Violence Preceding the Myth of Jewish Sacrilege

Joshua Teplitsky on Mitchell Merback’s Pilgrimage and Pogrom: Violence, Memory, and Visual Culture at the Host-Miracle Shrines of Germany and Austria

Merback-Pilgrimage and Pogrom Cover
Mitchell Merback, Pilgrimage and Pogrom: Violence, Memory, and Visual Culture at the Host-Miracle Shrines of Germany and Austria, University of Chicago Press, 2013, 416pp., $65

For much of their history, Judaism and Christianity co-existed as rival siblings. Long after the parting of the ways in late antiquity, representatives of each community lived in proximity to each other, and the two traditions waged an enduring contest between Christian and Jewish narratives, texts, and spaces, a contest that reflects at once both enmity and the rhythms of daily life. These are the themes taken up in Mitchell B. Merback’s Pilgrimage and Pogrom: Violence, Memory, and Visual Culture at the Host-Miracle Shrines of Germany and Austria.

Merback argues for a complex interplay of memory and materiality in religious and ritual life by excavating the circumstances involved in the production of the “host-sacrilege church” — a church memorializing an episode of Jewish desecration of the host, the earthly embodiment of Jesus consumed at the mass — in southern Germany during the late medieval period (from 1290 until the eve of the Reformation). These centuries were tumultuous ones for Christian religiosity and therefore for Jewish life as well. In the thirteenth century two major waves of anti-Jewish violence erupted in the German lands; in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries both popular agitation and administrative fiat propelled the expulsion of Jews from most of the cities and towns of the German lands. In their absence Christians constructed and consecrated new churches, building upon the spaces formerly associated with Jews. The production of legends about Jewish desecration of Christian holy objects achieved the specific association of these churches with the former presence of Jews. Weaving together the stories of these shrines with the history of local Jewries, Merback reveals how tightly intertwined late-medieval pilgrimage sites were with markers of Jewish space, and how dependent the materials of architectural form and the meanings produced by narrative function were upon each other.

Two kinds of violence conditioned the cultural understandings between late-medieval Jews and Christians: the violence Jews allegedly committed against Christian holy objects in mimicry of Christ’s original passion, and the violence Christians enacted in retribution for Jewish sacrilege. Unlike charges of ritual murder, violence against objects is committed not against the bodies of Christians, but against the body of Christ, as incarnate in the host, that most sacred of items.

The charges of Jewish host-desecration were particularly relevant in the context of the German lands, which possessed no indigenous saints of their own, and therefore no reliquaries or shrines to offer local sites of pilgrimage. To supply a German “economy of sanctity,” Jewish desecration played a pivotal role, as it had the paradoxical power to create objects in which divine immanence dwelt, provoked into existence by Jewish violence. Jewish poking and stabbing of stolen host wafers precipitated the manifestation of Heilig-Blut, holy blood, a symbol of divine presence in the body of Christ. Anti-Jewish accusations were thus instrumentalized and built into the ritual topography of Christian sacred space. The core narrative was one of desecration-retribution/persecution-commemoration. Scholars working on anti-Jewish mythology have long been aware of the competing claims about Jewish sacrilege. They have also recognized the futility of disputing the facts: as with other accusatory theories that use conspiracy as their explanatory mechanism, such disputation only leads further down the rabbit hole. Instead, historians discuss the ends to which such stories were put, and they trace social contest through mythmaking about Jews.

Merback adopts a different approach to analysis of these legends: rather than trace the reception and uses of these myths, he turns this structure on its head, reconsidering the chronology of cause and effect and revealing the ways in which violence predated myth, rather than the other way around.

Merback follows the dissemination of the Ur-narrative of Jewish sacrilege, the Paris host desecration of 1290. That year marked the birth of an accusation narrative that would often be repeated, in which a Jew illicitly attains a consecrated host from a Christian, submits it to torture, and is surprised by the miraculous indestructability of the wafer, which then bleeds. The Jew’s crime is discovered, prosecuted, and, following his execution, is commemorated with the construction of a chapel. In the half-century that followed, the legend was carried into and disseminated through sites in the Holy Roman Empire, where it served as the basis for the founding myths of host-sacrilege shrines. With its transplantation into the German context, a decisive addition was grafted on to the Paris narrative: the special enmity of the Jewish perpetrator for the host.

Whereas in its earliest iteration the narrative tended to portray the Jew as inquisitive (perhaps as a psychic stand-in for the doubting Christian), later incarnations of the myth attributed malice, even evil, to the Jewish perpetrator. Noting the absence of this decisive factor in many of the original narratives of shrine dedication, Merback decouples the desecration from the cause of violence, and instead understands its wider circulation as a post factum legitimation of events already transpired. In his revision of the events, these sites were indeed built following a massacre, but the massacre did not necessarily follow a desecration. The argument is best captured in his citation from Léon Poliakov: “one killed Jews first, and hated them afterward.”

Merback substantiates these conclusions through a careful archaeology of two types. First, of the texts themselves: he meticulously unearths the accretion of historical detail, noting how myth collapses events separated by decades into a single episode. His reading of the chronology departs both from Christian and Jewish chronicles of these affairs (Jews acknowledged the chronology, but not the veracity of the charge).

But the compelling aspect of the argument comes from a different body of sources: material and visual culture. Merback undertakes a series of case studies to demonstrate the processes by which the shrines were first constructed and then legitimated. These are detailed descriptions of the architecture and spatial organization of four shrines — Iphofen, Pulkau, Passau, and Andechs — with supporting evidence from analogous neighboring sites. Moving away from literary text to the material evidence embedded in and inscribed upon the structures themselves, he shows how retrospective legends were constructed to imbue existing spaces with salvific and miraculous pasts, and how the “findspot” (the location of the host’s miracle) could serve as an anchor for both the material and immaterial.

As a historian of visual culture, Merback transcends the handicaps of a limited body of literary sources to offer insights into the spaces of popular religiosity. This is not a cultural history of art, but art in the service of cultural history, the history of mentalities. He makes a case for “visual culture as an analytical concept” that adopts “an integrative approach to the constellations of spaces and structures, bodies and objects, images and symbols” (emphasis in the original). Activating the senses, Merback gracefully turns visual culture to historical evidence. He elegantly explicates an image on the underside of a fourteenth-century oak chest to reveal the orchestration of signs by the Wittelsbach dynasty to construct a shrine with the endorsement of Rome. In a subsequent chapter he makes meaning out of the appearance of hand-held mirrors in a Nuremberg woodcut as revealing beliefs about capturing the spiritual essence of the artifacts visited.

“One killed Jews first, and hated them afterward.” – Léon Poliakov

Evidence from legends under construction demonstrates the interaction of church and civil authorities with popular religious demands. But what impact did these spaces have on cultural experience in lived practice? Merback offers some answers to this question in his discussions of skepticism of the veracity of the miracles commemorated by the Pulkau altarpiece, and in his discussion of the structures and function of pilgrimage as a corporate act of orderly community rather than spontaneous enthusiasm. The emphasis of the book is primarily directed towards the production of images and legends, rather than their consumption, and therefore more to the construction of the memory of pogrom than the way in which pilgrims absorbed and understood that memory, not to mention the experiences of the victims. To plumb the reception of these images would have been of great interest but would demand a range of sources not likely available, and this book already holds enough. The great contribution of the book is in the vitality it brings to the total material experience as a means of creating ritual.

The significance of visual culture is subtly reinforced in the very layout of the book, which is visually impressive, even beautiful. Two hundred and ninety-four glossy pages with tangible heft are each justified with wide left-side margins, directing the eyes through the book’s text while offering relief in the white space that occupies almost a third of each page. Twenty colored plates complement 122 images, maps, and architectural plans.

The visual elegance of the book is matched by the literary dexterity of the text, whose language is fresh. Merback is highly sensitive to the conceptual thicket surrounding the history of religious violence and social experience as well as the finely tuned vocabulary necessary for illuminating rather than obscuring. Adopting, perhaps even coining, careful terms to elucidate the “circuitry connecting the macro- and micro- phenomena of cultural history” — including “cultic anti-Judaism,” “host miracle,” “immanence,” “findspot,” and “environmental poetics” — Merback is concomitantly cautious not to be hemmed in by abstractions, acknowledging that the validity of such labels is not the proper measure of a scholarly work. In fact, the very choice of the word “pogrom” in the title — a nineteenth century coinage for a Russian phenomenon, out of sync in time and place with the subject of the book — represents this effort. The evocative word is unmoored from its Russian context but offers a useful shorthand (and an alliterative one) for the phenomenon under observation.

Although the book hews closely to its mission of studying the specific pilgrimage sites in their locally circumscribed contexts, it contributes to a larger scholarly discussion about Christian-Jewish relations in late medieval Europe. The careful focus on the local directs the reader away from grand abstractions about religious conflict and into the specific and particular circumstances in the production of shrines, sacrilege, and the violence that sustains them. Moreover, Merback nicely articulates the tensions historians feel as they describe medieval life, caught between models of concord interrupted or discord expressed in moments of religious violence. Resisting either polarity, he argues for an embracing of ambiguity. Cultural motifs and social reality — one antagonistic, the other coexistential — must stand in a single field; the two are separated, Merback warns, at our own conceptual peril.

A history based on visual culture lends a further dimension to considering the way groups interact both in lived experience and in the way they enshrine memory. The past does not always proceed with linearity: material can precede memorial, and legends can be artifice added to edifice.

Also Recommended from MRB: