless unless viewed against the background of medieval superstition. A modern writer who has made a careful study of Christian magic and witchcraft, and who proves himself as credulous and superstition-ridden as the period he examines, expresses exactly the medieval view, which is his as well: Jews were persecuted “not so much for the observance of Hebrew ceremonies, as is often suggested and supposed, but for the practice of the dark and hideous traditions of Hebrew magic. Closely connected with these ancient sorceries are those ritual murders. . . . In many cases the evidence is quite conclusive that the body, and especially the blood of the victim, was used for magical purposes.” Montague Summers, the writer of these lines, believes this “evidence” implicitly! If a present-day Catholic can so blindly accept the truth of these accusations of the use of Christian blood by Jews for magical purposes, how all-compelling this “evidence” must have been for his medieval predecessors!14

Most of the charges levelled against the Jews fit into one or another of these categories. The surprising thing is that the specific crimes of sorcery of which Jews stood accused were in the end so limited in nature. Or perhaps this is not so surprising when we consider that these accusations derived not from observed acts of Jews, but from the general picture of “sorcerer” which the Church crusade against sorcery and the later witch-cults painted so vividly. Prior to the inception of the Inquisition in the thirteenth century, excesses attributed to sorcery had been punished by the secular authorities simply as criminal acts. When the Church undertook to stamp out sorcery it branded its practitioners as devil-worshiping anti-Christians.15

Sorcerers and witches, brought before the bar of the Inquisition, were accused of, and confessed to, the adoration of Satan, the desecration of the host and other consecrated objects, the sacrifice of infants, cannibalism, the use of human ingredients, particularly blood and fat, in their salves and potions, effecting the death of their enemies by means of waxen images baptized in their names, poisonings, all the details of what came to be a stereotyped catalogue of crimes. One cannot fail to notice especially the constant recurrence of the charge of child sacrifice in these trials, and the importance of human blood in the witches’ ritual; these were apparently the most distinguishing elements in the technique of the sorcerer and the witch, as disclosed to popular view by the campaign of the Church. We need but recall the famous trial in 1440 of the Marshal Gilles de Rais, aid and associate of Joan of Arc, at which he was accused and convicted of murdering several hundred children whose blood and bodies he employed for magical purposes.16 It is these charges that determined the character of the sorcery propaganda against the Jews.

The Middle Ages inherited a tradition of Jewish sorcery from the ancient world. A host of popular magical works was attributed to Solomon and other fabled Jewish masters. Juvenal’s jibe that the Appian Way swarmed with fortune-telling Jewesses who would “sell you any sort of dream at cut prices” was the kind of information that was bound to make and retain its impression, and bear a numerous progeny. Then too, it must be borne in mind, medieval Christians never had more than a very imperfect acquaintance with the language, the religion, the customs of the Jews who made their home among them; and what information concerning their Jewish neighbors they did possess was as often as not incorrect and misleading. Jews, consequently, remained an unknown and mysterious folk. Their very strangeness was a suspicious element, and the weirdest legends about them found ready currency among a people given to an easy credulity and the crassest superstition. Nor did the mistrust and animosity which the entire background of medieval Christendom fostered against the Jews serve to lessen the effect of their strangeness.

It need hardly occasion surprise, then, that to this despised anti-Christian nation (the crusade against heresy, inaugurated in the thirteenth century, ascribed diabolic rites to some of the heretical sects as well, and this, too, may have influenced the popular view), already tarred with the tradition of magic, was attributed the entire list of goetic practices publicized by the Church as the infallible marks of sorcery. The accusations came in time to be part of a pattern which repeated itself ad infinitum.

But if more varied charges did not enter the record, we may be certain that they existed in the mind of the people. Clearly, if the Jews were such skilful magicians, their art was not limited, they must be acquainted with all the more usual devices to which the ordinary sorcerer turned his hand. We have evidence, if meager, that this was so—evidence which pathetically discloses the Jewish side of the matter. Luther recounts an anecdote of a Jew who proffered to Count Albrecht of Saxony an amulet which would make him immune to all weapons of attack. Albrecht forced this Jew to take his own medicine: to test the efficacy of the amulet he hung it about its donor’s neck—and ran him through with his sword!

A curious parallel to this tale indicates the tragic use to which this reputation for sorcery could be put, and the tragic necessity which prompted such a use. During the Chmielnicki pogroms of 1648-1649 a young Jewish girl of the city of Nemirov was carried off by a Cossack. Preferring a fate of her own choosing, she offered him a similar amulet. “‘If you have no faith in me,’ she assured him, ‘test it by shooting at me. You cannot harm me.’ Her credulous captor, not doubting her word, fired straight at her and she fell dead, for the sanctification of the Holy Name, and to preserve her purity. May God have mercy on her soul!” concludes the pious chronicler of one of the bloodiest pages of Jewish history.

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