If you thought that the Jews in Germany were persecuted only under Hitler, you will be surprised to learn that there have always been “Jewish Canards” which are rumours and/or allegations against the Jews that were unfounded and/or false. Ideas such as ‘the Jews killed Christians’, or even that ‘they caused natural calamities’ had been circulating in Germany for almost 500 years.

Johannes Pfefferkorn was a anti-semite who published huge volumes of literatue that was full of such Jewish canards. He was a convicted thief who got out of prison only by paying a fine. Pfefferkorn converted to Christianity from Judaism at the age of 36 years. As a Christian associated with the Dominicans, Pfefferkorn suggested that the Jews should be forced to attend sermons at church and that they should be employed in the most menial of tasks. Pfefferkorn campaigned to have them expelled from the kingdom.

He managed to convince the Emperor to let him confiscate all Jewish books in Frankfurt including prayer books. This confiscation spread to other cities too and was opposed by several members of the nobility and even the church. The Emperor had to give in and allow the books to be returned.

Soon after the incident with the books, the Jews of Knoblauch were accused of desecrating the Host at their local village church. This was a charge that was often raised against Jews. There was a mass trial at which 38 Jews were executed for this crime, and the Jews of Brandenberg were expelled from the kingdom.

When the Emperor heard of this, he appointed a commission to investigate the Jewish literature and determine whether it should be allowed. Pfefferkorn was on the commission but it was headed by one of the people who had opposed the confiscation of Jewish literature, the archbishop of Mainz. The archbishop tried to get the opinion of the theologians of Cologne, Erfurt and Heidelberg including that of the Christian humanist Johann Reuchlin.

As soon as Pfefferkorn suspected that Reuchlin was not going to side with him on the topic of Jewish literature, he began to write pamphlets attacking the opinion of Reuchlin. Reuchlin responded in the same way and published his own pamphlets attacking the views of Pfefferkorn and his backers.

This led to a long drawn out battle of ideologies, carried out in print, between Pfefferkorn supported by the Dominicans and Reuchlin supported by the humanists who were a new group emerging in the Church at that time. The battle grew to the extent that the Emperor had to forbid both sides from publishing anything more against the other side.

The ideological battle made its way to the Pope’s court who also ordered a tribunal to deal with the issue. The tribunal sided with Reuchlin which prompted Pfefferkorn to publish another tract. He had to face the consequences of going against the Emperor’s orders. At the same time, another Jewish convert to Christianity was the subject of a scandal and Reuchlin’s supporters used this scandal to discredit Pfefferkorn. The battle of words continued once again until the Pope ruled against Reuchlin and Pfefferkorn won.

However, the whole conflict served to highlight the degeneration within the church and led to the Reformation.