On this date in 1475, four members of Trent, Italy’s small Jewish community were burned at the stake outside St. Martin’s Gate for the ritual murder of a Christian child.
One of early modern Europe’s most outstanding “blood libel” instances, the Trent case proceeded from the widespread (among Christians) suspicion that Jews used Christian blood in their blasphemous rituals.
Latent under normal circumstances, belief in the blood libel was, er, liable to actuate a violent anti-Semitic outbreak if a Christian child disappeared in a spot where elites didn’t protect Jews. And in the 15th century, this was an increasingly likely situation.
As R. Po-Chia Hia puts it in Trent 1475: Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial, “Overnight the Jews, familiar and somewhat intimate neighbors, were transformed into strange murderers.”
This transformation began at the Good Friday service in 1475, when Master Andreas Unferdorben approached the celebrant, Trent’s Prince-Bishop Johannes Hinderbach. Master Unferdorben hadn’t seen his two-year-old son since last night and searches had turned up nothing. He must have been frantic.
Hinderbach ordered the news, and a description of the lost child, promulgated throughout the city. But when that didn’t turn up any new leads, Unferdorben appealed to the podesta to “send his servants to search the houses of the Jews, and see whether it [the lost child] could be found because he had heard in many places in the city that during these holy feast days the Jews want to kidnap Christian children secretly and kill them.” In fact, it was not such a general suspicion as that. Andreas Unferdorben had been specifically advised to look in the Jews’ houses by a shady character named der Schweizer, the Swiss.*
Trent was a mixed city of Italians and German immigrants, and both languages could be heard in the streets. (Both were used by various different parties in the Simon of Trent investigation.) Its Jewish population, however, consisted of a mere three households — the extended families of Samuel, Tobias, and Engel. Samuel, an emigrant moneylender from Nuremberg, had the largest Jewish household with nine family members ranging in age from toddlerhood to 80, plus two family servants.
On the request of the lost boy’s father, these three homes were searched by the municipal authorities. There was no trace of Simon.
But on Easter night, Samuel’s family cook ducked into the cellar to draw some water for dinner and made a horrifying discovery: the body of the missing little boy, in the water of a bath.
After what must have been a fearful consultation, Samuel and the other two heads-of-households Tobias and Engel reported the find — strictly forbidding anyone to succumb to the entirely reasonable temptation to blow town, lest one flight incriminate all. Nevertheless, every one of Trent’s Jews realized that Simon’s appearance among them could easily trigger pogroms, expulsion, forced conversions … or worse. Much, much worse.
Now, it should be said that a ditch communicating with the outside fed Samuel’s cellar cistern. In the absence of indoor plumbing, it was possible for someone to literally throw a body into a home from the outside; the Trent Jews, in fact, reported discussing this possibility when news of Simon started making the rounds on Good Friday, and made sure to lock up their cellar windows to prevent someone dumping the body from the streets. But the remains of a very small child could also, perhaps, be entrusted to the flow of the public ditch to wash into a house.
This sort of thing might also explain why the child’s penis was gashed. Maybe, maybe not.
Of course, since the hypothesis of freaky Semitic blood rite was already “out there” and then the body went and turned up in a Jewish house, the presence of a gash on the sex organ was always going to be interpreted in a different vein …
During the evening of Easter, the arrest of Trent’s Jews began. A pitiless judicial process which almost immediately became committed to the notion of a blood sacrifice soon began grinding these now-powerless people into dust.
The only other actual evidence touching Simon himself here — besides the admittedly powerful appearance of the body in the basement — was a Christian woman’s recollection that she had been near Samuel’s house on Good Friday and happened to hear an unseen child sobbing … somewhere. She thought it might have sounded like the lost boy.
But they’d soon be pointing fingers at one another.
Subjected one by one — the men, at least — to drops on the excrutiating strappado (“letting the prisoner jump,” in the words of the manuscript that forms the principal primary source about this event), they started to break down.
Tobias provided the critical (though not the first) crack. Looking “senseless or ruined” (in his interrogators’ records) after his strappado session, Tobias
spun this tale of murder, duly recorded and perhaps elaborated by the scribe: on the eve of Passover, Samuel suggested they should get a child; the task fell upon Tobias. He enticed Simon with sweet words to come with him and handed the sacrificial victim over to Samuel. On the day of Passover, Old Moses covered the boy’s mouth while the others stuck the child with pins and tore out his flesh; his blood was collected and distributed. Later, the dead child was thrown into the water by Samuel and Isaac. Tobias was not present at the killing, only rabbis possessed the knowledge of the rituals. In the minds of the prosecuting magistrates, Tobias’s confession established the scenario of the “real crime.” … With details embellished by the moral indignation of the Christians, this fantastic tale would become in time the history of the Trent ritual murder.
For the investigators, they were unraveling an obstinate criminal conspiracy while also attempting to document an arcane ritual. The present-day reader is likelier to see what amounts to a collaborative storytelling process in which torturers and prisoners reciprocally cued one another to the evolving needs of the script. “Tell me what I should say and I will say it,” one household servant at his wits’ end told his judges. This stuff still happens today.
they persisted in asking details of the Seder, trying to reconstruct every shade of meaning of blood symbolism, and recording with great care every Hebrew word associated with the imagined killing rite …
Some of the Jews held out, repeating their innocence over the screams of torment and stern questions; others broke down, blaming themselves and others in this grotesque elaboration of the fictive murder ritual. Still others retracted their confessions during moments of lucidity and respite from the rope, only to be tortured more severely into retracting their retractions. A few wanted to confess but could not anticipate the murder script written in the minds of the magistrates and, thus, continued to suffer; a handful, who desperately held onto reality, tried to incriminate themselves while excusing their loved one and subordinates from the charge, willing victims in a coercive sacrifice that demanded live offerings.
All these quotes, again, are R. Po-Chia Hsia, whose book handles all the horrible details of who copped to which story on what particular day, for the two-plus months of investigation, eventually coalescing into an official version that became the myth of the boy-martyr “Simonino”.**
In the end, nine of Trent’s male Jews were condemned to the stake for June 21-22 in Simon’s blasphemous murder: the three heads of households, plus all the male Jews in Samuel’s own house. The 80-year-old guy we mentioned before had also been tortured in the interrogation and was also among the condemned … but he blessedly committed suicide in prison before they could execute the sentence.
This first date was the turn of the household heads plus Israel, Samuel’s 25-year-old son — and like his father, one of the longest holdouts against the torture. They only broke at the end.
The remaining four were all to die on June 22. Two requested baptism, however, which bought them an extra day of life, plus the easier end of beheading on June 23.
* Der Schweizer, a known personal enemy of Samuel, was suspected by a follow-up apostolic investigation of himself murdering Simon and dumping the body to bring suspicion upon the Jews.
** Rome had long been nonplussed by the blood libel story, and the contemporary-to-Simon curia shut down Bishop Hinderbach’s Trent proceedings. But a century later, Pope Sixtus V promoted Simon of Trent to the official Catholic martyrology. Simon was only stripped of his official martyrs’ laurels, and his cult suppressed, in 1965.