Desecrating the Host: Reading time about 3 minutes
The word host comes from the Latin word hostis, meaning victim. The Roman Catholic Church uses the term in reference to their communion wafers. Therefore, desecrating the host refers to assaulting or damaging a communion wafer. Catholics believe the elements of communion or eucharist—the bread and the wine—miraculously change into the actual physical body and blood of Jesus Christ. This happens at the very moment the priest says the words “This is my body” during the consecration. This change from one substance—bread, to another substance—some body matter, and from wine to blood, is known of transubstantiation.
Transubstantiation is a completely supernatural way of thinking and a miracle if it actually happens. However, the consequences of this supernatural doctrine have reverberated in the natural world. To Catholics, there’s no greater sin than desecrating a host, or the “body of Jesus.”
Pagans often thought the early Christians weird because of those beliefs, and many accused them of being cannibals. Since Christians believed they were consuming their lord’s flesh and drinking his blood, that must have been an effective repellant for many would-be Christians. That’s one of the reasons Christianity didn’t spread as quickly as we were taught in church. But, after the Roman Empire became a theocracy in the fourth century, the Church would eventually be able to punish someone for not believing in this miracle.
Imagined Jewish motives
The Jews had rejected Christianity from the start because they believed Jesus was a false messiah. Jews expected their messiah to be victorious, not hung on a cross to die. Because the Jews had rejected Jesus, most Christian leaders would never forgive them. They took it very personally and accused Jews of forfeiting their covenant with God. This, in their minds, made Christians the inheritors of the Jewish covenant with God. When Christians began to dominate the Roman government after Constantine, it became much easier for them to act on their hatred of the Jews.
By the thirteenth century, Christians came up with a new way to persecute Jewish people. That was the bizarre accusation of “desecrating the host.” Those who believed this conspiracy theory imagined that Jews “kidnapped” communion wafers, i.e., Jesus, and then somehow took revenge on “him”. The perpetrator could supposedly accomplish this by piercing, burning, tearing, or even drowning the host—any method a vengeful Christian could imagine.
They believed the Jews committed this crime because they hated Jesus that much, even twelve centuries after his crucifixion. Most Christians blamed the Jews for the crucifixion, not the Romans who carried it out because that’s the version the Gospels present. Uneducated people trusted what their clergy told them. How could they not? Hardly any common Christians had Jewish acquaintances with whom to sympathize, or any concept of actual historical events.
The first accusations
In 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, Catholic bishops established the doctrine that the host could exhibit supernatural powers. They might even shed drops of blood. The red tinge they noticed was instead a reddish fungus that can form on wafers if stored in a damp place. This appearance of blood allowed the host to “come to life” in the minds of Catholics before the host was even consecrated.
Germans in Beelitz made the first recorded accusation of desecrating the host in 1243. There, the townspeople burned the accused Jews to death on a hill outside their village. Similar accusations and punishments occurred again in Paris in 1290, Deggendorf, Germany, in 1337, Barcelona in 1367, Brussels in 1370, Segovia, Spain, in 1410, and in Knoblauch, Germany, in 1510. The persecution in Knoblauch resulted in thirty-eight Jewish executions. Those were only the worst incidents. The same events played out elsewhere to lesser degrees, and Christians in Romania made the accusation as late as 1836.
Confessions under torture
Those in authority obtained confessions to crimes like this through torture. Today, you can visit any moderate to large size town and many castles in Europe and find museums dedicated to torture. At first these are fascinating oddities. But when you realize that Catholics and European royalty routinely employed those sadistic devices for centuries, it can be quite sickening.
It wasn’t hard to get people to confess to crimes they hadn’t committed, and to implicate others in the crime. Who knows how many thousands of people the Roman Catholic Church tortured and killed due to un-substantiable accusations? The crimes could have been heresy, apostasy, blasphemy, or witchcraft. The victims could also have been relapsed Jews or Muslims, who never wanted to be Christians in the first place.
Who were the real criminals?
Often, all that was needed for a conviction and sentencing was an anonymous accusation and a confession under torture. The most spine-chilling aspect of this paranoid era was that almost none of the condemned had committed the crimes they were punished for. Let that sink in.
Compare that to our legal system today. Now the accused is supposed to have every opportunity to know who accused them and to defend themselves against the accusation.
As far as desecrating the host, I serious doubt that Jews really thought baked dough turned into the living body of Jesus. We can attribute this entire chapter of Christian history to their paranoia. Today’s Christians should accept the fact that all those lives were ended, often in excruciating pain, just because of hatred and superstition. In addition, the trials and exectutions left all the victim’s loved ones with the consequences—homelessness, poverty, shame, and possibly exile.
This all occurred due to the belief in transubstantiation.