Few academic books by medieval scholars attract the attention of the mainstream media. But in 2007 headlines were made around the world when Pasque di sangue: Ebrei d’Europa e omicidi rituali (Passovers of Blood: European Jews and Ritual Homicides) was released. Written in Italian by Ariel Toaff, professor of Medieval and Renaissance History at Bar Ilan University in Israel, the book immediately provoked condemnations and accusations of anti-semitism against its author, who is Jewish. Now, two years later, the book has been republished and has quietly made its way onto university library shelves.
Pasque di sangue deals with the Jewish community living in Germany and Italy during the later Middle Ages, focusing on an some strange practices involving dried blood being carried out by some Jews. Although there are strict prohibitions in the Jewish religion about how to handle blood, popular beliefs did circulate among some Jews that blood could have certain magical or symbolic properties. An underground trade emerged in dried blood, which would be made into a powder and used during Passover festivities. According to Toaff, this practice was not widespread, but did exist to some extent.
In coming to his conclusions, Professor Toaff used a wide variety of sources, including the accounts of a trial held in Trent in the year 1475, where a group of Jews were accused of killing a boy named Simon. The confessions given by these men, extracted under torture, offer some information on these blood practices. But this also brings in question whether or not these Jews actually committed a murder of a young Christian child. Medieval Christians often claimed that their local Jewish community was involved in ritual murders of children, such as the story of William of Norwich and Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln.
As soon as the book was released, it drew immediate condemnation from scholars, various Jewish groups, and Israeli officials. The mere hint that Jews were involved in murder of Christians, even ones that occurred hundreds of years ago, was seen as very problematic and dangerous for the Jewish community. A spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League stated that “Extremist, anti-Semitic, and Islamic extremist groups will undoubtedly use this charge to further their hostile aims to the Jewish people.” The outrage among some people led to Ariel Toaff receiving death threats and calls for him to be fired by his university.
Meanwhile, several websites and blogs interested in conspiracy theories also showed interest in the book, and some even have produced their own unauthorized English translations of the work. Several historians quickly made highly critical reviews of the book, although it is not clear if they had actually had read the work in question. One large question that many of them asked is how much validity can be put into statements given under duress or torture. Ultimately, the author decided to withdraw the book and do some re-edits, and in 2008 it was re-released to much less attention. The book now quietly lines the shelves of many university libraries.
Professor Toaff has supplied to us a copy of the final section of his new edition, where he discusses the backlash against his book and offers a defence of his research methods. We have republished this section here: