From the mid-twelfth century onward urban communities scattered across Europe persuaded themselves that each year about Eastertime the Jewish minorities living among them conspired in the systematic abduction and ritual slaughter of Christian children. That myth would be used to justify centuries of harassment, robbery, and judicial murder of European Jews. Jews, it was claimed, believed that their ultimate return to the Holy Land depended on the spilling of innocent Christian blood. Alternatively, it was suggested, Jewish Passover rituals involved the baking and consumption of matzoh that had been mixed with human blood. Jewish medicine and Jewish magical healing were thought to require the blood of children.
Underpinning all these beliefs was the long-standing accusation that the Jewish people collectively were guilty of deicide—God-murder—in bringing about the death of Christ, and now, maliciously and “in mockery of the Passion,” sought endlessly to renew that sin by inflicting the pains of crucifixion on the bodies of Christian children. More than a century after the Jews had been banished from medieval England, Geoffrey Chaucer would enshrine one such horrific story of Jewish murder in his Prioress’s Tale, and would invoke another, the supposed killing in 1255 of “yonge Hugh of Lincoln, slayn also/with cursed Jewes.”
Fostered by a grotesque farrago of ignorance and misinformation about Jewish ritual practices, religious and racial prejudice, and economic resentment, this charge of Jewish ritual murder, the so-called blood libel, persisted and ramified down the years. A Jewish survey of such allegations compiled in the early twentieth century listed six cases for the twelfth century, fifteen for the thirteenth, ten for the fourteenth, sixteen for the fifteenth, thirteen for the sixteenth, and on into modern times, spreading through England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Russia, and increasing to almost forty cases during the nineteenth century.
Wherever the myth was credited, synagogues and Torah scrolls might be burned, Jews imprisoned, forcibly converted, exiled, driven to suicide, tortured, or killed, and their property confiscated. Many accusations led to horrifying mass reprisals by Christians, as when thirty-one Jewish men, women, and children were burned alive on the orders of Count Thibaut V of Blois in 1171, eighteen Jews were hanged in Lincoln in 1255, or 128 Jews were slaughtered by both the military and civilian mobs in Bucharest in April 1801.
The factual evidence for these blood libels was examined and exposed as worthless in the 1890s by a German Protestant Talmudic scholar, Hermann Strack, and no serious historian now credits them. But ancient animosities need no facts in order to thrive. Accusations of Jewish ritual murder are still made by ultranationalists and neofascists in Eastern Europe. In January 2005, five hundred Russians, including twenty members of the Duma, signed a petition calling for a ban on all Jewish organizations, on the grounds that Jews practiced “ceremonial murder”: similar accusations are a staple of propaganda by Hezbollah and other Islamist groups in the Middle East.
The first known example of the blood libel occurred in twelfth-century England, in the cathedral city of Norwich. The two-hundred-strong Jewish community in Norwich was one of the wealthiest in the country. The city’s richest man was Jurnet the Jew, a moneylender with a national clientele and an international circle of associates. Wealth on this scale, generated from high-risk and high-interest moneylending, was a recurrent cause of hostility toward an already exotic-seeming minority.
The origins of the blood libel have often been discussed in general and ahistorical terms, drawing on the disciplines of anthropology, folklore, psychology, or the social sciences. It has been suggested that the charge of ritual murder was a remnant of ancient Roman attacks on Christian “cannibalism” in the eucharist, or arose from misunderstanding of Jewish customs such as circumcision, or kosher butchering, or Purim festivities, or even as an irrational projection of Christian self-doubt, as Christians sought to bolster their own faltering sense of religious security by demonizing the religious “other” in the person of the Jews. E.M. Rose’s vivid examination of the early origins of the blood libel rejects such generic explanations, offering instead a detailed reconstruction of the specific historic circumstances in which the libel first arose and spread. But her detailed exploration of specific situations diverges at times into speculation, whose lack of warrant in the evidence poses serious historical problems.
At the end of Holy Week 1144, the mutilated body of a twelve-year-old boy was discovered in Thorpe Wood, outside Norwich. England was then in the grip of a bloody civil war, the so-called Anarchy triggered by the struggle between two rival claimants to the English throne, the empress Matilda (mother of Henry II, Thomas Becket’s nemesis) and her cousin, Stephen of Blois. Famine and lawlessness were rife, and violent death was common enough for the small corpse to seem at first unremarkable. Though noticed by a number of passersby, the body remained exposed and unattended for several days, before being buried where it lay.
William, the murdered boy, it emerged, was a local leather-worker’s apprentice, identified eventually by a maternal uncle. He had been crudely gagged with a fuller’s teasel, a spiked wooden tool used for carding wool, and stabbed many times. There were signs of what were later alleged to be wounds made by thorns in his shaven scalp, and holes in his hands, feet, and side, reminiscent of the marks of crucifixion, though these telling details may have been later elaborations.
William, whose services as a leather-worker had reputedly been much in demand among the Jewish community, would be presented as a poor boy by his biographer, Thomas of Monmouth, a monk who arrived in Norwich five or six years after William’s death. But the skinners’ trade to which he was apprenticed was a skilled one, and he was literate in Latin, and perhaps spoke Norman French—rare accomplishments for a plebeian Saxon boy. William came in fact from a respectable family whose fortunes were closely tied to the church. His father’s occupation is unknown, but according to Thomas his grandfather was “Wlward [sic] the priest, a famous man in his time,” while the uncle who identified his body, Godwin Sturt, was also a married priest, whose son Alexander was a deacon.
Five years before William’s murder the Second Lateran Council had declared the marriages of priests and deacons invalid, and forbidden the laity to attend services conducted by married clergy. The Norman rulers of twelfth-century England sought to enforce priestly celibacy, and promoted clergy who practiced it. But in mid-twelfth-century Norwich this new discipline had made little headway. Apart from the monks who staffed the cathedral priory, almost all the clergy in William’s story were married. And it was William’s clericalized family who initiated the claim that he had been murdered by Jews.
Leviva, Godwin Sturt’s wife and William’s maternal aunt, claimed to have had a surreal dream the weekend before the murder, in which a crowd of Norwich Jews had surrounded her, broken one of her legs, and carried it off, foreshadowing, as she later explained, “that soon one of my friends [i.e., family] would be lost through the Jews.” According to the family, William had been lured to a wealthy Jew’s house by a treacherous gentile collaborator with a promise of employment. Initially pampered, the boy had been seized, nailed to a door post, and tortured, and had bled to death, a process later alleged to have been glimpsed by a gentile maidservant too terrified to report what she had seen. Godwin and Leviva’s daughter, William’s cousin, supplied a vital link in the chain of circumstantial evidence by claiming that she had followed William and seen him enter the house of a wealthy Norwich Jew, from which he never emerged.
The formal charge of ritual murder against the Norwich Jews was made by Godwin Sturt at the annual meeting of the Norwich church council, convened by the bishop of Norwich, a few weeks after the boy’s death. In his speech to the assembly Godwin appealed to apparently already current gentile prejudices about “what by custom the Jews have been obliged to do on these days” (i.e., murder at Passover), noted the suggestive nature of the wounds on the body, reminiscent of the Passion of Christ, and recounted his wife Leviva’s dream.
The bishop summoned the Norwich Jews before him to answer Godwin’s charges, but was blocked by the intervention of the sheriff of Norwich, John de Chesney. Jews in England came under the direct jurisdiction of the Crown, because their wealth provided a convenient source of taxation to underpin precarious royal finances. Acting for the Crown and “the king’s Jews,” the sheriff rejected the bishop’s right to try the case, and gave the Jewish community refuge in Norwich Castle until the furor stirred up by Godwin’s accusations had subsided. The one concrete outcome of Godwin’s speech was that the bishop ordered the exhumation of William’s body from its grave in the woods and had him reburied in the monastic cemetery, an incipient sign of a cult.
But although William’s family appear to have worked hard to promote their murdered boy as a saint and martyr to odium fidei, “hatred of the faith,” public interest soon evaporated. A few “miracles” were reported at his tomb, like the rose that bloomed there in the depth of winter, but they failed to impress, and there was no stream of pilgrims. What changed all that, according to E.M. Rose, was another murder trial, this one before King Stephen in London, a trial in which a Jew was the victim, not the alleged perpetrator.
Our information about this trial, and indeed about all the circumstances surrounding William’s murder, comes from Thomas of Monmouth’s The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich. Thomas’s work is the first medieval text to spell out the charge of ritual murder against the Jews, and would provide a template for all subsequent accusations. His account of the trial of Sir Simon de Novers for the murder of a wealthy Norwich Jew becomes the linchpin of Rose’s analysis of the origin of the blood libel. Rose dates the killing of this Jewish moneylender to 1149 and the trial of Sir Simon to 1150, dates that are crucial to the plausibility of her analysis; unfortunately, neither date is secure.
In 1150 there was a revival of William’s cult that Rose contends resulted from the failure of the Second Crusade and the crisis of demoralization and debt created by this failure in eastern England in 1149. The greatest magnate in the region, William de Warenne, cousin to the French king, Louis VII, had “taken the cross”—i.e., vowed to join the Crusade—in France in 1146. He repeated the ceremony at Castle Acre priory in Norfolk the following year, immediately before setting off to the Holy Land.
Rose speculates that Sir Simon de Novers, an East Anglian aristocrat fallen on hard times, might have been one of the men at arms who accompanied Warenne on the Crusade. Crusading was an expensive business, and many crusaders borrowed heavily, from local monasteries or from gentile or Jewish moneylenders, to equip and fund their enterprise, hoping to recoup the outlay from the spoils of war. But the failure of the Crusade meant that there were no spoils, and Norwich crusaders would have returned, Rose argues, embittered and indebted, to a region already suffering from the terrible consequences of civil war, disorder, and famine. They might also have returned inflamed with anti-Jewish prejudices fomented by reactionary Crusade preachers like Ralph the Cistercian, whose rabid sermons set off a wave of anti-Jewish assaults in the Rhineland in 1146 and 1147.
For Rose, the failure of the Second Crusade is central to the trial of Simon de Novers in 1150 presided over by King Stephen—held first in Norwich, then reconvened in London when “the next council of clergy and barons was held.” According to Thomas of Monmouth, Sir Simon was deep in debt to a wealthy Norwich moneylender, a Jew called “Deus Adjuvet,” usually taken as a latinization of the Hebrew name Eleazer, but which Rose suggests was actually a version of the Norman French name “Deulesalt.” This, Thomas of Monmouth claimed, was the Jew in whose house William had been murdered. Unable to repay his loans, Sir Simon arranged for the ambush and murder of Deulesalt, an event that Rose dates to 1149. The Norwich Jews appealed to the king against the assassins, and Sir Simon was defended before the king in 1150 by his feudal overlord, the new bishop of Norwich, William Turbe.
Thomas admits he was not present at the trial but offers an “imaginary” (Latin coniecturalis) account of Turbe’s defense speech. In it, Turbe denied Sir Simon’s complicity in the murder but went on to insist that in any case, no Christian should have to defend himself for the death of the ringleader of the Norwich Jews in the murder of an innocent Christian boy (William), claiming they had only escaped punishment because of obstruction by a corrupt sheriff, John de Chesney.
King Stephen deferred judgment in the case (according to Thomas because he had been bribed), but for Rose the trial, which brought the otherwise retiring Bishop Turbe to national prominence, was the event that gave legitimacy to the claim that Jews had murdered little William, and led the bishop and the Norwich monks to revive and promote his cult.
Unfortunately for Rose’s argument, there is not a shred of evidence that Sir Simon de Novers was ever a crusader, and there is reason to date the murder of Deulesalt and the subsequent murder trial to 1147, not to 1150, and therefore two years before any East Anglian crusaders could have returned from the Holy Land. Thomas of Monmouth gives no dates for Deulesalt’s murder or Simon de Novers’s trial, and the leading historian of twelfth-century Norwich, Christopher Harper-Bill, dates that trial to 1147. Harper-Bill suggested that Bishop Turbe’s eloquent defense of Sir Simon brought this inexperienced and hitherto obscure monk-bishop to the king’s attention, and accounts for his prestigious appointment as one of the three representatives of the English episcopate at the Papal Council of Rheims in 1148.
If Harper-Bill’s chronology is correct, then Rose’s linkage of the revival and spread of William’s cult to the financial fallout from the Second Crusade, and the transmission of the Rhineland anti-Semitism that accompanied it, looks much less convincing. Bishop Turbe certainly embraced the murdered boy’s sanctity, and from 1150 undoubtedly threw his weight behind the hitherto faltering cult. In 1150 William’s body was moved from the monastic graveyard to a place of honor in the cathedral chapter house; in 1151 it was taken (or “translated”) to a still more public shrine near the high altar of the cathedral, and in 1154 it was enshrined in a separate “chapel of the martyrs” to make lay access to the tomb easier. Such translations of a body would have been impossible without the bishop’s support and were the early medieval equivalent of canonization. Pilgrims began to come to William’s tomb for healing and help, and “miracles” accumulated, though the cult was never truly popular. But the crucial factor in this deliberate promotion of William’s cult appears to have been not the trial of Simon de Novers but the arrival in Norwich of William’s biographer, Thomas of Monmouth.
Thomas of Monmouth places the account of the trial of Sir Simon at the end of book two of his life of William. His account of the body’s translation to the chapter house and the start of popular devotion opens book three. Rose argues that this arrangment suggests that the two events followed directly after one another. In fact the break between the two books suggests rather that Thomas saw the revival as springing not from the (undated) trial, but from the “venerable and wondrous revelation” in the form of three visions granted to Thomas of Monmouth himself, soon after his arrival in the priory in 1150. These visions take up the opening chapter of book three: in them, the founding bishop of Norwich, Herbert Losinga, appears to Thomas, emphasizing the precious treasure the monks possessed in William’s body, and insistently warning that the relic would be taken away from them if it wasn’t translated into the chapter house.
Thomas duly reported these visions to the head of the monastery, Prior Elias, and claimed that Elias was “overjoyed,” because he “saw honour of great worth coming to the church of Norwich” from the recognition of William’s sanctity. The translation was decided upon, and Rose insists on the total commitment of Elias and the whole monastic community to the subsequent promotion of William’s cult. Brother Thomas, she claims, “did not initiate the cult on his own…. There is no evidence that anyone within the cloister disavowed [his] claims for William’s sanctity; what criticism there was came from outside.”
This, unfortunately, is simply not so. Thomas consistently portrays Elias as unenthusiastic about and even opposed to the cult of the boy saint. The prior probably was persuaded that the reburial of William’s body in the chapter house was a prudent precaution against pious theft. But he appears in Thomas’s narrative as a vehement opponent of any further advance of the cult of the new “saint.” Elias was “indignant” when the slab covering William’s new grave was “raised above the rest of the chapter house pavement.”
When Thomas took it upon himself to place a candle at the head of the grave and covered the stone itself with an embroidered carpet, Elias “took grave offence” and “contemptuously” confiscated both the candle and the carpet. Subsequent “visions” warning Elias to replace the carpet were ignored, and Thomas devoted a chapter to “the hardening of the heart of Prior Elias” and suggested that Elias’s untimely death in October 1150 was “Saint” William’s revenge for “the injury done to him by the hard-hearted prior.”
Elias was not alone in his resistance to William’s cult. Thomas’s long and defensive “answers to those who disparage [William’s] sanctity” and warnings against those who “disparage the miracles” or “doubt that he was killed by the Jews” strongly suggest that he had many to persuade, both inside and beyond the monastery. Certainly he himself had a decidedly proprietorial attitude toward William, extending beyond his official position as “sacrist” or custodian of the shrine. He secretly removed and concealed two of the boy’s teeth during the first translation of the body, and also kept “unknown to all others” a secondary relic, a shoe, in his own cell.
Commissioned to chronicle the miracles, Thomas dedicated a lifetime to promoting William’s cult. After the first two books outlining the “martyrdom,” Thomas appears to lose interest in the Jews. The last five books of his seven-book life of William make no mention of them, there are none of the miraculous “conversions” of Jews common in later versions of the blood libel, and he seems concerned only to assert William’s claims to sanctity against all rivals for such claims, including, after 1171, the newly martyred Thomas Becket.
But if Thomas’s arrival in Norwich and his alleged visions of 1150 were the true trigger for the expansion of the cult of William, his completion twenty years later of his official account of William’s life, death, and miracles, with its two opening books on Jewish guilt, would provide the template for subsequent repetitions of the blood libel.
Exactly how, and how far, that libel was transmitted in the century or so immediately following William’s murder remains unclear. Rose devotes chapters to four twelfth-century cases that William’s story might have influenced: the recovery of a boy’s body from the Severn at Gloucester in 1168; the alleged dumping of a murdered child in the Loire at Blois in 1171; the alleged crucifixion of Robert, a baby boy, at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk in 1181 (see illustration on page 52); and the murder of a twelve-year-old boy, Richard of Pontoise, in Paris on Maundy Thursday, 1179.
Apart from the general charge that Jews ritually murdered children, however, the parallels with Norwich are not particularly close in any of these cases. Most are known only from fragmentary twelfth-century references lacking detail, or from late medieval elaborations that probably drew retrospectively on Thomas’s book or its derivatives. At Blois, the allegation of Jewish ritual murder originated when a Jew accidentally dropped a rolled rawhide into the water while fording the river, and a hostile observer chose to believe the object dropped was the body of a child. But no body was ever found, no one was reported missing, and unlike in Norwich, the incident happened in May, long after both Passover and Holy Week: nevertheless, the accusations were believed, and thirty-one Jews were burned alive in reprisal.
The alleged link between William’s death and ritual murder by Jews at Blois was suggested to the local prince, Count Thibaut V, by an anonymous cleric. Rose argues that the allegation took imaginative hold mainly because Thibaut was looking for an excuse to impose fines on local Jewish financiers and to establish his credentials as a devout Catholic ruler by attacking an unpopular minority. She suggests nevertheless that William’s story did directly influence the Blois pogrom, arguing at some length that Bishop Turbe, whose cathedral had just burned down, conducted a fund-raising tour of the Loire region in 1170, taking William’s relics with him, and thus transmitted the idea of Jewish ritual murder into France.
Once again, however, there is a total lack of evidence for this suggestion: Harper-Bill and other historians date the Norwich Cathedral fire to 1171, not 1170, and there is no evidence whatever that any such relic tour ever took place. In 1170 Bishop Turbe was in any case out of royal favor for his support of Archbishop Thomas Becket, and in all probability he was keeping his head down in Norwich. The only contemporary reference we have to his fund-raising activities after the fire supports this view, since it mentions him seated outside the cathedral begging for contributions, while the priory register records that he had vowed “that he would not betake himself more than twelve [leagues] from his church unless driven by necessity…and [until] he also had his Norwich church rebuilt.” Here, as in the case of Simon de Novers’s trial, Rose’s commendable search for a plausible historical setting for the Blois blood libel takes her well beyond the surviving evidence.
All the same, her book is a significant contribution to understanding one of the most repellent strands of medieval anti-Semitism. If some of the narrative reconstructions she offers are at best hypothetical, her careful analysis of the economic and social relations of Jews and Christians in communities where the blood libel took hold is generally illuminating. Her attempts to minimize the role of Thomas of Monmouth in the creation and propagation of William’s legend, however, are much less persuasive. The Life and Passion of William of Norwich never circulated in large numbers and was forgotten for centuries. But details from it—the peeping maid, the gentile collaborator, the crucifixion wounds—surface again and again in later examples of the blood libel. By whatever means, the story it told had passed like a poison into the bloodstream of Christendom. Few books of piety have unleashed so much horror.