History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

The Hussite Movement and Its Effect on Jewry.

Reference has already been made to the corruptions that were slowly eating their way into the foundations of the Catholic Church. These were beginning to be noticed with disquietude by its own earnest sons, and the boldest of them began sounding an alarm. The times were ripening for a new order of things. But they were ripening imperceptibly. "The wheels of God grind slowly."

So, long before the Church revolution, or, as it is better known, the "Reformation," took place, warning preachers appeared. (This subject is fully treated in the concluding volume. Modem Jewish History.) They were but voices crying in the wilderness—martyrs for a cause for which they prepared the way but whose fulfilment they were not destined to see.

Among the more famous and earliest of these was John Wycliffe, a man high in the English university and the Church. He dared to condemn the conduct of some churchmen and some doctrines of the Church. His disciples became a sect known as Lollards, and many were burnt as heretics. So the first seeds were sown in the fourteenth century and were scattered far.

John Huss.

They were blown across the continent and reached Bohemia. In Prague, John Huss, of peasant origin, but with a distinguished university career, was fired by the works of Wycliffe, which reached his hands. Rector of a people's chapel, he, too, entered the lists against Church corruption. His first work was an expose of forged miracles and ecclesiastical greed.

A breach was formed that gradually widened between him and his clerical colleagues, and he was forbidden to perform priestly functions. But the religious issue in Prague was complicated with a racial issue. Life's problems rarely come unmixed . The native population was Czech, but there was a large German settlement and great antagonism existed between the two nationalities. (It exists to this day.) The public-spirited Huss placed himself at the head of the Czech party. So he was the people's hero in every way, while for the same reason he earned the dual animosity of clerics and Germans.

It is beyond the province of this volume to tell the story of his gradual breach with the Church. Suffice to record here that he was condemned by the Council of Constance and burnt there in 1413.

His death brought a protest from the Prague diet and roused the indignation of all Bohemia. The further burning of Jerome of Prague by the Council of Constance crystalized the opponents into a Hussite party with John Zizka, a soldier, at its head. They compared themselves to the Israelites and the Catholics to the heathen Philistines. The historian Graetz says: "Whenever a party in Christendom opposes itself to the ruling church it assumes a tinge of the Old Testamnet, not to say Jewish spirit." Lecky, in his Rationalism in Europe, further declares: "The early Protestant defenders of civil liberty derived their political principles from the Old Testament, and the defenders of despotism from the New."

A war was the outcome, which continued fitfully from 1420 to 1434. Although the Emperor could summon a vast army to his banner and mercenaries came from many lands, still the Hussites made up in zeal for what they lacked in numbers. In this respect they resembled the Maccabees of old as against the Greek Syrians. But the Catholic party was still too strong, for the day was not yet at hand for all Europe to be roused. That came later. For the time being, the Hussites were defeated, in 1434. As a political party it disappeared, but some slight concessions were won. The cause was leavening.

The Hussites and the Jews.

Now to consider the relation the Jews had to this conflict in the Church—for all great questions touched them in some way. The Pope who held the chair during the entire struggle was Martin V—not at all a bad man as popes went. On his appointment a Jewish deputation met him with congratulations and gifts, including a scroll of the Law. He received them with the words: "You have the Law, but understand it not—the old has been superseded by the new." But his deed was kinder than his word. In response to distinct Jewish appeals against continued outrageous treatment, he issued a bull in which he reminded Christendom that Jews were made in the image of God (some had forgotten they were even human)—that they were to be undisturbed in the observance of the customs of the Synagogue and were not to be coerced to conform to those of the Church; that their business relations with Christians were to be unrestricted. The Emperor Sigismund, equally considerate, sent a message throughout Germany, in 1418, to confirm these privileges.

But when war broke out between Catholic and Hussite all this good was undone, for the Catholics rather illogically vented part of their fanaticism on the Jews; they were even accused of secretly aiding the Hussites. Like the Crusaders, the armies turned upon the Jews as their nearer enemies—so war was varied by massacre. Once more we have the sickening instances of Jewish parents mercifully slaying their children to save them from a worse fate at the hands of barbarians.

The Jewish community proclaimed a fast for several days, in 1421, and prayer for the success of the Hussites.

Martin V issued another bull, in 1422, in defence of the Jews, but it was of no avail against the passions aroused by war. The Benedictine monks preached against the Jews; the clergy made laws against them; Cologne expelled them, and some South German towns burnt them.

Persecutions in Austria.

Austria, once tolerant, now became the storm centre under the Archduke Albert, who for two sad years was emperor. 'Twas he who, in 1439, endorsed their expulsion from Augsburg. All the slanderous accusations, now worn threadbare, were furnished against long-suffering Israel. The rich were plundered, the poor banished, and the alternative of the Cross or the sword offered them once more.

Children were taken from their parents and placed in cloisters—others were burnt, while some forced converts escaped to live an open Jewish life elsewhere.

The story is told of one youth, who renounced his faith and became a favorite of Duke Frederick. Later he was overtaken by remorse. He firmly declared his intention of returning to Judaism and joyfully went to the stake a martyr to the religion of his ancestors.

Finally, a Church Council at Basel that sat from 1431 to 1443, inflamed by the Hussite heresy, made the Jews feel its fanaticism by renewing all the old restrictions against them with regard to holding public offices, hiring Christian servants, wearing a badge and living in a separate quarter. In addition thereto, Jews were to be compelled to listen to conversion sermons and to be debarred from university degrees. Pope Eugenius IV intensified these restrictions, practically treating Jews and Mohammedans as outlaws.

In this same Hussite cycle of events is yet another story of ritual murder brought against the Jews of Palma in Majorca. That the person they were charged with slaying was discovered alive and unhurt made little difference. The occasion was used as a pretext to force the whole Jewish community into the Church after having existed there for a thousand years.

Let us complete the record of the Jews of Austria of this period.

The half century reign of Emperor Frederick III, from 1440-1498, covering the regime of six popes, made life for Jews in German provinces, which included Austria, one of unbroken bitterness and peril; not because he was wicked, but only because he was weak. Outside of their cities of residence, they were practically outlaws, passive Ishmaelites in that, though unoffending, all men's hands were against them.

Simon of Trent.

We will single out from many, the saddest tragedy of his reign. In 1475, the accidental drowning of a boy, Simon of Trent, in the Austrian Tyrol, was easily worked up into the regular "blood accusation," with the monotony of whose procedure the reader must be wearied. It meant a virulent attack on the Jews and the burning of many.

Pilgrims came to view the body and declared they saw a halo hovering around it. A church was reared at the boy's grave, which continued to be a place of pilgrimage. In spite of the official denial of Pope Sixtus IV and his refusal to permit Simon's canonization, this "ritual murder" is recorded in the Catholic book of the "Acts of the Saints," still in use—like the similar and earlier fiction of Hugh of Lincoln. Long is the life of a lie.

The incident fanned anew the flames of fanaticism wherever the legend was told. Ratisbon would have slain its whole Jewish community were it not for the vigorous intervention of the Emperor. The Jews of Swabia were expelled and outrages were continued to be imposed on those of other communities for generations afterwards for this mythical crime.

Thus the fifteenth century, like the fourteenth, closes in tears and blood.


Simon of Trent:—As late as the year 1899, in reply to a similar accusation in Bonn, Dr. Giidemann, of Vienna, declared that "every blood accusation is a shameless falsification of the truth." A suit was brought against him for libeling the Catholic Church, since it still officially recognized the murder of Simon of Trent!

"Blood Accusation":—Read Das Blitt in Glauhen und Aberglauben der Menschhcit, by Hermann L. Strack, professor of theology in the University of Berlin.

In reviewing this book. Professor Schechter writes:— "The subject must be more painful to the Christian scholar, who naturally considers it as does Professor Strack, a profanation of the name of Christ, and a terrible libel upon his Church. . . .

"The book opens with a precise, but full account of all the beliefs and superstitions connected with blood among the various nations of the world, both civilized and savage. . . . He shows how strange legends connected with the host even led to the erroneous belief that early Christianity practiced human sacrifices. . . . Chapter xix is devoted to the protests against this slander of the Jews by popes, cardinals, bishops, emperors, kings and princes, by theological faculties and individual scholars."

Dr. Strack was determined not to hold his peace as long as he could "wield the sword of the spirit."

Thus scholarship was brought to the service of justice and humanity. He has nailed a hoary slander that has done incalculable mischief to Israel. An English translation is issued by the Bloch Publishing Co.

Theme for Discussion:—Why did the Hussite uprising foment antagonism against the Jews?