The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Anti-Semitism, Absence and Anxiety in Medieval Scandinavia
By Richard Cole
Paper given at the 15th International Saga Conference (2012)
Introduction: On the 2nd July 1350 in the city of Visby, a man named Diderik was burnt at the stake. The details of his life are shrouded in uncertainty. His name could denote German heritage just as plausibly as Scandinavian. His profession, an organista, could refer either to an organ player or an organ builder. Wedo not know his age, his appearance, nor any details of his biography other than those claimed in thespurious accusations made against him. As he was burnt (an unusual punishment in Sweden at that time, normally reserved for heretics and witches) he is said to have cried out his last words: “Need I say more? All Christendom has been poisoned by us villains and the Jews”.
Diderik was one of nine who had confessed not only to a conspiracy of mass poisoning across Sweden, but also membership of a powerful secret society of wealthy merchants and men of high office that marked its members with Greek and Hebrew letters. His Hanseatic captors record rather disingenuously that “with no prior coercion, [he] clearly admitted how he would poison all the wells in the cities of Stockholm, Västerås and Arboga, and every lake, fresh water source, and various wells as he travelled around Sweden, everywhere poisoning away with his concoctions”. Diderik also admitted receiving orders and materials from two Jewish “handlers” in Germany, one Aaron, son of Solomon the Wealthy, in Dasle, and one Moses in Lübeck. Amongst the other nine accused, two were priests. One, who had been accused of poisoning the cloth used to clean the chalice after the Eucharist, shouted as he was put to the death: “All Christendom is lost, unless a cure comes from the Heavens, because you ought to believe the words of priests and other religious people!”. The Hanseatic records colour this as an admission of his intent, but it is easily read as an exasperated man maintaining his innocence in the face of mass hysteria.
The Gotland poisoning is recorded in two sources, both of which are Hanseatic correspondence. Letter A is from the councillors of Lübeck to Duke Otto of Lüneburg, detailing supposed Jewish conspiracies throughout Hanseatic territory, including Visby. Letter B seems to have been internal correspondence amongst the councillors of Rostock, preserved as part of their record keeping, but it claims to reproduce verbatim an earlier letter from the councillors of Visby themselves to Rostock. Letter A provides a more detailed fantasy than B, telling of Diderik’s travels in Germany and campaigns of mass murder in the Baltic, while B displays fewer rhetoric flourishes, and focuses primarily on the arrest, interrogation and execution of the conspirators in Visby. At first consideration, it is tempting to surmise that the author of A was simply using B as a starting point and cynically added the extra material of his own accord, knowing that no-one who read A would also have read B. This would dismiss A as a source for the authentic beliefs of anyone other than the letter’s author. However, on closer inspection this becomes a less convincing hypothesis. After all, if the author knew that A and B would have completely mutually exclusive audiences, why should he have included anything from B at all? Why did he ensure that A expands on B, but never contradicts it? Naturally different commentators will escalate their collective fantasy every time they retell it, as in any case of mass hysteria, so it is impossible that A and B represent precisely the same set of beliefs held by a defined group at a defined time. However, it seems plausible that A and B stem from the same continuum of beliefs which were circulating amongst the Hanseatic administrators in Rostock, Lübeck and Visby, and at least some of the native population of Gotland, in the period leading up to and following the execution of the so-called conspirators.