The Murder of William of Norwich: The origins of the blood libel in medieval Europe
E. M. Rose
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“IT was — and is — a powerful story that retains the capacity to fascinate, provoke, disquiet, and repel.” Such is E. M. Rose’s conclusion to his investigation of the blood libel against Jews in the 12th century.
The earliest known accusation of Jewish ritual murder of a Christian child arose around 1150 from a clever legal tactic in the trial of a penniless knight widely known to have murdered a Jewish banker.
As justification for the knight’s action, the Bishop of Norwich countered that the banker had himself directed the torture and murder of an apprenticed leather worker, William, whose body had been found in woods near Norwich some six years earlier. The consequences of this false charge levelled against not only the banker but the entire Jewish community have been felt down the centuries, most widely in the 20th century.
The trial ended in stalemate. No one was ever prosecuted for the boy’s death, and relationships with the large Jewish community of Norwich remained unaffected. But, unlike other cathedrals, Norwich lacked the body of a saint within its walls. After the trial, the monks grabbed the opportunity to create the cult of William. His remains were brought into the cathedral, relics were distributed, and Brother Thomas was commissioned to write his life, completed some 20 years later.
To counter continual local indifference to the young martyr — for, until the knight’s trial, no one had given William’s death a second thought — his remains were moved four times in ten years to different stations in the cathedral. Further, the industrious Brother Thomas produced five books of miracles associated with William, though these have been described as “scraping the barrel”. Yet the presence of the saint failed to enrich the cathedral. The importance of William is that his story became “a master narrative to be reimagined and reimposed in every genera-tion”.
In the second part of his book, Rose examines four other cases of 12th-century ritual murder largely ignored by historians on the grounds that next to nothing is known of them: Harold of Gloucester (1168), an unnamed child of Blois (1170), Robert of Bury (1181), and Richard of Pontoise (Paris) (1181).
In fact, as Rose shows, a great deal more can be discovered, even if, as he admits, conclusions must necessarily be tentative. In fact, he asserts that these four cases are best understood in a political or economic context, either as a pretext for extracting money from Jews, or to establish political power.
Exceptionally, at Blois, 30 Jews were burned publicly as heretics, contradicting the traditional Christian view of Judaism as a divinely ordained stage in the evolution of sacred history whose writings predicted the coming of Christ and so witnessed to the authenticity of Christianity. The expulsion of the Jews from Paris (1182) was another form of extermination.
A short review cannot do justice to Rose’s painstaking examination of these charges of ritual murder, nor to the political and ecclesiastical climate in which they were brought. Mention should, though, be made of the importance of the failure of the Second Crusade, and also the growth of the cult of the Holy Innocents, with whom these child martyrs were identified.
Despite being confined to the 12th century, Rose’s masterly treatment of the murder of William and the other children has an uncomfortable relevance for Christians engaged in dialogue with Jews, and deserves the widest readership.
Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.