Jewish History

, Volume 26, Issue 3–4, pp 287–307 | Cite as

The Rules of the Game: Forensic Medicine and the Language of Science in the Structuring of Modern Ritual Murder Trials

  • Hillel J. KievalEmail author


When ritual murder trials reappeared in central Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they could not be articulated in pre-Reformation language and symbols. Prosecutors, magistrates, trial judges, and police investigators shared an implicit understanding that a new universe of knowledge was in place in which academic experts and practitioners of science defined the boundaries—linguistic and conceptual—of plausible argument and were to be accorded deference. This does not mean that popular beliefs and understandings of Jewish ritual murder suddenly ceased to be disseminated or no longer influenced courtroom proceedings, or that zealous investigators and prosecutors did not pursue their cases armed with a priori assumptions about likely perpetrators and their motives. But cultural material, psychological predispositions, and even narrative accounts built upon eyewitness testimony could never suffice to move either the state to indict or a jury, or a panel of judges, to convict. Whatever nonrational thinking or prejudices may have accompanied it, the modern ritual murder trial was structured by powerful, if implicit, rules of expression and authority: it could only be articulated through the epistemological categories and idioms of a culture that understood itself to be both rational and scientific. What commands our attention, then, in the Tiszaeszlár, Xanten, and other modern ritual murder trials are the processes whereby ritual murder discourse bent—as it were—to the discipline of modernity, as exemplified by the structures and rules of legal procedure, parliamentary politics, mass-circulation journalism, criminology, medicine, and forensic science.


Antisemitism Autopsy Blood libel Habsburg Empire Medicine Science Tiszaeszlár Xanten 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Washington University in St. LouisSt. LouisUSA

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