April 17, 1389, was the first day of a two-day assault mounted on the Jewish community of Prague by its Christian neighbors. The Prague Pogrom, as it has come to be called, led to the deaths of an estimated 900 Jews, although some of the historical chronicles that described the events give numbers far higher than that.
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Like so many medieval massacres of Jews in Europe, the Prague Pogrom took place during Catholic Holy Week, around the celebration of Easter. The spark that set off the attack was, as was often the case, an accusation of “host desecration,” that is, of blasphemous Jews physically abusing the Eucharist wafer that, according to Christian tradition, is transformed into the body of Christ when a churchgoer takes communion.
Most sources describe the unfolding of events in roughly the following way:
On the eve of Easter Sunday, a priest was carrying a monstrance – the vessel in which the host is carried – to a sick resident of Prague. As the priest was walking past the city’s Jewish quarter, a resident of that quarter threw a pebble at him. At the same time, several Jews attacked the communion wafer, scattering its pieces on the ground, while also mocking the priest.
The outrage of the Christian citizens of Prague at this sacrilege was so great that on Easter itself (which was also the final day of Passover), encouraged by the priests’ reference at holiday services to the “perfidious Jews,” they proceeded to vent their anger on the Jewish quarter in general.
All but the very youngest Jews were slaughtered, in many cases with their limbs being cut off, and their homes then plundered. According to at least one source, even when the town council tried to impose a curfew, the good citizens of Prague proclaimed of their own initiative their intent to have “the whole people all attack at once for the plunder and extermination of the Jews.”
On the following day, Monday, anticipating that Wenceslas IV, the king of Bohemia and the Holy Roman emperor, would demand that all the booty, since it was the product of usury, be turned over to the crown, the council sent out a decree that all confiscated property be brought to the town hall. Its total value was calculated to reach five barrels of silver, a significant sum.
Furthermore, the council, concerned “lest the city be infected with air corrupt with the stench of usurious [that is, Jewish] fat,” ordered that the bodies of all the dead be burned, together with any living Jews who might have survived the previous day’s events.
Among the 20 or so accounts of the pogrom written by non-Jews, one Latin text, called “The Passion of the Jews of Prague,” has been singled out as being of special interest. Historian Barbara Newman, author of “Medieval Crossover: Reading the Secular against the Sacred,” notes that the text, attributed to one “John the Peasant,” is a parody of the story of the Passion of Christ – not in the mocking sense of the word, but in the fact that it mimics closely the story of the crucifixion in the Gospels. According to historian Miri Rubin, the medieval parody is “an attempt to invoke authority from scripture for the narrative on contemporary occurrences.”
What is especially curious about this particular text, which, according to Newman, was written in the near aftermath of the pogrom, is that in presenting the incident as an allegory about the Christ story, the author equates the Jews of Prague with both the Jews of Jerusalem (the bad guys), but also, in their victimization, makes a parallel between them and Jesus as well. At the same time, the Christian mob that attacks and plunders the Jewish quarter of Prague serves as a parallel to the evil Jews of the Gospels.
In a lecture she delivered in 2012 to the American Society of Church History, Newman suggested that, “because the Gospel narrative itself resists what John the Peasant wants to do with it, the Passion proves to have a textual unconscious that undermines its overt anti-Judaism, leaving the modern reader with a strangely ambivalent impression.”