The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by David I. Kertzer

A Jewish family sits together peacefully in their home. It is an ordinary night. After dinner. Mother, father, six children, the oldest still under ten years.

Suddenly, agents of the Inquisition are at the door, there to take away Edgardo, age six, claiming he was secretly baptized by one of the family servants, therefore a Christian, therefore in need of Christian parents. The panicked family try to stop this, to save their young son, but there is nothing they can do. The inquisitors take him away starting a year’s long legal battle that will end with the fall of the Papel States.

They never get their son back.

The year is 1858!!!

What shocked me about this story was the year it took place. I expected this to be a story about the middle ages, but 1858 is modern times. Post Enlightenment. Post Industrial Revolution.

Turns out this is not the last time a kidnapping like this happened either.

The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara is something of a thriller, something of a legal drama, a bit of a political struggle, a story of faiths in conflict with each other and with the modern world. It begins as one family’s pain but becomes an international scandal. It’s almost always interesting reading.

Key takeaways for me include:

  • The existence of the Papal States and the struggle to maintain them. This was an entirely new topic for me. If you’re like me, you’ve barely even heard of the Papel States. Through reading The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara one can get a clear, overall understanding of the key players for and against the Papal States, the extent of their power, and a clear picture of why they fell as Italy rose to become one nation,
  • A more mature understanding of Anti-Semitism as it existed in the 19th century. That a child could be taken from his family, the cases mentioned are all boys, because basically any Christian could secretly baptize him was news to me. While discussing the popular reaction to Edgardo Mortara’s kidnapping the author explains how widespread the belief in the “blood libel” was. This is the belief that Jews sacrificed Christian babies to use their blood as part of the Sedar. There are newspaper accounts of mobs killing Jewish men using the blood libel as an excuse as late as the 1880’s. This was the generation that became the parents and grandparents of Mussolini and Hitler’s followers. This put a new perspective on the situation for me.
  • A better understanding of how Jewish people must feel about attempts to convert them to Christianity. Years ago, a Jewish friend of mine mentioned how much she hated Jews for Jesus because they tried to convert her dying grandmother. That would have been 30 years ago, so not that long ago. I didn’t debate the issue, sometimes you should really just listen, but I can’t say that I really saw this as all that bad a thing to do at the time. But there is a long, and terrible history around this issue. Mr. Kertzer describes how the Jews who lived in Italy were allowed to hold Shabbat but afterwards they had to listen to a convert/priest who would rail against their beliefs in an attempt to Christianize them. This happened every week. Edgardo, and the other Jewish children like him, was raised a Christian, quickly becoming estranged from his family and his faith. Raised in part by Pope Pius IX himself, Edgardo became a significant figure in the churches program to convert Jews.
  • Lastly, I was reminded just how close history is to us. Years ago, I heard someone explain that the United States is just two old ladies away from the Civil War. The events on The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara are not even that far way. Edgardo died in 1940 in the Belgian abbey where he had spent many years of his life just two months before the Nazis arrived.

That’s a lot of very heavy stuff for a book that is really more a less a legal thriller. The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara has a lot to offer readers looking for a good read. Much of the book was very hard to put down. There were a few chapters in the middle that wondered off into the weeds of history a bit, but over all this is a very good read.

Almost my new favorite book.

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