Accusations against the Jews Concerning the Desecration of the Eucharist

There were myths that began spreading in Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries, the main storyline of which reflected ideas that existed in Christian society. One of these myths was that Jews were suspected of mocking Holy Communion wafer in various ways (crumbling it into pieces, piercing it, breaking it or even baking it) and desecrating the Body of Christ. What is known as the myth of Holy Communion profanation, or also host desecration, is chronologically earlier than yet another Christian myth that accuses Jews, which is that it is thought Jews carry out the killings of Christians. The Fourth Council of the Lateran was a strong impulse in spreading images of the suspected disrespect by Jews toward the Eucharist and its desecration, which was ultimately formulated in the dogma of the Eucharist. From that time, the communion wafer became a cult object and object of respect. In stories about Jews suspected of defiling Holy Communion, this act is often tied to a miracle, which affects the Jew that is defiling the host and his entire family. The second group of people in this myth is comprised of wicked Christians (most often women), who have taken Holy Communion and its host, but then take it out of the church in their mouth and give or sell it to Jews. Tales with this storyline can be found as exempla for sermons known in Poland, while the first manifestations of this myth in society are tied to the turn of the 15th century.

Do You Know?

The image of the desecration of the Eucharist existed alongside the myth of the ritual killing of Christians by Jews in the GDL. Legal measures were taken against baseless claims: in a 1566 privilege, Sigismund Augustus tightened the procedure by which one could be accused for the ritual killings of Christians and banned the ability for Jews to be accused of the desecration of the Eucharist.

An attempt to defile the body of Christ in the GDL

When Vytautas issued the GDL’s first privilege to Jews, other European cities and Jewish communities that had settled there had been rocked by the consequences of the spread of the defiling of Holy Communion numerous times, including anti-Semitic pogroms and bans for Jews to have windows in their homes that have a view to streets along which religious processes took place, among other things. Though this privilege, which was supported by a papal bull, mentions the banning of accusing Jews of the ritual killing of Christians, it does not mention the myth of defiling Holy Communion. It was only in 1566 that Sigismund Augustus, who tightened the procedure of accusing one of the ritual killings of Christians, banned the ability of others to accuse Jews of defiling Holy Communion in a privilege. It seems to be the first mention of this myth that was known in GDL society but which was not widespread. Why GDL society was affected by the myth of the ritual killing of Christians, but did not adopt the popular image of the suspected defiling of Holy Communion by Jews is hard to explain. Only some assumptions can be made. It is thought that GDL society, which was becoming more Christianized, was late in accepting anti-Jewish myths and did not manage to absorb the myth of the profanation of Holy Communion, because this myth did not last in a Protestant environment after Martin Luther’s reforms, and lost its relevance. However, the understanding and belief in this myth demanded a deep understanding of Christian dogma, and not superficial one. The late spread of this myth, a myth that was not popular in the GDL, can be found in Lithuanian folklore.

During the interwar years, researchers recorded stories about Jews who were suspected of using birch rods to strike a communion wafer taken secretly from a church and the blood that dripped out of it.

We can also look at certain manifestations of the knowledge of this myth and traits of behavior that came from this among the clergy of the GDL. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, there were complaints recorded by the clergy concerning the suspected lack of respect shown in Jewish quarters where religious processes or a priest hurrying to a severely ill patient had stones thrown at them. In 1590, Bishop of Vladimir, Meletius Chreptowicz, demanded that two Jewish boys be punished “as law breakers and enemies of the Christian religion” who on the second day of Easter threw stones at a procession of believers that were going to an Orthodox church. The young boys proved that they had not acted in this manner, and they were not punished. According to another priest, Jews were not keeping to the agreements with the cities, which demanded them to brick up the windows of residential houses or shops that looked to the market or churches, because “due to despicable malice as the priests carry God in the processions in the form of Communion or go with holy gifts to a patient, can carry out sacrilege in a safer manner.” One can clearly see the fear that had rooted itself in European societies in similar descriptions of incidents that arose or were imagined, where Jews that were throwing stones at a member of the clergy would not dislodge the sacraments from his hands. As elsewhere, the complaints in the GDL were generally connected to Easter.

Religious processions turned into acts of intolerance

Stories spread in the neighbouring countries of the GDL influenced the images of Jews for the clergy of the GDL. The act of mocking the Christian sacraments was attributed to Jews.

Feeling a possible fear of host desecration, priests were persistent in taking religious processions along streets where Jews lived.

This had almost become a habit. It is thought that they imagined that the processions made an impression on the Jews. The dominant position of Christianity was shown, and perhaps had intentions to provoke them.

In 1682, Vilnius Bishop Mikołaj Stefan Pac spoke to the clergy about the reprehensible practices of taking processions along streets where Jews lived which had developed, where the participants accompanying the priest as well as monks mocked Jews, and openly showed their intolerance toward them. The procession participants beat Jews that happened to be in their path with whips, turned their stall tables over, stole their wares, “in mocking Jews and Jewesses, they (procession participants) turn them into objects of ridicule for the masses, encourage them to abuse and steal, (…) at some point when one gives in to evil intentions of the heart, they, barely audibly ring with a small bell or don’t ring at all, in order that the appearance of them (for Jews) would be unexpected, that Jews could not defend themselves or avoid meeting them.”

The bishop judged the provocation of participants of these religious processions as contempt for the feelings of believers and disrespect for the sacrament of Holy Communion; the clergy was banned from taking religious processions through Jewish quarters. It was demanded that believers ring their bells loudly and with sounds warn Jews of the approaching believers. The traits of the myth of the profanation of Holy Communion that revealed itself among the GDL clergy allows us to make the supposition that this myth was known by certain social groups in the GDL.

Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė