Weird History The Pope Who Thought He Could Cheat Death By Drinking The Blood of Jewish Children  

Carly Silver
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There have been hundreds of popes in the history of the Catholic Church – each with his own unique peccadillos, like Pope Alexander VI's penchant for fathering children – but nobody took an approach to health quite like Pope Innocent VIII. This 15th-century Pontifex is best known not as the failed ruler he was – not for his edicts against witches and magicians nor for his slave ownership – but as the Pope who drank blood in an attempt to cure an ailment.

When he suffered a stroke and slipped into a coma, Innocent's doctor decided to conduct the first recorded blood transfusion in history, giving his patient little boys' blood to sip on. Unfortunately for Innocent, just because he received the first known blood transfusion doesn't mean he received the first successful one. It is recorded that he and the children whose lifeblood he consumed died shortly after the macabre procedure.

When He Wasn't Drinking Child Blood, Pope Innocent VIII Was Executing Witches And Bankrupting The Papacy


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Innocent VIII was hardly the best of popes. Brought to the papal throne by a puppet master, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, he took a strong anti-magic stance in the Vatican and persecuted supposed witches (and intellectuals) across Europe. Innocent was also well known for pretty much bankrupting the papal treasury by interfering in Italian politics, pitting one provincial monarch against another. His Encyclopedia Britannica entry even includes the assessment that Innocent was "[generally] regarded as unworthy and of low private morals," and "the worldly Innocent reduced the Papal States to insolvency and anarchy."

For someone so diametrically opposed to what he perceived as witchcract, drinking child's blood comes as something of a surprise.

After He Suffered A Stroke, His Doctors Tried To Pump Blood Into His Mouth To Stop Him Dying


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In 1492, Innocent suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. In order to bring him out of it, his doctors resorted to desperate measures. They made him swallow blood in an effort to restore him. This early version of a blood transfusion didn't work, but medics probably thought this would because of earlier theories on the subject, which directly associated life with blood. The mouth would be one of the easier orifices through which to insert fluid, and it follows that if blood brought life, ingesting more of the life-giving liquid could restore a life on the brink. This, however, wouldn't prove to be the case.

Innocent's Doctor Was A Jewish Man, And In One Version Of The Story, The Blood Came From Christian Children


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Photo:  Maggie Black's The Medieval Cookbook /Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The man behind the oral blood transfusion suggestion seems to have been Innocent's Jewish physician, a guy named Giacomo di San Genesio. He'd previously cured Innocent of bouts of fever. In this recounting of the events around Innocent's blood consumption, the association of a Jewish physician with draining blood from Christians suggests that this entire procedure might have been a farce. Heinous anti-Semitic propaganda suggested that Jews sacrificed Christian babies for evil rites or for health purposes, so charging Innocent's Jewish physician with this kind of bloodlust could have been used to propagandistic ends. 

Three 10-Year-Old Boys Were Murdered For Their Blood – Because, You Know, Children Have The Best Blood


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Photo:  Hans von Gersdorf/Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons

So, regardless of the religious connotations, where exactly did the good doctor get the blood for Innocent to drink? In theory, he could have drawn it out in a bunch of ways, but rumor had it that he went about doing so in a morbid way. The medic bribed three 10-year-old boys with a ducat each to give their blood. In the process, Innocent's doctor drained these pre-teens of all their blood, killing them for their life-giving goodness.

A 15th-century physician queried: "Why shouldn't our old people, namely those who have no [other] recourse, likewise suck the blood of a youth?–a youth, I say who is willing, happy and temperate, whose blood is of the best but perhaps too abundant?" It only stood to reason, then, that a pope deserved the very best young blood.