This Day in Jewish History

1298: In Germany, the Start of a Wave of Massacres

Jews in south central Germany suffered a twist on the blood-libel charge: desecration of the host.

Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1298, the Jews of Roettingen (today in northern Bavaria) suffered the first of a series of massacres that spread through the region. Over the coming months, what came to be called the Rintfleisch massacres were perpetrated against the Jewish communities of 146 towns in Bavaria and Austria. They were the first significant anti-Semitic persecutions to take place in Europe since the First Crusade two centuries earlier.

The Rintfleisch massacres are named after the leader of the attacks known only by this epithet; Rindfleisch is the modern German spelling for the word beef, so there is speculation Rintfleisch was a butcher. The massacres were a response to a rumor of host desecration.

Like the blood-libel charges that began to surface a short time earlier — in which Jews allegedly killed a Christian to drain his blood and use it in Passover matza — host desecration attributed a no-less bizarre crime to Jews: the purchase or theft of Eucharist wafers in order to abuse and torture them.

Since the host is equivalent to the body of Christ, its torture is tantamount to a repeat of the crucifixion of Jesus, a capital blasphemy that was a key element of medieval Christian theology vis-à-vis the Jews.

In her book Gentile Tales, historian Miri Rubin draws on medieval chronicles — both Christian and Jewish — and official records to describe the events. She portrays the period as one of unusual political instability that was resolved only after the Battle of Goellheim, on July 2, 1298, and the return of the local noble, King Albert of Habsburg, to his throne in nearby Rothenburg.

Another modern historian, Robert Chazan, writes that the Rintfleisch massacres highlight the unfortunate combination in Germany of accelerating anti-Jewish sentiment and deteriorating political authority.

April 20, 1298, was a Sunday, two weeks after Easter. According to a lengthy lament of the events that appears in the contemporary Nuremberg Chronicle, a Jewish source (as rendered by Rubin), the Christians conspired with their plots and added treachery / to that bloody bread, so vile and disgusting."

According to this source, the Jews of Roettingen were charged with pulverizing the wafer until it began to bleed, and then they split him and hung him on a frame.

In Roettingen, 21 Jews are said to have been killed on this day by Rintfleisch and his banner-waving mob. They then moved on to other towns in the Tauber River Valley on the way to Nuremberg. Even after King Albert returned to his throne and called for peace, the killings did not immediately subside.

The Nuremberg Chronicle lists 146 individual communities where pogroms took place and names some 5,000 Jews who were killed. Only in Regensburg and Augsburg were the Jews spared, as the local authorities took them under their protection.

The killings continued until as late as 1303. Another source, Rudolf, the Dominican prior of Schlettstadt, describes the people of Moeckmuehl coming upon a pit containing five hosts hung on string. In revenge, the mob locked up 76 Jews in a house, which was set on fire by Rintfleisch when he arrived in the town.

Rudolf, explains Rubin, perceived a conspiracy by local Jews, made possible by the infinite ability of Eucharist wafers to multiply and transform. Hence, even if a single wafer was purchased in the initial crime, it could have been used in one place after another.

As another chronicler, Sifried of Balhuisen, put it: Recovery was difficult, since the host had been distributed and variously abused, but miracles brought about through the particles led to the discovery of the pieces and to the killing of the Jews of many places.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen