This past 14 September, Professor Magda Teter, of Fordham’s History Department, delivered the first lecture of the new academic year on the liminal nature of the city of Trent after Simon of Trent’s supposed martyrdom. Trent, a city on the border between Germanic and Italian cultures, was itself a liminal space in which concepts and societies interacted with each other and came into conflict. The 1475 martyrdom of Simon of Trent, believed to have been an instance of blood libel, was not counted by the Italians as a parallel instance as that of William of Norwich. They believed it to be instead a unique event, with no precedent. Italian artists, in perpetuating Simon’s burgeoning cult, presented him as a triumphant saint, without sign of pain or anguish on his face. North of the Alps, however, Northern European presentations of Simon had him more in line with other purported cases of blood libel, with Simon being tortured and mutilated. These images emphasized the act of his martyrdom, while imagery produced in Italy presented the end result and his sanctification.
This difference in presentation was, Teter argues, symptomatic of a wider division between those who wanted Simon to be considered a saint and those who held the account of his death as suspect or merely wanted to see his as a victimization without greater spiritual value. Mere weeks after Simon’s disappearance, Bishop Hinderbach of Trent distributed printed pamphlets in Latin and German relating the death of Simon and containing the earliest representations of contemporary Jews in printed media. Weeks after that, Hinderbach released a second version of the story on newly printed pamphlets, with yet a third version of the story being spread via pamphlet after the papal order to cease the forced conversion of Jews in Trent, begun in response to Simon’s death. It was this use of easily mass produced printed pamphlets that allowed Hinderbach to spread and establish Simon’s cult in Trent and beyond as quickly as he did and, largely, in spite of papal resistance. Pope Sixtus IV, having forbade Hinderbach from allowing Jews to be forcibly converted or killed, resisted the notion that Simon was a saint by virtue of his supposed martyrdom on the grounds that only the papacy could render such judgments. While Hinderbach, as Teter shows, was acting within the established medieval custom of allowing popular sentiment to drive the recognition of a martyr as a saint, the papacy at this time was establishing a more formal division between the concepts of saint and beatus/a, with the saint being the formally canonized figure and the beatus/a an approved figure to whom individuals can appeal without accusation of idolatry. This conflict, ebbing for a time after Hinderbach’s death and the subsequent downturn in popularity of Simon’s cult beyond Trent, came to a temporary conclusion during the Council of Trent. Teter believes that during this time, the attendees of the Council would have been inundated with the imagery of Simon’s martyrdom, resulting in a revival of his cult and his later inclusion in the liturgical calendar. Simon’s inclusion in the liturgical calendar made it difficult for the papacy to assuage popular concerns over blood libel, as to deny its existence or instances in which it was purported to have occurred would be to call into question the legitimacy of officially recognized and celebrated saints.
Within this series of events, Teter sees the struggle between old and new understandings of how saints and beati/ae are or should be recognized. Hinderbach, though the driving force behind the formation of Simon’s cult, was abiding by practices employed throughout the Middle Ages, while the papacy was attempting to exert greater influence over who could be officially recognized as a saint or even who could be seen as beati/ae. Teter presents this struggle over recognition of Simon of Trent as exemplifying the liminality of the city of Trent at the time. It was culturally liminal, chronologically liminal, and technologically liminal, and serves as a microcosm of the social, religious, and legal shifts taking place at that time.
The Center would like to thank Professor Teter for her lecture and for getting this academic year off to an excellent start!