An Anatomy of Sectarian Violence: Jews and Christians in Premodern Poland

Magdalena Teter, History, Wesleyan University

Research Grant, 2007

Based on extensive research in nearly twenty archives in Poland and Rome, this project combines political, legal, and cultural historical approaches and tells a story of the role the sacred and sacrilege played in the contest for power between church and state. Sacrilege, treated increasingly as crime not as sin, became a token of broader power struggles and contested social and economic relations, as it moved the sacred to the public arena of courts. Far more than the Church’s efforts to educate the laity, the lay courts’ classification of Catholic spaces as the only “sacred spaces” and their adjudication of crimes of “sacrilege” were crucial for the (re-)Catholicization of Poland, and the shaping of the country’s religious identity.

In Poland, the contest over the sacredness of the Eucharist, a major Catholic dogma challenged by the Reformation, became manifest in lay courts’ adjudication of crimes against property and religious symbols, especially those linked to the Eucharistic rituals. The mishandling of sacred symbols and objects transformed sins into crimes and led to harsh sentences, including burning at the stake.

In places without political triggers, accusations of religious crimes did not result in prosecution, much less in religious violence against Jews.

The project crucially casts a new light on the most infamous case of sacrilege, the accusations against Jews for stealing and desecrating the host, situating it within a broader context of the politics of crime—most specifically that of sacrilege, illuminating its post-Reformation character. They were triggered in places with specific political needs, religious, economic, or related to power struggles between local authorities and royal power. In places without political triggers, accusations of religious crimes did not result in prosecution, much less in religious violence against Jews.

This project establishes that religion and, sometimes, religious violence were used in establishing religious boundaries and doctrines not only by religious institutions but also by secular courts. In post-Reformation Poland, it was the secular courts that became enforcers of Catholic doctrines, an ironic twist on the nobility’s efforts to remove religious cases from ecclesiastical courts to prevent religious persecution in Poland. Even though the context is largely Christian power struggle, Jews were central but not exclusively singled out. Courts and their judges, consciously or subconsciously, attached sacredness to Catholicism; public criminal executions, coupled with the word of mouth, left a permanent mark on religious boundaries in a country with one of the most diverse populations in Europe.

  1. Teter, Magda. Sinners on Trial: Jews and Sacrilege after the Reformation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

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