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  • Satirizing the Blood Libel:Ritual Cannibalism, Infant Sacrifice, and Bloodied Knives in "A Modest Proposal"
  • Lori A. Davis Perry (bio)

The ritual butchering of Irish children for profit, celebrated as a reasonable economic program that will benefit all concerned in Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal," suggests a moral vacuum on the part of the narrator that appalls modern readers. Claude Rawson has argued that the pamphlet targets the Irish simultaneously as a despised and identifiable subgroup and as rhetorical shorthand for the more universal "generalized savage" (3). Swift's contemporary readers, however, would have been subjected to an additional source of unease, for the pamphlet censures the ruling classes through pointed references to anti-Semitic tropes by alluding directly to the Blood, Conspiracy, and Economic Libels, the oldest and most dangerous libels against Jews. His Projector proposes an economic program in which Anglo cultural and national identity are transformed to reflect the most viral accusations against the Jews, thereby reversing centuries of moral posturing that depended to a large degree upon a perceived cultural distance from any and all elements of Judaism. The pamphlet thus translates fears of cultural, religious, and racial conflations between Anglo Christians and Jews into a potential reality, as traditional accusations against mythologized Jews become realized as proposed economic policy.

Critical attention to anti-Semitism in British literature tends to focus primarily on either the medieval and early modern periods or the nineteenth century to the present. While Anglo-Jewish historians have paid some attention to the eighteenth century, as a general rule literary critics of philoor anti-Semitism have glossed over the period.1 In part, the absence of large Jewish populations in Britain, and their corresponding absence as overt literary characters, has encouraged literary critics to presume a level of cultural indifference, or even amnesia, about Jews among Swift's readers. Yet the absence of a large Jewish population had little effect upon British ideas about Jews; traditional narratives about Jews, no matter how fanciful, superstitious, [End Page 119] or contradicted by evidence, had been asserted in the British Isles and Europe for centuries, developing into a well-formed, long-lasting mythology that continues even into the current era. During Swift's lifetime, anti-Semitic tropes were so familiar as to be accepted nearly without question by readers throughout the British Isles, and formed the everyday knowledge, common opinions, and received ideas of what Roland Barthes describes as the cultural code. Indeed, the Anglo response to the idea of a Jew infuses not simply the literature but the language itself. Whether scholars, diplomats, travelers, or simply tradesmen and farmers, Swift's readers demonstrate a deep-seated awareness of libels against Jews and a corresponding concept of Judaism as antithetical to Anglo identity and culture. "A Modest Proposal" mines this knowledge for its satirical impact.

European hatred toward Jews had increased dramatically in the eleventh century, culminating in the Rhineland massacres of 1096. Thereafter, murder accusations against Jews became routine, developing formal conventions over time. The first accusation of ritual murder by crucifixion appeared in Thomas of Monmouth's The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich in 1150. Ritual murder accusations (without the accusation of crucifixion) then appeared in Würzburg (1147), Gloucester (1168), Blois (1171), Bury St. Edmunds (1181) and Winchester (1192); inspired by Monmouth, later writers added crucifixion accusations as a matter of course (Langmuir 209-36, 263-81, 282, 298.). Ritual murder accusations spread quickly through Britain and France, but the accusation of cannibalism first appeared in Fulda Germany in 1235, where on Christmas Day, a miller and his wife went to church and returned to find their mill burnt down and the bodies of their five sons in the ruins. The Jews of Fulda, sixty miles north, confessed, presumably under torture, that two of them had killed the boys and drained their blood into bags, to be consumed for religious and/or medicinal purposes. As a result, thirty-four Jews were condemned to mass execution. Thus, the Blood Libel, which conflated ritual child murder and cannibalism, became widespread throughout Europe. After the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 adopted Transubstantiation as official Church doctrine, a Host Desecration Libel arose, in...


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