Friday 17 May 2013

Psychic Vampirism in Nineteenth Century Rome

A selection that could not be included in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War, (Encompass Editions, 2012).

Newspaper reports from the continent rekindled interest in the alleged Jewish threat even as stories from the liberal press generated sympathy for Jewish victims. In June 1858 in the Papal city of Bologna, Vatican officials seized and transported to Rome a young Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara. There he was taken to the House of the Catechumens to be instructed as a Catholic, and subsequently embraced by Pope Pius IX as his “son.” The ostensible rationale for this cruel abduction was that a Christian girl, while working for his family, had baptized the boy when he was a sick baby believing him to be close to death. Under Church law, a baptized child must be raised a Catholic. Despite the frantic efforts of the family and the local and international Jewish community to secure his release, the boy became a devout Catholic and later a priest. For years Edgardo Mortara was completely alienated from his family because they would not convert to the true faith. Although he had a reunion with his mother twenty years after the kidnapping, he could not persuade her to convert. The supreme irony was that he lived a long life to the age of eighty-eight and died in Belgium on March 11, 1940, one month before the Nazis fanned into the country. Nazi race laws would have classified him as a Jew. This irony underscores a fundamental distinction between the treatment by the Catholic Church with respect to Mortara, as deplorable as it was, and Nazi immutable race laws; they would have killed him as a child and as an aged adult priest.
Edgardo Mortara at six when officials of the Papacy kidnapped him

The kidnapping aroused international condemnation, especially in Catholic France and the United States, but not from the British government, who believed their relationship with the Vatican was already strained. The Catholic Church, believing that it was under siege from godless socialists and indifferent liberals, defended itself through its own newspapers by going on the offensive. In January 1859 the Vatican press reported the murder of a Christian boy in what is modern Romania, and repeated the blood libel story which sparked a pogrom against Jews. The most suspicious Jews were arrested but, according to rumour, because Jewish money had bribed witnesses, no proof was found. In other words, while liberals were castigating the Church for raising Edgardo Mortara in a loving manner, Jews were murdering children. What the newspaper omitted to report was that the boy’s uncle was being held for his murder. The belief that Christian children were killed and their blood drained was widely propagated in Italy by parish priests, Lenten sermons, and the Catholic press. Two years earlier, for polemical reasons, the Catholic Italian press had reported that a Jewish merchant abducted and drained the blood of a 23-year old Christian servant. Although the trial revealed that the woman had invented the story to divert suspicion from her own crime of stealing from her employer, the story carried credibility with ordinary people for whom Dracula-like folk tales were a part of their daily culture.[1]

The effect of these bizarre developments on the English collective psyche is difficult to calibrate.
 Certainly the vast majority of informed people were appalled by the kidnapping and blood libel trials.
Among a majority of Protestants, especially the Protestant Evangelical Alliance that had campaigned
 vigorously on behalf of the Mortara family, the events bolstered traditional antipathies
 toward Roman Catholicism. In England the Irish were “sunk in superstition and degradation”
 because of the influence of Catholicism, and Evangelicals tried unsuccessfully to rescue them
 from the “perverse effects of Catholic corruption.” Their opposition to the Irish controlling their own
 affairs was in part the conviction that Home Rule meant Rome rule.[2] For most English Protestants,
 corruption included papal despotism and the influence of the parish priests over their emotional,
 indolent and intemperate flock that included imparting to them a belief in the blood libel.

[1] David L. Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).
[2] Sponza, Italian Immigrants, 135; L.P. Curtis, Anglo-Saxons and Celts, 26.

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