The Presence of Objects: Medieval Anti-Judaism in Modern Germany
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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 1-32



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The Presence of Objects Medieval Anti-Judaism in Modern Germany

Caroline Walker Bynum

[Figures]

On the southwest corner of a large brick Gothic church in the little town of Sternberg in north Germany is a curious stone. Mortared into the wall of a chapel that juts out beside what was once the main portal of the church, the stone bears, deeply embedded in it, large prints of two bare feet, on the edges of which chisel marks are visible. A xeroxed church guide, available on a table inside the porch, mentions it only briefly, explaining that the stone, which was incorporated into the wall in 1496, is one on which the wife of the Jew Eleazar is said to have stood when she tried to sink a desecrated host in the nearby creek. Unable to cast away the host, she supposedly sank into the stone (fig. 1).

Located in the green and beautiful Mecklenburg landscape, Sternberg, like most areas of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), is now suffering from massive unemployment and the flight of its youth to the west and to urban areas. 1 Its train station is closed; even local buses run there only on weekdays. Yet in the early sixteenth century, it was a prominent enough pilgrimage site to be [End Page 1] singled out for attack in Martin Luther's famous Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. The cause of its pilgrimage was the objects which Eleazar's wife allegedly attempted to destroy by drowning: consecrated hosts (communion wafers) provided to the Jews by a priest in order to redeem a pawned cooking pot. (According to one account the pot actually belonged to his concubine.) Those hosts were supposedly stuck with knives or nails until blood flowed from them and then, when they could not be sunk in water, were buried on the grounds of the former court of the duke. Revealed finally to the local clergy, they were found, blood-spotted, and worked miracles. Sixty-five Jews were tortured and confessed to the host desecration. Twenty-seven were executed by burning in a place still known as the Judenberg, on the edge of which was, in modern times, the cemetery of the Jewish community. (The priest was burned a year later in Rostock.) The remaining Jews were expelled from Mecklenburg, where they are not found again until the eighteenth century. 2 [End Page 2]

The point of this piece is not the story of the Jews of Sternberg nor of the pilgrimage. That story is certainly worth telling for English-speaking audiences, and many Germans today are unfamiliar with Sternberg and the many similar stories from the states of Mecklenburg and Brandenburg. Even when such incidents are known, they are often thought (quite incorrectly) to be characteristically south German. But in the past two decades scholars have written much about such events, and their accounts are readily available. Recent scholarship agrees that, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, pogroms often came first, giving rise subsequently to stories that Jews had desecrated eucharistic hosts—whereas by the fifteenth century such stories, which were on the increase, tended to be elicited by torture in carefully regulated judicial procedures. The rise of legal process transformed legends and lynchings into evidence and judicial murder. 3 Scholars also agree in attributing complex political and economic motives to the protagonists in such events, disagreeing only about who benefited in particular cases from the expulsions and pilgrim revenues (secular princes, ecclesiastical ones, townspeople and merchants, or local clergy?). In other words, recent research has concentrated on historical fact (what happened?), recent interpretation on political, economic, or functional explanation (who or what group profited?). 4 My point here is not, however, events such as those of 1492, but the [End Page 3] objects that still stand in German churches bearing witness to these events. For the odd stone with its large footprints is not the only physical object in the Mary church at Sternberg that carries in its very stuff...