Alana Lord, Ph.D. candidate is History, used her 2015 Rothman Doctoral Fellowship to travel to Spain and conduct archival research in the cities of Barcelona, Huesca, and Lleida. Her dissertation, “Constructing Royal Power: Host Desecration and Kingship in the Fourteenth-Century Crown of Aragon,” examines debates about royal power that took place between members of the royal family, the nobility, and cities about the appropriate form of kingship in the Crown of Aragon. In the late-fourteenth century, wealthy Jews within the kingdoms of Aragon and Catalonia were accused of stealing consecrated pieces of the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. The resulting Eucharist desecration trials raised political tensions between Pere III (r. 1336-1387), who sought to protect the Jews, and his son the Crown Prince of Aragon Joan I (r. 1387-1396) who relentlessly pursued the accusations.
An exchange of letters between Pere III and Joan I indicates the complexity and scale of the debate about royal power between the crown, the cities, and the nobility in the Crown of Aragon. The Jews of Aragon were an independent source of tax revenue for the Crown, which undercut noble influence. Since the Jews represented a challenge to noble power, municipal leaders sought to limit royal power by persecuting the Jewish communities of Aragon. Their persecution was not the product of religious zeal alone, but reveals a complex power dynamic between the king and local municipal officials.
The Crown of Aragon, located in the northwestern area of modern Spain, has a unique political history. In the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, cities and municipal authorities gained more fiscal and political autonomy from the king. To combat this trend, Pere III sought to consolidate royal power by heavily taxing the Jewish communities of Aragon in order to circumvent local nobilities. The letter exchange between Pere III and Joan I shows that the Eucharist desecration trials reflect a growing refrain of noble resentment. The system of taxing local Jewish communities partially excluded nobles from the infrastructure of royal power. But it also indicates that local nobles were concerned with jurisdictional prerogatives; they questioned whether the king should have the authority to unilaterally interfere with communities, whether Jewish or not, within the bounds of the city. In short, the persecution of Jews did not only signify burgeoning anti-Jewish attitudes but also the intersection of religion and politics. The letters of Pere III and Joan I show how, in attacking the wealthy Jews, members of the nobility and municipal officials contested the growth of royal power.
Lord’s research stresses the importance of understanding particular moments of persecution. The accusations of Eucharist desecration against the Jews were not strictly motivated by religious beliefs, but also grounded in the political power struggle between the king and nobility of Aragon. Persecution is not always motivated by prejudice. A variety of different motivations and structural factors can contribute to the formation of a persecuting society.
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