‘Sinners on Trial: Jews and Sacrilege after the Reformation’ by Magda Teter

Introduction – In the sixteenth century, Polish nobles pushed for an end to the cooperation between the Catholic Church and secular courts in order to protect Protestants. Eventually, secular courts handled matters that had once been under the purview of ecclesiastical courts. Ironically, secular courts became the enforcers of Catholic values, reinforcing its position as the primary religion in Poland. One unfortunate result of this change was that crimes that had once required a symbolic punishment designed to benefit the church became crimes punished by violence and death.

Chapter 1 – The Meaning of the Sacred

For Catholics, sacred spaces were those consecrated by bishops or places containing the Eucharist. Protection of churches became a big issue because of their sacred status and because they housed the host. Items used at the altar during mass also came to be sacred in their own way. A whole system grew out of keeping sacred spaces clean and neat (example – purifying the church after someone peed in it). All church objects had tremendous value and protection of them would lead to accusations of sacrilege and calls for death.

In contrast, sacred spaces in Judaism were made so by the presence of the Torah or the carrying out of religious rituals. Labeling Christian spaces as “abominable” helped bolster the uniqueness of sacred Jewish spaces. Like Christian churches, a system of action grew out of the need to keep these spaces sacred and clean (example – Jewish women not entering synagogues during their periods).

Protestants attacked Catholic claims to sacredness by assaulting Catholic rituals, sacred objects, and sacred spaces. Martin Luther attacked the opulence of Catholic rituals and churches, claiming that true worship took place in spaces devoid of splendor. He also attacked the Catholic notion of transubstantiation, instead promoting consubstantiation (where the Eucharist was both the bread and the body of Christ, as opposed to a full transformation).

Calvinists believed that Jesus’ sacrifice only happened once, and that the bread and wine were just visible signs representing his body and blood.

Chapter 2 – Stealing Sacred Objects

Because sacrilege became a crime punishable by secular courts, it became very important to define religious boundaries. In Poland, the punishment for stealing a sacred object varied depending on the sacredness of the object (with the host being the most sacred of all).  Fears were heightened with regards to non-Catholics stealing sacred objects, and even they were tried as Catholics despite not sharing in the same faith (this demonstrated the primacy of the Catholic faith). However, thefts from non-Catholic spaces of worship, like synagogues and Protestant churches, were treated as common thefts and robberies.

Since the punishments for stealing sacred objects was well-known, even Jewish community leaders warned of dealing with stolen goods, as it could endanger the whole Jewish community.  In seeking to protect themselves from punishment, Jews inadvertently enforced Catholic laws of sacrilege.

Chapter 3 – Prosecuting Sins, Defending Faith – Courts often enforced Catholic beliefs in trials concerning the theft of sacred objects, and mistreatment of the host was criminalized with the utmost severity.  Another fear associated with the Eucharist was the impure state of followers during communion. To tackle this problem, the Church demanded that Catholics participate in at least one confession during Holy Week. Courts also took pains to discover whether hosts had been taken sacrilegiously. Using the host outside its sacramental function was also made a criminal offense. Often this crime took the form of women using the host for healing, magical rites, or selling it to Jews.  Some other non-host related offenses included misuse of sacred objects in superstitious ways (example – using holy water to heal sick cows), public utterance of blasphemies (example – debating over the true power of God), vandalization of holy images and crucifixes, or penning anti-Catholic texts and pamphlets. Punishment of these crimes was often symbolic, and took after the nature of the sin committed (example – focusing on hands during a trial where someone was accused of mishandling the host). Through violence, torture, and capital punishment, secular courts sent an unmistakable message that they would waste no efforts in punishing transgressions against Catholicism.

Chapter 4 – The Making of a Polish Jerusalem – Desecration legends helped affirm the “sacred” versus “sacrilege”, and served a number of purposes. Not only did they demonize Jews, but a big “sacred” economy grew out of promoting various towns as pilgrimage sites of host-related miracles. Since these sites generated a lot of economy, they often competed against each other for pilgrims, with objects of worship and miracle legends bringing in the most visitors. Unfortunately, the need for holy attractions led to a large system of relic trade where a majority of them were either faked or forged. Miracle legends also helped Catholics take over desirable properties within major cities. Because chapels were often built on the site where the supposed legends occurred, claiming an area as a sacred host-desecration site made it easier for the Church to appropriate it. Operating successful and popular pilgrimage sites helped promote Catholic doctrine, geographic expansion and sacrilization of space, and gains within the sacred economy. Due to their immense popularity and powerful economic force, stories of sacrilege became instrument in sharpening and redrawing physical and cultural religious boundaries.

Chapter 5 – Protestant Heresy and Charges against Jews – Jewish trials were used to affirm the truths of Catholic doctrine against assault. When Jews accused of hot desecration converted to Christianity, they helped confirm the reality of transubstantiation. Trials were useful for combatting heretics and for regaining and retaining political influence. This made Jews an important part of – and a useful tool in – the Catholic Church’s struggle against Counter-Reformation and non-believers.

Chapter 6 – Christians on Trial, Jews Expelled – In 1606, all Jews were expelled from the town of Bochnia after a Jewish man was implicated as party to a host-desecration crime. The property they left behind was highly contested. Law held that abandoned buildings were forfeit to the king after a period of time had passed, but as others laid claim to the properties, doubts about forged documents and illegal proceedings naturally arose. Pamphlets written by Jan Achacy Kmita (a Bochnian town official) kept the memory of the trial alive and also revealed anxieties about Jewish political and economic prominence in Poland. These worries often played key roles in notable Jewish expulsions from Polish towns, and Bochnia was no different.

Chapter 7 – The Struggle for Power and Authority – The aftermath of the Przemyśl trial of 1630 is a good example showcasing power struggles over the scope of royal authority. Not only was the procedure of the trial questionable, but town officials had also carried out their punishments without receiving a royal decree of ‘yay or nay’. Aside from religious differences, a large force driving the trial was frustration over Jewish economic privilege and competition. Through a speedy trial, officials perhaps hoped to stop Jewish influence in Przemyśl, but they overplayed their hand by challenging the king’s authority over such matters and executing those involved without the king’s consent. After the trial, King Sigismund III disciplined those officials that had overstepped their boundaries of authority, thus demonstrating his power over local court procedures.

Chapter 8 – Justice and the Politics of Crime

There was a trend among sacrilegious cases: ones involving only Christians were often swifter than ones involving Jews. This can be explained by Jews’ access to power, such as economic power, community solidarity, high-ranking connections, etc. Due to this network of support, Jewish persecutions always had an underlying political context. Though accusations against Jews have been used to drive them out of cities, court documents have found evidence that some cases were met with skepticism and didn’t end in either death or Jewish expulsion.

When violent crimes didn’t involve sacrilege or religious accusations, people were tried based on their crime rather than their religion. In fact, some crimes were even committed by Jewish-Christian gangs.


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