When trials against Jews for “ritual murder” reappeared in Central Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, after a hiatus of three centuries, they seemed to be a throwback to the Middle Ages. The truth is, however, that the modern trials were very different. The “rules of the game” had changed: ritual murder accusations, and the criminal examinations that ensued, could no longer be framed in pre-Reformation language and symbols. A new universe of knowledge was in place in which academic experts and practitioners of science defined the boundaries of plausible argument and were to be accorded deference. Cultural traditions and psychological predispositions would no longer suffice. A new set of arguments and new appeals to authority were now needed to move states to indict or judges and juries to convict.
Hillel J. Kieval is the Gloria M. Goldstein Professor of Jewish History and Thought at Washington University in St. Louis. Among his numerous books and articles are The Making of Czech Jewry: National Conflict and Jewish Society in Bohemia, 1870-1918 (1988); Languages of Community: The Jewish Experience in the Czech Lands (2000); and, forthcoming, Blood Inscriptions: Science, Modernity, and Ritual Murder in Fin de Siècle Europe.