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HIST2219 Ritual Murder: The Antisemitic Blood Libel from Twelfth-Century England to twentieth-century Russia

Module Overview

The notion that Jews kidnapped and ritually murdered Christian children (and sometimes adults too) in order to parody the Crucifixion and perform acts of black magic necessary to their “Talmudic” faith is considered to represent the apex of the demonization of the Jews in Antisemitic propaganda in the West. Since the twelfth century, this horrendous myth has reappeared in century after century and it continues to be held as true by some Neo-Nazis in the West as well as Islamic extremists in the Middle East. Starting with the appearance of the first known case in twelfth-century England, this module examines various (in)famous cases of the Blood Libel accusation in Italy (Saint Simon of Trent, 1275), Spain (the Holy Child of La Guardia, 1490), Syria (Damascus 1840) and Eastern Europe (notably the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia) as well as variations on the theme (the host desecration libel and the myth of medical murder by Jewish doctors). The module asks students to consider the origins of the myth, why it has been so seemingly popular, why it has endured and, finally, what it tells us about the uses of conspiracy theories by social and religious elites.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

• Study the origins and development of ‘Blood Libel’, focusing on the continuity of the legend across European history and the different cultural and historical contexts of specific case studies. • Understand the momentous changes that took place in the way that Jews were perceived in the Middle Ages and how these have had an impact on modern history. • Explore why conspiracy theories like the Blood Libel are so popular and whether we should consider them to be part of a popular European Antisemitic ‘folklore’ or rather a propaganda weapon used by social elites to direct popular anger at a designated group (in this case the Jews) when its suited their purposes and to forge a sense of collective identity.

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • The role of the Blood Libel in medieval, modern and contemporary Antisemitism.
  • What the Blood Libel reveals about changing perceptions of Jews in Medieval and Modern Europe.
  • How a conspiracy theory became part of the cultural fabric of the West and was deliberately used to create a sense of collective identity amongst western Christians.
  • How scholars have interpreted the emergence, dissemination and popularity of the Blood Libel in different ways.
Cognitive Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Develop critical awareness and thinking about how historians have understood and interpreted the emergence of the Blood Libel.
  • Develop a nuanced and critically engaged view of how the demonization of Jews decisively shaped the culture and politics medieval and modern Europe.
  • Comment fluently on complex historical and theoretical debates, with appropriate use of evidence and terminology in argumentation.
  • Demonstrate a range as well as a depth of knowledge and insight about Western society and culture in relation to large-scale historical processes.
  • Undertake rigorous comparative analyses.
  • Draw upon your acquired knowledge in seminar debates as well as the module’s essay and examination (in the latter case under timed conditions).
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Work independently and unsupervised for extended periods of time on complex tasks.
  • Display effective time management.
  • Interact purposefully, productively and confidently with both your tutor and peers.
  • Make valuable, critical and valued contributions to discussions and debates.
  • Write speedily yet fluently for extended periods, clearly articulating your ideas.
  • Read and summarize complex material.
  • Write an analytical essay in a mature and sophisticated style, with graduate-level prose and presentation.
  • Apply the skills acquired during the module to understand modern-day issues concerning the treatment of religious, cultural and/or social minorities in Western society.
Subject Specific Practical Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • The ability to conduct research using different types of tools and sources, gathering, sifting, interpreting, analysing and organising information.
  • Collect, analyse, synthesize and interpret primary and secondary textual sources.
  • Participate in, and contribute to, group activities and seminars and to use material derived from these to inform written assessments.

Syllabus

This module will offer students a survey of the major changes in the way Jews were perceived during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, from the pathetic “witness people” described by Saint Augustine to the dangerous, irrational and rabidly anti-Christian “talmudists” of Franciscan and Dominican polemics. These changes provide the historical and intellectual setting in which the Blood Libel was born in the twelfth century. Closely working with primary sources in translation as much as possible, the module will then focus on various case studies from twelfth-century England to twentieth-century Russia. Students will also be asked to consider the relationship that exists between the Blood Libel and its other variants: namely the host desecration libel and the medical murder libel. In the final lecture and seminar (week 10), students will consider the continued belief in the legend in neo-Nazi circles in the West and in certain extremist circles in the Islamic world. The module will focus on the following topics: • From “witness people” to “talmudists”: the demonization of the Jews in the central Middle Ages. • The alleged murders of Saint William of Norwich and Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln in medieval England. • The Blood Libel cases of Simon of Trent on the Italian/German borderlands in 1475. • The case of the Holy Child of La Guardia in inquisitorial Spain in 1489-1491. • Variations on the Blood Libel?: the host desecration and medical murder libels. • The dissemination of the legend in Early Modern Germany. • The infamous 1840 Damascus Libel. • Cases in central Europe during the nineteenth century. • The 1913 Beilis affair in Tsarist Russia. • The Blood Libel after 1918: the myth that won’t die.

Special Features

There are no special features for this module. Reading will be made available to student in paper or digital form.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include • Ten lectures and ten seminars (one each per week). • Seminars will entail focused reading and rigorous analysis in primary sources, and the relevant secondary literature, concerned with the character and consequences of the Blood Libel. • Student-led teaching through individual presentations and group discussions in seminars. • One-on-one appointments to provide guidance and feedback on research and writing. • An assessed essay and a timed examination. Learning activities include • Analysis and interpretation of selected primary documents (made available in translation). • Consideration of historical debates about the Blood Libel. • Substantial preparatory reading and personal study. • Individual participation in seminars and group work on seminar themes. • Intensive individual research and writing.

TypeHours
Completion of assessment task30
Seminar10
Preparation for scheduled sessions100
Lecture10
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

Edmund Levin (2014). A child of Christian blood: murder and conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: the Beilis blood libel. 

Ronald Florence (2004). Blood libel: the Damascus affair of 1840. 

Hannah R Johnson (2012). Blood libel: the ritual murder accusation at the limit of Jewish history. 

Alan Dundes (1991). The Blood libel legend: a casebook in anti-Semitic folklore. 

R. Po-chia Hsia (1988). The myth of ritual murder: Jews and magic in Reformation Germany. 

Hans Rogger (1966). The Beilis Case: Anti-Semitism and Politics in the Reign of Nicholas II. Slavic Review. ,25 , pp. 615-629.

E.M. Rose (2015). The murder of William of Norwich: the origins of blood libel in medieval Europe. 

Assessment

Formative

Oral presentation

Summative

MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (2000 words) 50%
Exam  (2 hours) 50%

Referral

MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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