- Pilgrimage and Pogrom: Violence, Memory and Visual Culture at the Host-Miracle Shrines of Germany and Austria by Mitchell B. Merback
In this sumptuously illustrated and densely argued book, Mitchell B. Merback examines the linkages among anti-Jewish violence, accusations of host desecration, and religious sites of commemoration and pilgrimage in regions of Bavaria and Austria in the high Middle Ages. Starting in the thirteenth century, waves of libels against the Jews for committing ritual murder, using Christian blood for their own nefarious rituals, and attacking sacred Christian objects resulted in judicial and extrajudicial violence. Accusations of host desecration were a subset of these anti-Jewish myths, starting with an incident in Paris in 1290 that Merback regards as the archetype for his German case studies.
In addition to his detailed discussion of the semiotics of the art and architecture of churches erected on the alleged sites of host desecration, Merback makes an important contribution to the historiography of anti-Jewish violence. Although virtually everyone has assumed that accusations against the Jews were the proximate cause of violence against them, Merback argues that, at least in some of his cases, [End Page 134] the violence preceded the myths of sacrilege. He borrows the Russian word pogrom to describe paroxysms of mass violence against the Jews whose causes may not have been specifically religious. Only later were the narratives of host desecration, typically borrowed directly or indirectly from the Paris archetype, imposed on local events as a way of explaining and justifying mob violence. Merback argues convincingly for this chronology by showing how the erection of cultic sites of commemoration often came significantly later than the events themselves. However, since not all of his cases are so clear cut and not all of them feature mass violence against Jews, cause and effect in some instances are hard to disentangle.
Already two decades ago, Israel Yuval showed how ritual murder cases were almost always linked to the production of a saint and to a cultic site of pilgrimage. From an economic point of view, ritual murder and host desecration were good business because they produced religious tourism. Merback builds on this kind of argument to demonstrate the importance of sites of host desecration for latemedieval pilgrimage. He notes that with the failure of the crusades, pilgrims had to find destinations within Europe and that the German churches he investigates served such functions. In addition, Germany was relatively poor in relics so that there was a need to generate such objects of veneration from local sources. These conditions laid the groundwork for the linkage between anti-Jewish accusations and cultic commemoration.
Merback is particularly attentive to the role of blood in these tales. Jews are said to make the host bleed, which becomes the justification for shedding their blood. The iconography of the lieux de memoire that he reads very closely repeatedly features images of the bleeding Christ. This blood iconography was part of a larger iconography of blood relics in late-medieval Germany described recently by Caroline Walker Bynum.
It is hard after reading Merback’s book and viewing the many images he brings to ignore the extraordinary violence that attended Jewish-Christian relations after the crusades in both reality and imagination. He concludes by contending that the horrific history behind his churches should not obscure their contribution to culture: “For it is the work of culture to mark the site of sacrilege, the site of miracle, and the site of trauma …” (p. 291). True enough, but what does it say about a culture that its very origins lie in such bloody violence?