On December 28, 1235, the residents of the town of Fulda, today in Hesse state in central Germany, rose up against their Jewish neighbors, burning 34 of them to death. The killings were meant to be revenge or punishment for the Christmas Day deaths of five Gentile brothers from the town, but none of the accused enjoyed a trial, and no evidence existed to support the charges.
Of particular historical note was the fact that “the Jews” were also accused of draining and consuming the blood of the five children, making this the first recorded instance of a charge of blood cannibalism, as contemporary historians sometimes refer to what is more commonly called the blood libel.
The Fulda massacre is known about from at least two contemporary sources, by the chroniclers of both Erfurt and Marbach.
According to the chronicles, the parents of the child victims returned to their home from Christmas services to find their house burned to the ground and the lifeless, charred bodies of their children next to it. When the shocked parents questioned their neighbors about what they might have seen, they were told that “the Jews did it,” and “it” also included the siphoning off of the blood.
Confession and negation
According to the Erfurt chronicler, the Jews confessed to the crime, although they offered no explanation for why they wanted the blood. They were then killed by Crusaders who were passing through Fulda on their way back from the Sixth Crusade. The Marbach chronicler adds the trenchant detail that the Jews said they required the blood “ad suum remedium” – that is, for use in concocting a medical remedy. In the Marbach account, it was the townspeople themselves who carried out the killings of the 34 Jews.
A number of Fulda residents, we are told, then took the bodies of the five Christian brothers and traveled with them by cart to the castle of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, in Hagenau, a distance of some 240 kilometers.
Frederick had never before encountered an accusation of Jews making use of Christian blood, whether for medication or for the baking of Passover matzo, as became the claim in the years and centuries to come. The emperor sent inquiries to his fellow monarchs in Europe, asking if they had heard of such a thing. When only negative responses were forthcoming, Frederick then summoned to the court a number of prominent Jewish converts to Christianity, who presumably retained a degree of familiarity with Jewish texts and customs. He asked them whether the Jews had a use for human blood.
The converts responded unanimously to the emperor that not only was there no Jewish ritual that depended on blood, but that Jews were expressly prohibited from consuming blood of any kind. As Frederick stated in the declaration he prepared, “we pronounce the Jews of the aforesaid place and the rest of the Jews of Germany completely absolved of this imputed crime.”
Unfortunately, Frederick’s statement, made in the spring of 1236, came too late to serve the 34 Jews of Fulda. Nor did it suffice to put an early end to the accusation of blood cannibalism, which was still in circulation against Jews in the 20th century.