In post-Reformation Poland—the largest state in Europe and home to the largest Jewish population in the world—the Catholic Church suffered profound anxiety about its power after the Protestant threat. Magda Teter reveals how criminal law became a key tool in the manipulation of the meaning of the sacred and in the effort to legitimize Church authority. The mishandling of sacred symbols was transformed from a sin that could be absolved into a crime that resulted in harsh sentences of mutilation, hanging, decapitation, and, principally, burning at the stake.
Teter casts new light on the most infamous type of sacrilege, the accusation against Jews for desecrating the eucharistic wafer. These sacrilege trials were part of a broader struggle over the meaning of the sacred and of sacred space at a time of religious and political uncertainty, with the eucharist at its center. But host desecration—defined in the law as sacrilege—went beyond anti-Jewish hatred to reflect Catholic-Protestant conflict, changing conditions of ecclesiastic authority and jurisdiction, and competition in the economic marketplace.
Recounting dramatic stories of torture, trial, and punishment, this is the first book to consider the sacrilege accusations of the early modern period within the broader context of politics and common crime. Teter draws on previously unexamined trial records to bring out the real-life relationships among Catholics, Jews, and Protestants and challenges the commonly held view that following the Reformation, Poland was a “state without stakes”—uniquely a country without religious persecution.
Beautifully written and richly documented… On the basis of a large body of primary sources, some of them unknown in previous research, [Magda Teter’s] book sheds new light not only on the history of Poland and Polish Jews but also on the history of the reformations in East Central Europe. In doing so, it opens the way to the fuller integration of these histories into larger narratives of European history in the age of the reformations, helping further break down the east-west borders that still plague research in this area… The book’s writing and argumentation are clear and easy to follow, making it a very enjoyable read.
Superb… Teter opens her study with a general introduction to the hierarchical conceptions of the sacred in Catholicism, making clear that at the summit of the hierarchy is the consecrated communion wafer. This is followed by a chapter on the history of church thefts in early modern Poland—the main geographical setting of her book. In these crimes, Jews often served as pawns for the sale of stolen communion vessels, chalices, candelabra, paintings, and other precious sacred objects. A remarkably gifted story-teller, Teter relates about a dozen such crimes and their grim consequences… In her captivating narrative, Teter has painstakingly documented how the body politic and the body of Christ were inextricably bound together through the early modern period, and how the Reformation not only failed to diminish the host-desecration calumny but, at least in Catholic Poland, gave it new energy.
If Teter is not the first to take research in this direction, she has considerably advanced the argument by retelling the tale of Polish host desecration accusations with a graceful narrative and rich new detail.
While the study of early modern Germany has for generations been a thriving field of academic research in North America, the same cannot be said for its eastern neighbor. Scholars in the Anglophone world have largely ignored the rich culture and history of the multiethnic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Magda Teter’s marvelous new book is a welcome addition to what is admittedly a relatively small body of English-language scholarship on the Commonwealth. It would be a great shame, however, if this book were read only by Slavic specialists, for it addresses a far broader range of issues relevant to early modern studies as a whole… Sinners on Trial certainly deserves notice across the broad world of early modern studies.
Teter’s brilliant book shows how accusations of host desecration leveled against the Jews in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Poland took place against the backdrop of conflicts between church and state, king and nobility, and Catholics and Protestants. While these accusations diminished markedly in Western Europe after the Reformation, in Poland, it was precisely the Reformation and the consequent Counter-Reformation that led to a host of new cases.
Teter’s mastery as scholar and story teller in this compelling book is unsurpassed. She navigates the tensions that beset early modern Polish society with meticulous attention to new archival sources and graceful narrative style. The conflicts along the ever-shifting boundaries between sacred and profane, pious and criminal, Jew and Christian, Catholic and Protestant sometimes erupted with devastating consequences.
This magnificent book innovatively frames accusations of host desecration by Jews within the context of Protestant–Catholic polemics. Teter places religion and conflict at the center of her narrative as she describes how many people were burned alive, tortured, and imprisoned for crimes of sacrilege. Her startling new arguments demolish misconceptions of ‘a state without stakes.’ Sinners on Trial will quickly become required reading in Polish history, Jewish history, Reformation studies, and religious studies in general.
- 358 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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