A little on cruentation, cruelty, and raising hands against yourself

I’ve been idly reading about cruentation, the belief that the wounds of a murdered person bleed afresh if the murderer’s near. You’ll remember it from Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain, or perhaps the Nibellungenlied, but the belief had real-life uses too, in court (on this, see work by Henri Platelle, Alain Boureau, and, for the work that led me to it, various articles by Béatrice Delaurenti on what we might call the medieval problem of spooky action at a distance, for example).

Thomas of Cantimpré’s Bonum universale de apibus has two astonishing cases. One is a ritual murder charge — which, it bears repeating, is an antisemitic myth, and not something Jews actually did — in Pforzheim, Germany: “When the Jews are drawn to the place where the corpse is displayed, at once blood erupted from its wounds” [Adductis igitur ad hoc spectaculum impiis Iudaeis, statis eruperunt omnia vulnera corporis, & in testimonium horrendae necis copiosum sanguinem effuderunt.]. It’s unusual in that the victim is a girl: every other medieval ritual case I know of is a boy, because the Jews were supposed to kill their victims in contempt of Christ. A girl wouldn’t have suited as substitute for Christ, just as a priest couldn’t be a woman, because a priest was a stand-in for Jesus himself. The ritual murder charge is pure projection, of course, on the part of the Christians: just as they were becoming increasingly devoted to images of the suffering Christ, they imagined Jews taking a similar pleasure in torture. Likewise with the simultaneous rise of Eucharistic piety and Host Desecration charges: in each case, we have what Slavoj Žižek, developing work by Octave Mannoni, calls ‘the subject supposed to believe.’ Whatever skepticism Christians have about their own piety, the well-neigh suicidal murderousness of the Jews convinces Christians that their own beliefs are worth their devotion. To cite, once again, one of Žižek’s favorite maxims, Deleuze’s “si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre, vous êtes foutu” [1]Gilles Deleuze, Deux régimes de fous, textes et entretiens 1975-1995, ed. David Lapoujade (Paris: Minuit, 2003), 297

Thomas’s other case concerns a reforming abbot killed by three murderers his canons had hired: his corpse bled anew when the guilty canons were near. The new abbot punished the crime: those canons who confessed were sent to prison for life; those who didn’t were stripped of their clerical status and then executed; sixteen others “believed to the worst in wickedness, raised homicidal hands against themselves by hanging themselves in prison, or they died by some other way” [“qui in scelere potissimi credebantur, manus homicidas sibimet imponentes, seipsos in carceribus suspendiis, vel aliis mortis generibus occiderunt”] (here; note that an earlier edition omits the “manus homicidas” clause).

Boureau’s ‘La preuve par le cadavre qui saigne’ sees the canons’ suicide as modeled on Judas’s, but I’m wondering, more generally, if there’s a study of medieval prison suicide, and how such stories help keep the hands of the authorities ‘clean’ of the pollution of killing. In fact, in the Pforzheim case, we have this bit on the execution of the Jews: some are hanged along livestock (a method of execution treated by Esther Cohen), but two of them strangle each other (“duo vero se mutuo iugularunt”).

Hard to imagine a grimmer conference paper than one on prison suicide in the middle ages.


1 Gilles Deleuze, Deux régimes de fous, textes et entretiens 1975-1995, ed. David Lapoujade (Paris: Minuit, 2003), 297