Pilgrimage and Pogrom: Violence, Memory, and Visual Culture at the Host-Miracle Shrines of Germany and Austria

Pilgrimage and Pogrom: Violence, Memory, and Visual Culture at the Host-Miracle Shrines of Germany and Austria

by Mitchell B. Merback


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In the late Middle Ages, Europe saw the rise of one of its most virulent myths: that Jews abused the eucharistic bread as a form of anti-Christian blasphemy, causing it to bleed miraculously. The allegation fostered tensions between Christians and Jews that would explode into violence across Germany and Austria. And pilgrimage shrines were built on the sites where supposed desecrations had led to miracles or to anti-Semitic persecutions. Exploring the legends, cult forms, imagery, and architecture of these host-miracle shrines, Pilgrimage and Pogrom reveals how they not only reflected but also actively shaped Christian anti-Judaism in the two centuries before the Reformation.
 Mitchell B. Merback studies surviving relics and eucharistic cult statues, painted miracle cycles and altarpieces, propaganda broadsheets, and more in an effort to explore how accusation and legend were transformed into propaganda and memory. Merback shows how persecution and violence became interdependent with normative aspects of Christian piety, from pilgrimage to prayers for the dead, infusing them with the ideals of crusade. Valiantly reconstructing the cult environments created for these sacred places, Pilgrimage and Pogrom is an illuminating look at Christian-Jewish relations in premodern Europe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226520193
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/27/2013
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 8.70(w) x 11.20(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Mitchell B. Merback is associate professor of the history of art at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe and editor of Beyond the Yellow Badge: Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism in Medieval and Early Modern Visual Culture.

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Pilgrimage & Pogrom

Violence, Memory, and Visual Culture at the Host-Miracle Shrines of Germany and Austria

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-52019-3

Chapter One

"God's Body Was Found There"

Metaphorical models for historical work have been plentiful in the human sciences since the nineteenth century but have tended, by and large, to fall into two categories. In a stimulating essay of 1979 historian Carlo Ginzburg identified these as the "anatomical" and the "conjectural." The anatomical paradigm is characterized by the dream of a systematic, encompassing knowledge gleaned by dissection and analysis, while the conjectural Ginzburg describes as a method founded on the gathering of small insights from a welter of fragmentary details, the decipherment or "reading" of traces and clues, the discernment of patterns, and the diagnosis of symptoms. Its accuracy, we sense, will be verified in the consistency of its resulting design. One may liken it to a puzzle, or a mosaic, but the carpet is perhaps the most apt metaphor for this kind of picture-building effort. Woven from gatherings of evidence and argument in parallel rows, some running vertically and some horizontally, the picture of the past crafted by the conjectural historical method resembles, when all is right, the finished carpet's "tight, homogenous weave." Even stray threads might eventually find their place in the whole.

Two such gatherings of evidence and argument, each emerging from its own tradition of research, converge on the central question of this chapter, which may be stated directly as follows: How did the Christian myth of host-abuse by Jews figure into the cult-formation process at host-miracle shrines in German-speaking lands? That the myth helped foment some of the worst recorded violences committed against Jewish communities in late medieval Europe is the first of these gatherings. The second is that this same myth in many places abetted Christians in the creation of pilgrimage shrines. According to the thesis put forward in this book, these are parts of a weave whose design we have yet to properly discern. And further: once we recognize that the host-sacrilege narrative extends in two temporal directions at once, that its prospective and retrospective elements remain in dialectical motion throughout the entire cult-formation process, factors long assumed to be simply causes or simply effects find new and unexpected places in the overall design. Myth, violence, and religious praxis—the three indispensible supports for this process—appear in a new configuration, and the old psychological and sociological assumptions linking accusation and violence, in particular, seem suddenly turned on their heads. Examining the variable roles host-legends were capable of playing in the cult-formation process will allow us, as the next two chapters unfold, to view our carpet's final design vertically, horizontally, and even diagonally—which, according to Ginzburg, comes from intuitively "jumping from one historical context to another"—and, in doing so, to be better able to judge its consistency, its rightness.

To begin, however, we must pick up the threads of another kind of gathering, one that in its own time gained notoriety by virtue of the consistency, in contemporary eyes, of its otherwise fantastic design: the host-sacrilege associated with the Paris affair of 1290.

Reports from Afar

Ten years prior to the first expulsion of the Jews from the Kingdom of France (1306), the parishioners of Sainte-Jean-en-Grève in Paris witnessed the erection of a new chapel to house the knife wielded by a local Jew in a sacrilegious attack upon the corpus Christi. A papal bull of 17 July 1295, sent from Boniface VIII to the bishop of Paris, had already given Rome's consent for the construction. Sources tell us that the new chapel was erected on the site of the crime, the Jew's house, which was sold after the arrests and transformed for the purpose. Later it became known as the "Chapelle des Billettes," in honor of the lozenge-shaped badge, or billette, worn by the members of the so-called Brethren of the Charity of the Blessed Virgin, the confraternity to whom the shrine was entrusted. Yet the blood-flecked wonderhost was not preserved here, alongside its putative contact relic, the "Jew's knife" (at the time simply called le canif), but was enshrined in the parish church, together with a splinter from the True Cross and a piece of Christ's robe, and there it was visited by a stream of pilgrims. A special liturgy developed around the indestructible host, and a yearly procession carried it to the capella miraculorum, there to revisit, as it were, the scene of its martyrdom and triumph. So important did the pilgrimage and these new celebrations become to the parish and its community, the building had to be enlarged in 1326.

The events surrounding the establishment of a new eucharistic chapel in Paris in 1290 represent the final stage in a social drama that embroiled laity and clergy and magistrates, elites and ordinary townspeople, Christians and Jews—a drama that will become all too familiar in the chapters ahead. Unfolding as if according to an internal script, it began shortly after Holy Week. Tensions must have been running high, for in this year the two holidays of Easter and Passover coincided, as they had before and would, fatefully, many times again—for example, in April of 1338, when Jewish communities across Austria fell victim to riots and host-crime accusations (chapter 3). Whether it started in Paris with a public accusation, a well-orchestrated conspiracy against the Jewish community, or a mere rumor we may never know for certain. But judging from its resonance in later legends in other places, especially in Germany and Austria, it is not too much to say that the Paris affair represented the birth of the European host-sacrilege myth. What propelled the case so fast and so far into collective conscious was, in a word, its prestige. As our foremost guide to the Paris legend, historian Miri Rubin, explains it, in the 1290 affair we find not only "the first fully documented case of a complete host desecration accusation, from discovery to punishment," but also a model so well positioned by its provenance that it enjoyed a wide dissemination in French and Latin chronicles, inspiring sermons, sacred dramas, painted and printed miracle cycles. No other tale of sacrilege rippled out into such a wide area with numerous retellings and copycat accusations.

Yet, remarkably, we possess no documented imitations of the legend inside the Kingdom of France itself. Similarly, the Low Countries knew many host miracles but only one case of a sacrilege blamed on Jews, the affair in Brussels in 1370. By marked contrast, the host-legend recurred with such frequency in the contiguous German-speaking regions of Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria, and Austria (especially Lower Austria and Steiermark) that historians can trace strong geographical patterns of dissemination (in northern German territories such as Brandenburg and Mecklenburg occurrences tend to look more isolated). Surveying the European Middle Ages and following the charge to its final disappearance in the middle of the sixteenth century, the German Jesuit scholar Peter Browe, in a foundational study of 1926, counted forty-eight accusations, thirty-five of which were in German-speaking regions. Of these the majority clustered in the closing years of the thirteenth and the first half of the fourteenth century, a period of widespread economic hardship, political turmoil, and rural insurrection. Twenty-two of the German cases on Browe's list occurred in south Germany and Austria, and fourteen in the remaining areas of Germany (with only thirteen others for the rest of Europe). Historian Friedrich Lotter, whose rigorous empirical studies have done much to improve the picture, focused on a tighter chronological range and counted a total of thirty-six host miracles for the period beginning right after the Paris case and concluding around 1340. Thirty-one instances involved some kind of abuse charge; of these, Jews were implicated in twenty-four. At least nineteen of this latter group played out in the region south of the Main River; nine occurred in Austria, six in Franconia, three in Swabia, and one in Lower Bavaria.

The most rapid proliferation of host-miracle shrines with legends modeled on the Paris affair of 1290 occurred during two nearly consecutive periods of mass slaughter of Jewish populations, conducted by popular armies of self-acclaimed Judenschläger, or Jew-killers. The persecutions in the first cluster have been dubbed the "Rintfleisch" massacres after their notorious leader, a Franconian nobleman whose real name remains uncertain but whose moniker (literally meaning beef) captures the terrifying savagery of his movement. The second wave of persecutions, carried out during the so-called Armleder insurrection, spread over a much larger geographical area and far surpassed the killings of 1298. Named for the peasant infantrymen whose improvised battle gear featured thick leather patches on shoulders and arms, and led by a figure the sources call rex Armleder, King Armleder, this mass movement combined elements of rural rebellion and anti-Jewish marauding with devastating consequences. Lasting for over three years, from autumn 1336 until about 1339, it punctuated a time of unprecedented catastrophe for south German Jewry. The great Hebrew martyrology known as the Nürnberger Memorbuch, begun around 1296 in Meiningen and completed about a century later, drew upon the language of Ezekiel (22:2) in naming the locales visited by the Jew-killers of 1298 and 1336. As "cities of blood," the book told its readers, those places bore the curse of an irredeemable blood-guilt.

Familiar as the Paris host-legend may be to specialists, it behooves us to revisit its structure and content before tracing its transplantation into German lands. Eight principal motifs appear together, for the first time, in the Paris legend and can be isolated as follows:

1. The Jew acquires a consecrated host from a Christian, either an unidentified woman, his own maidservant, or a woman hoping to redeem an article of pawned clothing (in one source the Jew simply finds the host); the Christian accomplice is encouraged to abscond with the host during Easter communion.

2. The Jew subjects the host to a variety of initial tortures with instruments such as a knife, a writing-stylus, nails, a sword, or a lance; the techniques are described variously as piercing, stabbing, and cutting.

3. The host, though indivisible and indestructible, responds to its mistreatment by miraculously bleeding, after which the Jew subjects it to one of several secondary tortures such as hammering, piercing with nails, or scourging; finally the host may be thrown into a cauldron or kettle of boiling water.

4. A second miracle (manifesting Christ's presence in the host) takes place: the host is not destroyed; the cauldron's water turns red or to blood; or the host transforms into a crucifix hovering above the cauldron.

5. The Jew becomes terrified and tries to destroy or conceal the host, either by casting it into a fire or into a lavatory.

6. The crime is discovered, either through the intervention of the Jew's son or a Christian woman, who summons a priest or a court official.

7. The Jew is imprisoned, tried, and executed by being burned upon a pyre, refusing to show contrition. His family, however, converts and accepts baptism; conversions of other Jews follow.

8. A chapel is built to house the relics associated with the martyrdom, and the miraculous host itself is enshrined and displayed for cultic veneration.

Of all the motifs that would appear in subsequent retellings of the legend, only one of central importance has not yet entered the picture here: the imputation of enmity or malice to the perpetrator. Questions of motive revolve instead around the notion that the Jew is engaging in a kind of forensic inquiry into the truth of what Christians say about the host and transubstantiation. In some versions this merges with anxieties about Jewish scorn for the Christian faith: the Jew stages the ordeal in order to impress upon his co-religionists "how dumb Christians are to believe in such a thing."

No special insight is required to see the Paris legend as a work of ideology, as part of a larger effort to compel the acquiescence of those Christians who remained incredulous on the matter of transubstantiation. To the thinking of the legend's clerical promoters, hardened unbelievers were (literally) caught red-handed proving the theory's veracity; and in light of this demonstration, rational doubters would soon be brought to the truth. But the Paris legend also confronts us with a feature of anti-Jewish myths that transcends any didactic function. I am referring to what might be termed its operative power, its potential to set social processes in motion. Among the many respects in which the Paris case can be considered a watershed in the evolution of anti-Jewish mythmaking in Christian Europe, surely the most consequential is the tale's capacity for patterning otherwise distinct events and processes—sacrilege and miracle, discovery and accusation, arrest and execution, expropriation and shrine-construction, cult-formation and commemoration—into a coherent whole. A common narrative logic underwrites all the known accusations in those Franconian towns visited by the brutality of the Rintfleisch hordes in the late 1290s, where not only the punishment of the individual malefactor, but the slaughter of entire communities, had to be cast in terms of the immanent unfolding of God's justice, assisted by the sword of earthly power. As a text that urged a performance, in short, the narrative worked. Christians saw its work as a matter of truth's revelation; for them it was pre-text for a righteous violence God demanded. Jews saw its work as post-text, as a false justification for persecutions undertaken for other reasons, as a conspiracy of the idolators against God's elect. Each in their own way was correct.

Rivers of Blood, Cries of Children

Between 1290 and 1298 only two cases in which massacres of Jews and the erection of chapels were associated with a host-sacrilege accusation left traces in the documentary record: at Büren, a town in Westphalia, where an early eighteenth-century octagonal chapel still stands, replacement for a medieval building founded between 1291 and 1292; and at Laa an der Thaya, in Lower Austria, where a chapel apparently founded in 1294 has vanished without a visible trace. In neither instance do we find an elaborated miracle legend linked to local violence, at least none we can document. For a social drama comparable to Paris in its completeness, and a legend comparable in its cogency and operative power, we must go to the eastern part of medieval Franconia (present-day Lower Franconia), a heavily urbanized region at the heart of imperial south Germany. Overlapped by the Würzburg diocese (fig. 4), this region had come nominally under the secular lordship of the Würzburg prince-bishops in the mid-twelfth century, though their power in the region was fragmented by local dynasties and imperial cities, or Reichsstädte. Our destination is Röttingen, a small town on a bend in the Tauber River, thirty-five kilometers south of Würzburg. Notorious as the putative birthplace of the Rintfleisch pogroms, Röttingen would also, within the space of a generation, serve as the embarkation point for the Armleder movement of 1336–1339.

On 20 April 1298, a fortnight after Easter, twenty-one Jewish residents of Röttingen were slain in the first recorded actions of the Rintfleisch army. In one Christian chronicle the pogrom was described as a retaliatory uprising by Swabian nobles against the Jews, who had allegedly slit the throat of a knight's son. Most Christian sources, however, attribute the violence to the pious outrage provoked by the discovery of a host-sacrilege. According to one, a host stolen from the parish church by a sacristan was purchased by local Jews, "martyred," and then thrown into the Tauber River on Good Friday. Signaling its presence with a miraculous light, the host was discovered by three nuns from a nearby convent. When, on the following day, the burghers retrieved the host and returned it to the city, the house of the Jews spontaneously went up in flames, killing those inside. In another version both the Jewish criminal and his Christian accomplice confess under torture to having divided the purloined host and distributed it to Jewish contacts in the region, raising the specter of an far-flung conspiracy of blood and sacrilegious violence that good Christians were duty-bound to root out and destroy.

Structurally, the Röttingen host-accusation legend corresponds closely to the Paris tale. The crucial motifs surrounding the host's martyrdom and blood-miracle all appear to have been taken directly from it. Of course significant differences exist, since it has now become the job of chroniclers and their informants to paint the events of 1298 with details specific to their own time and place. The most important differences cluster around the critical episodes of the host's concealment and discovery, its symbolic burial and resurrection. After the malevolent deed is completed, we hear of the Jews casting the bleeding host not into a cauldron or latrine, but into the Tauber River itself, turning it red with blood. Already this motif reveals the underlying nexus of fears that connect host-miracles and the ritual-murder accusation from the late thirteenth century onward; the Franconian pogroms occurred in the aftermath of violences spread throughout the entire Middle Rhine and Mosel regions by the ritual-murder episode in Oberwesel in 1287. But the motif also has an operative function, since it imparts to the legend a kind of topographical realism, a map of persecution's progress. As blood is imagined flowing downstream, so too does its power to accuse, prompting new acts of vengeance by the tale's tellers, and its listeners, across an expanding network of places (this despite the fact that Rintfleisch's armies initially worked their way southward through the Tauber Valley, that is, mostly upstream). Legend embeds itself in collective memory by purporting to link related events, and winds up explaining how the same Christian impulse for revenge that inspired Rintfleisch and his followers spread to other locales. At the same time it gives rein to a prevalent form of conspiracy thinking, whereby Jewish communities were imagined sharing stolen hosts or blood extracted from their innocent child-victims through region-wide underground networks.


Excerpted from Pilgrimage & Pogrom by MITCHELL B. MERBACK Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Part I Cult-Formation, Event, Legend 
Chapter 1. “God’s Body Was Found There”
Chapter 2. Findspot

Part II Visual Culture of the Host-Miracle Shrines
Chapter 3. “His Blood Poured Out”
Chapter 4. Memorial to a Sacrilege
Chapter 5. Tokens of Violence

Part III Pilgrim, Relic, and Regime in the German Empire
Introduction. Shifting Contours of Sanctity
Chapter 6. The Pilgrim’s Access
Chapter 7. Relics, Immanence, and the Causes of Empire

Part IV Holy Blood and the Spaces of Cult and Memory
Introduction. Paroxysms of Sacred Space
Chapter 8. Holy Savior, Holy Sepulcher
Chapter 9. Topographies of Cult and Memory

Appendix The Pulkau Host-Miracle Legend: A Reconstruction of Three Versions

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