(This post contains imagery from anti-Semitic propaganda for the purposes of illustration and discussion, but the most vulgar and violent depictions are modern, c. 1990s onward, and are unfortunately not suitable for all viewers, so I’ve tried to avoid their addition. Please be advised that the imagery and subject matter are sensitive, and that the racist viewpoints present in the Blood Libel rumor will not be suffered or championed here.)
Historically, our monster myths are commonly shaped by the fears and prejudices that groups of people hold against ‘others’. Many of these prejudices are influenced by a series of differences that separate the primary group and opposing group from homogeneity. A group with a different skin colour, a different language, or a different religion would be considered to be one step away; if multiple differences were exemplified by a group, then the degrees of separation would increase accordingly. Intolerance additionally increases with regards to proximity. The closer two groups are in physical proximity to each other, the higher the tensions become. This became most apparent as post-Roman Empire Europe developed more close-knit relations throughout its fledgling kingdoms, from trade-routes to treaties; tensions heightened between these formerly hegemonic kingdoms and people-groups. Native Europeans became increasingly aware and uncomfortable of these other groups, and this led to redefinition of their monsters. Chief among these was the formulation of the Blood Libel myth, which, combined with Central and Eastern European folklore, became the basis of our modern understanding of vampires.
Before the vampire myth crossed over to the western shores of Europe in the early Middle Ages, another ‘plague’ swept across these tightly-controlled, hegemonious lands, polluting blood ties and racial harmony, purportedly stealing young women and children, and enacting dark cabalic rites to ancient gods that left its victims drained of blood and horrifically mutilated. I am speaking, of course, of the Jews, or at least, the perception of the Jewish diaspora in the European Middle Ages. The Jews had been taken from their native lands and brought into servitude to a variety of empires and masters, dispersed throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, and left without any overarching identity outside of their religion. As Europe unified under the banner of early Christianity, the Jews, once seen as the chosen people of that Christian God, were perceived to be increasingly pagan. At best, seen as the people responsible for crucifying the Christ, backwards and intolerant to the point of antagonistic to their own savior, who had walked among them unknown.(1) At worst, they were dark-skinned Outsiders, part and parcel of a three-way struggle for the Holy Lands, quietly and decisively ensnaring these Christian lands in a bid for destruction from within.(2)
Native Europeans formulated a series of rumors and mischaracterizations directed toward the Jews, all with the intent to cause social division and distrust. Christians throughout Europe claimed that they poisoned wells with urine, fecal matter, or noxious chemicals. They said the Jews desecrated the holy wafers that represented the body of their God. The ‘Blood Libel’ gained special dominance amidst these cruel rumors, marked by its extremities. This rumor alleged that the Jewish community stole young non-Jewish children from their surrounding communities, ritually mutilated them, and drained them of their blood before disposing of their corpse like someone would dispose an empty can of pop. It combined a protective instinct toward children with a series of repulsions and taboos related to violence, bodily fluids, and disrespect for the dead, a potent mix to ensure the immediate attention of the communities it reached, and widespread coverage of the libel throughout the land.
If this was insufficient to ensure the Jews were branded with a foul reputation, this rumor had more alterations to raise fears and loathing wherever it traveled. The Blood Libel rumors easily mutated through its spread, adding new details and amplifying others, which gave it an unnaturally extended lifespan. At the height of the Crusades and perceived Christian duty toward the Holy Lands, detractors proclaimed the Jews to be motivated by a secret obscene pact of native’s blood in return for their Holy Lands. In this narrative, all Jews in all locations were always the enemy, lionized and radicalized against their new homes and ready at the moment’s notice to slaughter their neighbors for their god. When the Plagues were sweeping through Europe, Jewish ritual cleanliness and prescribed interactions in caring for the sick, handling bodily fluids, and maintaining hygiene kept them from dying in the same numbers as their Christian neighbors. In this instance, they were closely associated with the rats, the perceived plague-bringers, and accused on two fronts of unnatural self-protection against the plague and perpetuation of this travesty against their neighbors. After a period of time, the Blood Libel altered their expressed motivations to the sacrifice of Christian blood for Jewish health, either by spilling it before their icons, bathing in it, or consuming it. Later still, the rumor gained almost delightedly-lavished details on the Jews consuming this blood: mixing it with their wine, making unleavened matza balls with it, even consuming the pure blood of a Christian innocent to stave off their own diseases. They were purported to be cursed by Christ on the cross to have internal hemorrhages or ulcerations that required constant consumption of blood. Some versions indicated the Jews to have symptoms like porphyria or leprosy that again required blood to heal them. One version even went so far as to say that all Jewish men menstruated anally or penilely, and that this blood-loss could only be counteracted with the consumption of blood. The Blood Libel became firmly entrenched with this Outsider society secretly preying upon good, decent native peoples and consuming the blood of their most innocent and helpless.
There are a few cases noted in public record of the Blood Libel rumor charged against the Jewish community. Like the witch trials, which would proceed from these events, as well as the Inquisition, which would rise in the middle of the Blood Libel accusations, these charges were directed to very specific ends. The excessively bloody tale allowed accusers to turn public opinion against the Jews, drive them from their homes, take their possessions, kill them in large groups, and exile them from their new countries. Each case built on the charges of the last, including new details to scandalize the non-Jewish European populace and better excuse their actions. Its credibility rested less on substantial evidence, and more on mob mentality and the public’s desire to believe that these neighbors they framed as ‘other’ were capable of such atrocities.
The first of such accusations against the Jewish community came in 1144. The body of young William of Norwich was discovered in the forest covered in stab wounds, and the locals placed blame on the Jews immediately, disproportionately retaliatory toward dozens of Jews versus a single fixed perpetrator, and singularly racially based. Benedictine monk Thomas of Monmouth arrived in Norwich around 1449 and became fixated with the case. He unsuccessfully tried to have William canonized as a saint, specifically focusing on his death as ritual murder and martyrdom, and penned a book that laid the claims out in lurid detail. In the Life of Saint William of Norwich, a converted Jew named Theobald of Cambridge purportedly revealed the existence of a secret international council of Jews that would select a child from a different country each year for ritualistic murder. The murder would take place around Passover, or Easter, to ensure that the Jews would be able to take back their Holy Land, and always done by the local Jews. In this specific case, the book claimed William had been crucified, although this claim didn’t match the wounds discovered on his body. Glowingly racist, Thomas repeatedly called the Jews “our enemies” in the first volume, and produced two more between 1155 and 1172, specifically alleging that the Jews were to make the ritualistic murder mirror that of Jesus’s death as closely as possible. Although few commoners were literate, upper-class individuals like priests, merchants, and noblemen would have had access to this book and dispersed these accusations as given fact.
In light of this publication, further accusations followed in Glouchester (3), Bury St. Edmunds (4), and Bristol (5), each increasing mob rage and prejudices, and finally culminating in bloody massacres in London and York from 1189 through the mid 1190s, uprooting entire family trees in the process.(6) These prejudices had brewed and developed along quietly, but these instances gave communities the justification to act on their discomforts and prejudices. In each instance of accusation, locals attempted to saint the young ‘martyrs’, and local cults developed around their veneration. Many cases of ‘ritual martyrs’ included the removal of their bodies to church-grounds, which increased attendance to these holy sites, and amplified these distorted stories. By canonizing these children as saints, the Church continued the depiction of these falsified deeds as truly abominable, to the point that anyone who endured them must have the attributes of a saint. It painted the Jews as monsters, inhuman or traitors to the human race, and opened the justification for future discrimination, each case the building block for the next.
Then came a decidedly different kind of crime against the Jews, one step above killing a few representative kinsmen, or massacring a few families here and there in vigilante ‘justice’. On July 31, 1255, nine-year old Hugh of Lincoln went missing from his home. His body was recovered the 29th of August from a well, and accusations against the Jews soon followed from a man named John of Lexington.(7) Friends of Hugh claimed to have witnessed the local Jew Copin enact certain tortures to him including crucifixion, and the boy had been found in Copin’s well. That was all the evidence they needed, and they used torture to extract additional confessions from him that implicated his community as a whole. This case was markedly different because of an economic element that came into play: only six months earlier, King Henry had sold the rights to tax the Jews to his brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall. The Jews, by practicing separate religious and cultural rites, were taxed additional amounts per-person to live in the country, and were encouraged not to convert so that this lucrative additional income could be generated year-to-year. King Henry created a loophole for himself to be able to take back a portion of that income by decreeing that Jews convicted of crimes would turn over their money, possessions, and properties to the Crown. Instead of mob-like pogroms and lynchings, Jews would now be put on trial so their wealth in totality could be funneled back to the Crown, and this essentially declared open season on Jews and assured future persecution for monetary gain. No longer would they just be killed or ostracized; the Crown would bleed dry their wealth and assets in the process. In total, some ninety Jews were arrested in connection to the death of Hugh, and they were held in the Tower of London, all on the charge of ritual murder. Eighteen were hanged when they went to trial by instead asking for their right to a Christian jury; their property was appropriated by the Crown. The rest were pardoned and freed, reputations irreparably damaged, thanks to Richard of Cornwall’s desire for renewable income. Hugh of Lincoln was canonized as Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln to distinguish him from the adult Saint Hugh of Lincoln; in no small part due to the surprising amount of wealth and ease of access generated by such a ‘martyrdom’. Geoffrey Chaucer included the story in his Canterbury Tales, and the Blood Libel became a staple of English literature ever since. Despite Richard of Cornwall’s fund-drive, tensions increased bitterly and resolutely until the Jews were forcibly expelled from England in 1290.
This wasn’t the end of Blood Libel, and once released into the world, it was employed to great effect throughout Europe. Similar accusations, trials, mob massacres, and economic persecution cropped up in over a dozen odd countries to drive the Jews out over the next few centuries. The depictions of the Jews as nomadic and desperate had direct ties to their near-permanent exile and continuous loss of any form of haven through the effects of the Blood Libel. It took a long time for the Jewish community to be able to venture back into the countries they once lived, and they still faced economic disadvantages and social persecution from the communities which had driven them out before. But the Blood Libel and its bloodthirsty effects would not die so easily with the passage of time, and it merely spread its message through different formats, like William Shakespeare’s 1600 play the Merchant of Venice, with the villainous Jew Shylock thwarted from collecting on his debts by specific Blood Libel laws preventing him from spilling even a single drop of Christian blood, unless he wanted to give up his wealth and property in the process (again economically motivated and economically thwarted). Western literature and film borrowed visual elements from the Blood Libel here and there, with the depiction of grotesque hypnotic predator and outsider Svengali, for example, and the vampire narrative drew strongly from the xenophobic impulses toward Jews, as well as the fixation on blood and plague-bringing as two essential traits of the vampire.
Dracula, the single most popular vampire in the history of vampire narrative, displayed a wide array of those folkloric traits, particularly his great show of wealth, but his foreignness was emphasized as one of the greatest indicators of wrongness, especially in regards to his desire to assimilate with native Londoners. Given a long, prominent nose; long facial hair; at times sallow skin; dark, somber clothing; and shying away from the cross, as the Jews were said to, Dracula’s attributes alluded to certain Jewish stereotypes without actually crossing into uncomfortable readings. Unfortunately, its first cinematic translation borrowed straight from Blood Libel and anti-semitic textbooks to present its lead vampire. Nosferatu, a plagiarized translation of Dracula to the silver screen, may have been the first surviving depiction of a traditional male vampire in cinema, and was quite the doozy on audiences. Prior to its appearance, cinematic vampires were traditionalized femme fatales, ‘vamps’, divorced from the grotesqueries of their literary male counterparts and dominantly sexualized. Nosferatu’s Count Orlok returned to the earliest connections between the Blood Libel and vampires, purposefully taking anti-semitic imagery and reinfusing it into the vampire narrative. This vampire transfixed viewers with his strikingly bald pate, bulging eyes, rat-like teeth, spider-like hands, and dark clothes, all fixtures of racially-charged anti-Jewish propaganda. He traveled with rats, bugs, and spiders, again emphasizing the connection to plague vectors, and his methods of predation struck viewers as twisted, frightening, and wrong to all senses, devoid of any hint of sexuality. The anti-semitic connection unfortunately drew in that ‘wrongness’ as another inherent aspect — now, in addition to the assertion that the Jews were vampires, they added that the vampires were Jews — that these monsters were identified by these cultural aspects which made them more monstrous than before by the inclusion. Nosferatu also debuted for a different cultural audience; whereas Dracula was aimed toward English audiences, Nosferatu was rewritten to be placed in, populated by and directed to the German community. It premiered in 1922, between World War I and World War II, and it took every anti-semitic depiction and bias as inspiration to horrify its audiences in a direct continuation of the Blood Libel through the very specific insinuation of outright vampirism.(8) In World War II propaganda, this lie was used to great effect to dehumanize the Jews again and make them repulsive. Combined with prior Blood Libel practices, the anti-semitism rampant in Germany provided fertile ground for them to deprive millions of Jews of their homes, communities, livelihoods, possessions, and lives. The aftermath of the Holocaust struck Blood Libel and the easy villains-as-Jews stereotype from the media, for the first time in centuries.
Vampiric ‘Jewishness’ mercifully faded from the forefront of public consciousness as other fears took precedence. Dracula’s own eponymous Count was decades ahead of its time in bridging the xenophobic fears of racial blood pollution and societal divide with unvoiced fears of homosexuality, and classist struggles against the aristocracy. Given the close proximity of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders, and the prevailing theory that an aristocrat or upper-class individual committed the murders, it allowed for a fortuitous segue into less controversial camps. From an economic mindset, some association remained. Even after the Jews began to be perceived as ‘white’, they were still racially othered, still considered a subset like Caucasian and Aryan, still excluded with their own strict rules of bloodlines and family ties. Due to longstanding laws that dictated that Jews could not own land or certain businesses, well-established Jewish families had solid links to banking, loans, and financing services, certainly making them richer than Christian or Muslim peers, and inspiring resentment in their neighbors.(9) That financial divide may have played a motivation in the pogrom targeting of Jewish communities, but it carried over strongly in anti-capitalist works. Karl Marx depicted capitalists as blood-suckers, using vampiric elements to portray capitalism as a predatory mechanism that sucked in “living labour as its soul, vampire-like.” He essentially said that the very way they lived (by the constraints of the lands they lived in) producing interest and profits were extracted from the labours and livelihoods of others, that they contributed nothing to the system but parasitically fed off it for their own benefit. (It should be noted that while Karl Marx had a Jewish background himself, he wrote works described as radically anti-semitic, like On the Jewish Question.) Others played on the stereotype of Jews as self-interested money-grubbing villains by conflating money and debt with violence, like Shakespeare’s Shylock, if not literally blood-sucking abominations, then at least perceived as grossly exploitative of those around them. Economists and critics noted that the Jewish-oriented capitalism and vampirism were closely related, particularly with regards to unrestrained consumption and accumulation of wealth and resources. Ironically, despite this extremely negative reputation that again funneled back to a definitively vampiric portrayal of exploitation and appetite, it was their detractors and aggressors who did more to steal the wealth and properties of the Jewish community wholesale, exploiters with tremendous appetites of their own for that hard-won Jewish success.
Recently, we have seen a return of vampiric elements to modern Blood Libel, through political cartoons, graffiti, slang, and propaganda. These pieces are undeniably anti-semitic in nature, and borrow from the cultural cache of the vampire, with its own tropes and stereotypes, as a new form of shorthand for the Blood Libel. No longer, for example, do we see the Jews illustrated as mutilating native children with lances, like the Christ; instead, these racist depictions show them with long fangs in their mouth exsanguinating their victims as vampires do. In many ways, the stereotypes of vampirism seem the most concise way to stigmatize the Jews, just as the way the Jews were portrayed developed the stereotypes of vampirism in the first place. The Blood Libel was weaponized against the Jewish population to remove them from the countries they made their home, kill them en mass, incite violence and hatred for them, and justify the large scale theft of their property. Unfortunately, in every regard, history has proven this to be a pretty effective way for getting rid of Jews. Whereas Satanic pacts and black magic is now seen as a ridiculous flight of fancy, and practitioners of witchcraft deserving of religious freedoms like everyone else, the capture and mutilation of children for dark rites or merely for subversive acts of loathing against their host countries still somehow is portrayed as a believable and continuous action with urban legend ‘cases’ and claims continuing to this day. As long as some faction is able to use the Blood Libel to stir public opinion against the Jews, it will be put to use, and as long as Hollywood has a fascination with the vampire, some echoes of those stereotypes will remain present in the depiction of the vampire ever-onward.