The Lord's Justice: Blood Libel and Interfaith Interaction in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Town

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Abstract

This article discusses a series of investigations from 1729-to 1730 into an alleged ritual murder in the town of present-day Niasvizh. In the eighteenth century, Niasvizh, then called Nieśwież, belonged to one of the wealthiest and most powerful families of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Radziwiłłs. Unlike similar cases in the period, this ritual murder investigation did not follow the standard script of interrogation by torture and public execution, in part because the private town lord fostered a culture of legality and predictability that allowed the Jewish community the opportunity to organize an effective defense. The multiple investigations carried out by the town magistracy and the lord’s hand-picked officials also revealed a dense network of socio-economic and neighborly relations between Catholic elites and Jews of both genders, a relationship that excluded non-Catholics and non-citizen residents of the town. In such an environment, blood libel served as a weapon of resentment and revenge for the disenfranchised and excluded to destabilize the class oligarchy. The failure of the accusation to fundamentally alter relations between Catholics and Jews underscore the extraordinary significance of the supposedly “feudal” private town lord in enforcing cooperation and upholding legality, creating a framework in which the Jewish community had greater room to maneuver to combat a blood libel accusation than in royal towns or even more “modern” states.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJewish History
Publication statusSubmitted - Sep 2019

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