How a medieval legend continues into our time

God punishes a Jewish man who stole wafers. In a synagogue, the wafers are pierced with daggers to desecrate them. To everyone’s horror, the pieces of bread begin to bleed. True miracle, or are the facts somewhat inflated?

The University Library’s heritage collections contain a printed book from the early seventeenth century. The title reads: Historie van het H. Sacrament van Mirakelen berustende tot Bruessel inde Collegiale Kercke van S. Goedele. The book (in Dutch) recounts a partly fact-based medieval legend that played a role in Jewish-Christian relations until the 1970s.

In addition to the contents of this book, representations of the story in stained glass windows, paintings, and tapestries in Brussels’ St. Michael’s Cathedral (formerly St. Gudula’s Church) (in Dutch) captured the minds of those involved. But to understand the discussions, the story must first be told.

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The theft of the Blessed Sacrament by Jan van Loven (Historie van het H. Sacrament van Mirakelen, p. 12; photo Paul Slot/Brabant Collection)

In 1370, as legend has it, wafers are stolen from a church in Brussels at the behest of a Jewish man. This man was murdered. His wife sees in this a punishment from God and takes the wafers to the Jews in Brussels. In the synagogue, the wafer are desecrated, that is, they are pierced with daggers. The miraculous result is that the wafers begin to bleed.

The ensuing terror causes a certain Catherine to be ordered to take the wafers to Cologne. But this plan backfires as she confesses the desecration to a priest. The perpetrators are caught and condemned. They die at the stake.

So much for the story. Although the facts and circumstances cannot all be corroborated by sources, it can be said with certainty that there was a desecration of wafers for which about six Jews were sentenced to death. Above all, we must see this story in its historical context. In the Middle Ages, there was often hatred of Jews and Jews were blamed for many things, such as the plague.

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The desecration of the wafers in the synagogue: “ende hebbende tselve met dagghen doorsteken, soo isser overvloedich bloet uut gheloopen (and having pierced twelve with daggers, causing copious bleeding) ” (Historie van het H. Sacrament van Mirakelen, p. 25; photo Paul Slot, Brabant Collection)

Canon Etienne Ydens († 1615) of St. Gudula Church recorded the story in 1605 and published it in French with Rutger Velpius, who also worked for such high-ranking persons as Alexander Farnese. Ydens also contributed to the Counter-Reformation struggle against heresy with other writings. Three years later, in 1608, a Dutch-language edition also appeared. the Tilburg copy is from that year.

Fourteen (of a total of seventeen) engravings in the book serve to bring the story properly to the reader’s attention. One of them bears the signature of Adriaen Collaert (around 1560-1618), but we can assume that all the engravings are by his hand. Collaert was son-in-law of and employed by the famous engraver Philips Galle. Partly on the basis of the explanatory notes printed with the engravings, the story is easy to follow, and its accusatory character becomes clear.

A few decades after the condemnation of the Jews, a canonical investigation had taken place in 1402 into the events of 1370 and in particular into the authenticity of the wafers. The precipitate of this research was the basis of legends about the Sacrament van Mirakel from the second half of the fifteenth century. And Ydens’ book takes these stories as its starting point. The history of devotion, legend, and iconography remained the subject of research thereafter. Until our time.

The Leuven professor of Judaism, Luc Dequeker (1931-2021), did extensive research and published (in Dutch) about it. He focused not only on the (lack of) credibility of the miracle of the bleeding wafers, but also on the question of Jewish guilt (in Dutch).

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The execution of the condemned Jews. NOTE The pubic area in the consulted book is ‘scratched out’ in pencil. (Historie van het H. Sacrament van Mirakelen, p. 45; photo Paul Slot, Brabant Collection)

Dequeker was also involved in the issue that arose in the 1970s, when the Jewish community in Belgium asked the Diocese of Mechelen-Brussels to remove the depictions of the story present in St. Gudula Church in Brussels. They allegedly contained historical inaccuracies and encouraged hatred of Jews at the time.

After in-depth discussions, the representations were eventually not removed from the church, but a bronze plaque in the chapel of the Miraculous Sacrament explained the position of the Diocese of Mechelen-Brussels:

The diocesan authorities of the Diocese of Mechelen-Brussels, in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and after taking note of the historical research, drew attention in 1968 to the tendentious nature of the accusation and the legendary presentation of the ‘miracle’.

It was recognized that the accusations were anti-Semitic in nature, and after the investigation, people were also convinced that the miracle had been given a legendary coloring. The results of Dequeker’s investigation of the legend and everything surrounding it were clear: the desecration of the wafers had to explain the miracle of the bleeding, and conversely, belief in the miracle legitimized the accusation.

This seventeenth-century book is a great example of how heritage collections can stand in the past with one leg, and in modern times with the other.

Ad van Pinxteren is information specialist at the Brabant Collection

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel


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