The desecration of the Host refers to the alleged profanation of the wafer consecrated in the Roman Catholic ceremony of the Eucharist, and believed in the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation to become thereby the actual body of Jesus. The doctrine was first officially recognized at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. After that period it was widely held that in certain circumstances – for instance disbelief or desecration – the Host might show supernatural powers. At the same time, it was imagined in some Christian circles that the Jews, believing paradoxically (which they obviously could not if they remained Jews) that the consecrated wafer was in fact the very body of Jesus, desired to renew upon it and him the agonies of the Passion, by stabbing, tormenting, or burning it. Such was the intensity of their paradoxical hatred that they would not abandon their Jewish perfidy even if the sacred wafer manifested its indignation and its miraculous essence by shedding blood, emitting voices, or even taking to flight.
There is no need to regard as a wholly spiteful invention the statement that the consecrated wafer shed drops of blood, the most common manner in which the outrage became known, for a scarlet fungoid organism (called for this reason the Micrococcus prodigiosus) may sometimes form on stale food kept in a dry place, having an appearance not unlike blood. The charge of desecrating the Host was leveled against Jews all over the Roman Catholic world, frequently bringing in its train persecution and massacre.
The first recorded case of alleged Desecration of the Host was at Belitz near Berlin in 1243, when a number of Jews and Jewesses were burned at the stake on this charge on the spot later known as the Judenberg. It is significant that no cases or few are recorded in Italy, partly owing to the protective policies of the popes, partly to the skeptical nature of the Italian people (the best-known Italian case, the
miracle of Bolsena (1264) involved a doubting priest, not a Jew). On the other hand, the most remarkable artistic representation of the Desecration of the Host was in the famous altar predella painted by Paolo Uccello (1397–1475) for the Confraternity of the Sacred Sacrament at Urbino, showing in successive panels a Jewish loan banker purchasing a wafer from a needy woman, his attempt to burn it, the miraculous manifestation that followed, and the subsequent terrible punishment by burning of the culprit – with his entire family. The Jews were expelled from England (1290) before the libel became widely spread; but there it received its reflection in the Croxton Sacrament Play, written long after the Expulsion (c. 1461).
Well-known incidents on the Continent were those of Paris in 1290, commemorated in the Church of the Rue des Billettes and in a local confraternity which long flourished; in Brussels (Enghien) in 1370, long celebrated in a special festivity and still in important artistic relics in the Church of St. Gudule, which led to the extermination of Belgian Jewry; at Deggendorf in Bavaria in 1337–38 which sparked off a series of massacres affecting scores of places in the region, still celebrated locally as the Deggendorf Gnad; at Knoblauch near Berlin in 1510 which resulted in 38 barbarous executions and the expulsion of Jews from Brandenburg (it was subsequently discovered that a common thief was responsible); at Segovia in 1415, said to have brought about an earthquake which resulted in the confiscation of the synagogue, the execution of leading Jews, and still the occasion of the great local feast of Corpus Christi. The Infante Don Juan of Aragon took under his personal patronage allegations of the sort at Barcelona in 1367 (when some of the greatest Jewish scholars of the age, including Ḥasdai Crescas and Isaac B. Sheshet Perfet, were implicated) and in Teruel and Huesca ten years later.
The Marranos of Spain and Portugal were also popularly believed to continue the malpractice of their Jewish predecessors in this respect. When in 1671 the pyx with a consecrated host was stolen from the Church of Orivellas in Lisbon (by a common thief as subsequently transpired) the court went into mourning and an edict was signed banishing all New Christians from the country. Even in the 18th century, an Alsatian Jew was cruelly executed with others on a charge of desecrating the Host (Nancy 1761). The accusation was brought up in Romania (Bislad) as late as 1836.
A. Ackermann, in: MGWJ, 49 (1905), 167–82; J. Miret y Sans, in: Anuari de l'Institut d'Estudis Catalans, 4 (1911–12); P. Browe, in: Roemische Quartalschrift fuer christliche Alterthumskunde, 34 (1926), 167–97; P. Lefevre, in: Revue d'Histoire ecclésiastique, 28 (1932), 329–46; J. Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews (1943), index; C. Roth, Personalities and Events in Jewish History (1953), 60–62; Baer, Spain, 2 (1961), 38–39, 88–90.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.