History's Most Dangerous Toddler
A 2-year-old boy's death triggered a wave of anti-Semitism that wiped out a community of Jewish males and threatened the power of a pope.
On Easter Sunday, 1475, in the city of Trent, a German-Italian city in what is now Northern Italy, a tragedy occurred. A 2-year-old boy named Simon was found dead. His death, a devastating blow to his family, would set in motion a chain of events that would leave almost all of the male members of the Jewish community in Trent dead, create an almost heretical flock of devoted followers who saw him as the new baby Jesus, and perpetuate and foster widespread anti-Semitism in the region for hundreds of years.
According to historian Po-Chia Hsia in his book Trent 1475: Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial, Simon went missing in the early evening of Thursday, 23 March and the following day, Good Friday, the boy’s father had asked the prince-bishop of the city, Johannes Hinderbach, for help in locating his missing son.
Searches ensued and by Easter Saturday suspicion had lighted on the small Jewish community in the city. The chief magistrate, Giovanni de Salis, had the households of the three main Jewish families searched, but Simon was not to be found. Then on Easter Sunday Seligman, a cook in the household of Samuel (a moneylender), discovered Simon’s body in a water cellar on Samuel’s extensive property. As all historians agree, the body had clearly been planted there. Samuel could have fled but had, up until this point, enjoyed an amicable relationship with the city’s authorities. So, instead, he “trusted the system” and reported the discovery. He also insisted that all members of the community stay put, including visitors who just happened to be in town for the Jewish Passover. That Samuel came forward and complied with the authorities was never mentioned in the ensuing trials.
In the aftermath of the discovery, things escalated quickly. Anti-Jewish feeling in the city had recently been inflamed by the arrival of an itinerant Franciscan preacher, Bernardino da Feltre, who had spent the Lenten season railing against Jewish usury and amplifying local hostilities. There were others in the local community, Hsia writes, who had exploited the vulnerability of this small religious minority in order to blackmail members of the Jewish community. All of these elements coupled with centuries-old rumors of blood libel (the dangerous myth that Jews used the blood of Christian children in their religious rituals) combined to create a kind of tinderbox of hatred that was sparked by Simon’s death.
Over the course of several months, the entire Jewish community were arrested and tortured and were forced to confess to having murdered Simon in order to use his blood in their Passover rituals. At first, Samuel withstood several bouts of torture and protested that Jews simply did not use human blood in their rituals. When he reached the limits of his endurance and in an effort to spare others, he confessed that only he and one other had suffocated Simon with a handkerchief. Other members of the community were forced both to confess and to invent fictitious religious motivations for exsanguinating the child. By the time the torture was over 15 male members of the Jewish community were sentenced to death: they were subsequently burned at the stake. Interestingly, female members of the community escaped on the grounds that, as women, they were unable to participate in these rituals (They were eventually freed in 1478 after the pope intervened). The news of the trials spread throughout Northern Italy to Veneto, Lombardy and Tyrol. By 1479 Jewish moneylending had been banned and by 1486 Jews were expelled from the region.
While Hinderbach supported the trials and even forged documents to promote the idea that Jews in Trent were responsible for Simon’s death, the pope was not so sure. In early August 1475, Pope Sixtus IV, commanded Hinderbach to suspend the trials until his representative, Battista De’ Giudici, arrived in Trent. At every turn Hinderbach thwarted De’ Giudici’s attempts to investigate: De’ Giudici was not granted access to those accused and was denied proper access to the original trial documents. When De’ Giudici voiced concerns about the process at Rome, he was accused of being paid off by Jews. He eventually wrote several treatises including an Apology for the Jews defending himself and the Jewish community of any wrongdoing. In 1478, Sixtus IV issued a papal bull on the matter that was something of a political compromise: he accepted that the trials in Trent had been legal but did not acknowledge either the conclusions of the trial or the supposed cause of death of the child. He also reasserted papal protections for Jews and reiterated the ban on blood libel trials.
While this power struggle played out in the halls of ecclesial power, a different more popular movement was gaining support in Northern Italy. There were many who wanted to canonize the murdered toddler. Within three weeks of the Simon’s death a “passio” (an account of his martyrdom) was circulating throughout the region. Hinderbach gathered together documentation that included over a hundred miracles supposedly performed by the boy ‘martyr’ and support for his canonization as a saint gathered steam in Austria, Italy, and Germany.
Sixtus IV, however, was having none of it. The Simon of Trent cult was dangerous and a threat to his authority. He forbade the production of images of Simon (although many grizzly violence-inducing woodcuts of his murder have survived). He was also understandably alarmed by the ferocity of devotion Simon inspired. De’ Giudici reported in his Apology for the Jews that the people in Trent “adored their blessed one as a second Christ and as a second Messiah.” Statements like this, which border on heresy, were troubling to the Franciscan pope, who correctly noted that toddlers are incapable of choosing to die as martyrs. As Christopher MacEvitt, a professor at Dartmouth, told The Daily Beast, “Sixtus IV did not canonize Simon of Trent not because he was particularly sympathetic to the plight of Jewish communities, but because he was determined to uphold papal authority; the popes had made clear that accusations of blood libel and putting Jews on trial for such claims was unacceptable.”
Part of Sixtus IV’s refusal to canonize the child as a martyr was motivated by what was in his mind a far more pressing problem involving non-Christian murderers and persecutors. In 1480 the Ottomans invaded Southern Italy and drew steadily closer to Rome, the pope, and the heart of Christianity. It was a political and military threat as much as a religious one. Sixtus IV wanted martyrs to rally Christians to the anti-Ottoman cause. He turned to five Franciscans who had died attempting to evangelize in Muslim countries roughly a century earlier. There was very little popular interest or support for these martyrs; they had been demonstrably unsuccessful and had failed to convert any Muslims whatsoever. On the contrary, as MacEvitt told me, when Franciscans engaged in efforts to evangelize in Muslim countries “they tended to focus on… fellow Christians living in Muslim lands—merchants, mercenaries, and captives.”
But these martyrs who, like Sixtus IV, were Franciscans, were politically and religiously useful. In his exquisitely written and recently published The Martyrdom of the Franciscans: Islam, the Papacy, and an Order of Conflict, MacEvitt shows that Sixtus IV found that, “Martyrdom was useful for Christians as a way to depict the Ottomans not as a rival for political and economic power in the Mediterranean and eastern Europe, but as a primordial threat to Christians and Christendom. Stories of martyrdom assimilated the Ottomans with demonic forces that were the enemy of goodness, virtue, and salvation.” Over time, MacEvitt shows, “death by Saracen” came to rival other definitions of what made someone a martyr.
All of Sixtus IV’s power, however, could not crush the cult of Simon the child martyr. Stories, poems, and images of his supposed martyrdom continued to circulate. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V beatified him (he was never made a saint) and approved his veneration in Trent. It was only in 1965, in the wake of the Holocaust and Vatican II, that Pope Paul VI removed Simon of Trent from the Roman Martyrology and formally tried to suppress his cult. Yet, most of the statues and images of Simon in the city of Trent are, as Sara Lipton has noted, unaccompanied by placards explaining the anti-Semitic history of his veneration. Three years ago a reddit thread for traditional Catholics discussed the “feast day of Simon of Trent” and there’s even a wildly anti-Semitic webpage bearing his name. Five hundred years after his death, slanderous propaganda about the tragic death of this abducted child continues to languish online and among conservative groups.