Passover in the Middle Ages
By Israel Jacob Yuval
Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Time, edited by Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence A. Hoffman (University of Notre Dame Press, 1999)
Introduction: My earlier dealt with the similarity of the narratives that came to mark the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter. Here I wish to compare their medieval ritual and symbolism. That early era had featured a relatively mutual give-and-take between the two, but by the eleventh or twelfth centuries, relationships had become totally one sided. In the second and third centuries, Christians had been persecuted while Jews enjoyed the status of religio licitia, whereas by the twelfth century, things were reversed the church was now triumphant, and Jews were “serfs of the imperial chamber,” or indentured to the apostolic throne. Where, therefore, Passover and Easter customs display medieval similarities that do not hark back to antiquity, they reflect Christian influence upon Judaism, not the reverse.
Moreover, in the Middle Ages, the two holidays of Passover and Easter had become the focal point for displays of hatred and the occasion for libels against Jews. By the thirteenth century, it was not uncommon to find Jews charged with killing Christians to obtain their blood for Passover. But the real novelty of that century was a new charge: the Jews desecrated the host. I with to clarify the ritual backdrop for that libel, without, however, denying that casual significance of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Behind the charge against Jews was the need to extract the acquiescence of Christians who denied the miraculous change of essence in which they had difficulty believing. At the same time, the charge of host desecration is an extension of the blood libel, since it followed from the doctrine of transubstantiation that Jews no longer needed real flesh and blood Christians; they could simply stab the host.
I assume that Christians charged the Jews with murdering the host in part because they saw partial affirmation of that charge in Jewish ritual practice itself. We have here no mere theological diatribe but a dialogue in the language of ritual.
Top Image: Full-page miniature from Haggadah, Spain 14th century