Jews and the Renaissance

The persecution and execution of Jews in 15th-century Italy highlights the ambiguous attitudes of Renaissance intellectuals towards Jewish people, their beliefs and their historical relationship with Christian theology, as Stephen Bowd explains.

The ritual murder of Simon of Trent, in a woodcut by Michael Wolgemut from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. AKG Images/UllsteinOn Easter Sunday, March 26th, 1475, the corpse of a young child called Simon was found floating in a ditch in the city of Trent (now in Italy). Simon had been missing for several days and rumours had circulated implicating the local Jewish community in his disappearance. The house of Samuel, the leader of the small Jewish community, was investigated by the chief magistrate, Giovanni de Salis, and it was in the dirty stream running through the cellar of Samuel’s house that the boy’s mutilated body was finally discovered. Observing that it bled in their presence, traditionally a sure sign of guilt, six Jews were promptly arrested. Two doctors in the service of the local prince-bishop examined the body in the hospital of St Peter’s Church. One doctor, who quickly sent an account of the case to his native city of Brescia over the border in the Venetian empire, stated that the boy had been dead since Good Friday and that the absence of water in his body indicated that he had not drowned. To make matters worse for the Jews, one witness came forward to give an account of hearing Simon’s cries from Samuel’s house, while another alleged that her son was found injured in Samuel’s shed 14 years earlier.

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