On March 23, 1475, the Thursday before Easter, a two-year-old boy named Simon went missing from his family’s home in Trent, Italy. On Easter Sunday, his body was found – according to the version that quickly passed through the community, in the basement of the home of a Jewish family.
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Legal authorities in Trent rounded up the usual suspects – local Jews. It didn’t help that that year Easter and Passover fell at the same time. For the Christians of Trent, the holiday had been preceded by the incitatory sermons of an itinerant Franciscan friar named Berardino da Feitre, who harangued his listeners with tales of the blasphemous practices of the Jews. Thus the suspicion naturally arose that Simonino (Little Simon) had been kidnapped and murdered by Jews so that they could drain his blood for use in the baking of Passover matzah.
Historian Ronnie Po-Chia Hisa explains that the belief that Jews needed Christian blood for Passover had existed in Central Europe for at least a century, and Johanes IV Hinderbach, the prince-bishop who ruled Trent in 1475 was clearly aware of this myth. Later, when the suspects were in Trent, he sent an emissary to Germany to collect transcripts from investigations of similar episodes that had transpired there.
Eighteen Jewish men and five women were arrested and subjected to torture, which yielded the needed confessions. Eight of the men were eventually executed, and another killed himself in prison.
Johanes Hinderbach is also remembered as being a humanist, who created in Trent an important library of Latin manuscripts. It was he who not only insisted on rushing ahead with the trials and executions, but who also quickly connected a number of supposed miracles to the death of the young boy, and pushed for his canonization.
Hinderbach published, with the new printing technology, Trent’s first book. Titled “Story of Christian Child Murdered at Trent,” and illustrated with a dozen lurid woodcuts, the book was distributed widely around the continent. In general, a large percentage of the first books printed in Italy and Germany dealt with Simon. Hinderbach also used the property seized from the arrested Jews to finance a church dedicated to the nascent Simon cult.
In April 1476, Pope Sixtus IV ordered that Hinderbach postpone further judicial proceedings until representatives from Rome could arrive; he also rebuked the authorities in Trent for extracting confessions under torture. Hinderbach, however, did not back down, sending legates to the Vatican to offer a defense of his actions.
Hinderbach also collected testimony from witnesses attributed more than 100 different miracles to Simon, and pressed the pope, Sixtus IV, to elevate him to sainthood. Though the pope did not accede to that demand – that was left to his successor – he did acquit Hinderbach of any wrongdoing in the investigation and trial. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V saw the canonization of St. Simon of Trent.
Two hundred years later, in 1758, Cardinal Gaganelli, later Pope Clement XIV, prepared a report that cleared the Jews of any role in the death of Simon, a decision that cast doubt on his sainthood, but it was not until 1965, in the context of the Second Vatican Council that Pope Paul VI removed Simon from the Catholic Calendar of Saints. Nonetheless, a superficial check on the Internet reveals that there are many Catholics who still venerate Simon, and the belief that he was the victim of a ritual murder by his Jewish neighbors still has wide currency, nearly 600 years after his death.