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Bad Blood

Frank Freeman

The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe, by EM Rose, Oxford University Press, 392 pages, $27.95, ISBN: 978-0190219628

Where exactly did the idea that Jews preyed on Christian children, luring them to their deaths ‑ usually by crucifixion after Christ-like sufferings ‑ come from? At a time of rising anti-Semitism worldwide this question may not be the non-issue some might think it is (as in “it could never happen nowadays”). That attitude is a form of what the English thinker Owen Barfield dubs “chronological snobbery”, the notion that our times are more virtuous and intelligent than previous ones. To have even a passing acquaintance with twentieth century history dashes that idea to pieces.

You could almost say the ritual murder story compares with the modern “urban legend”, the stories we’ve all heard many times and accept without thinking as true. EM Rose, a historian who read medieval and renaissance studies and modern history at Yale and Oxford and received her doctorate from Princeton, notes, in this her first book, that the most famous literary version of the ritual murder story comes to us from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, specifically “The Prioress’s Tale”. In this story the prioress tells about a Christian boy who is killed by the Jews whose neigbourhood he walks through each day to and from school, killed because he sings beautifully to the Virgin Mary as he does so. Here is the prioress’s rendering of the prelude to the killing (in Nevill Coghill’s modern English translation):

First of our foes, the Serpent Satan shook
Those Jewish hearts that are his waspish nest,
Swelled up and said, ‘O Hebrew people, look!
Is this not something that should be redressed?
Is such a boy to roam as he thinks best
Singing, to spite you, canticles and saws
Against the reverence of your holy laws?’

In the tale the Jews hire a Jewish murderer who slits the Christian boy’s throat and throws the corpse into a cesspit. When the mother goes looking for her son ‑ the story is made more plaintive by the mother being a widow ‑ she finally finds him because she can hear him singing the O Alma Redemptoris. His corpse miraculously keeps singing the Latin hymn until a grain of seed put there by the Virgin herself is plucked from his tongue by the abbot burying the boy. Chaucer has the prioress end the tale with a mention of Hugh of Lincoln, a famous child martyr.

The connection in the tale of this child murder with devotion to the Blessed Mother is something that Rose discusses in her book. The stories of such murder, beginning in twelfth century England, seem to be bound up with an increased devotion to Mary and  also a devotion to the Holy Innocents, the boys, two years and younger, killed by Herod after he realised the Wise Men had left town without telling him where the newborn king was to be found; thus he had all the boys in Bethlehem and environs slaughtered. Somehow, though, this slaughter of Jewish children by a Roman client king of Arab and Edomite heritage who had converted to Judaism became the story of innocent Christian children preyed upon by Jewish usurers. How did this come about?

Rose explains that up until the twelfth century Jews had been considered by the Church to be a necessary witness to the truth of Christianity. They were to be tolerated and left alone as a sort of negative example, and it was to be hoped that near the parousia (the second coming) they would convert in vast numbers. This was the official line of the Catholic Church; the Jews moreover were usually protected by the royalty of whatever nation they were in, as indeed the prioress suggests: “Where there were Jews, supported by the Crow / For the foul lucre of their usury.”

In this last line begins the history of the ritual murder story. It was not only the Crown that borrowed money from the Jews but also knights who needed to finance Crusades. The story begins in Norwich, where the civil war between Matilda, Henry I’s daughter, and his nephew, Stephen of Blois, had been particularly severe and drained the resources of everyone in the knightly class, but also of the religious houses of monks, such as Norwich Cathedral Priory. On top of the civil war was the failure of the Second Crusade promoted by St Bernard of Clairvaux, from which the knights that survived returned to a welcome analagous to that which awaited Vietnam veterans returning to America. And these knights were not only dishonoured but broke and owing money to lenders, many of the latter Jews.

When in 1149 a knight, Sir Simon de Novers, was accused of the murder of a Jewish banker, his lawyer, Bishop William Turbe, cleverly defended his client not with evidence of his innocence but with a diversionary tactic, that is, of accusing the entire Jewish community of Norwich with the murder of a Christian youth, William, which had allegedly happened years before. A youth named William had been killed and found in the woods in 1144 but no one had ever been proved to have been his killer despite some accusations against the Jews that went nowhere for lack of evidence. The Norwich Cathedral Priory, according to Rose ‑ and she has a good deal of evidence to support her case ‑ tried to use the death of William to start a martyr cult that would bring much needed money to the cathedral. But the movement never got off the ground ‑ not until, that is, Bishop Turbe brought the topic up to get Simon de Novers off the hook. Which he succeeded in doing; King Stephen, neither wanting to offend the Church nor the Jews (overmuch), let the matter drop.

But the movement for William, child martyr, victim of a Jewish ritual murder, was set in motion. This story spread into other parts of England and thence into France, where it was used by clerics and royalty as a way to tout their piety and get badly needed cash. A child’s body would be found, the Jews would be blamed for the death, the Jews would be exiled (usually, though at times they were burned), their land and possessions confiscated, and the royal coffers replenished. It was win-win for the Church and the Crown and lose-lose for the Jews unless they converted, which they sometimes did.

What is chilling about Rose’s portrayal of what happened over the years is the calculation that lay behind it. Far from this being a case of hysterical riotous crowds who demanded that the Jews be killed, this is a story of clerics and kings seeing their main chance for solvency in destroying Jewish settlements. Some of this Rose attributes to the chaos of medieval times, the failure of the Second Crusade et cetera, in other words, sociological factors; but she also brings out brilliantly the sheer monetary motives she says played a much more significant role than previous historians have been willing to delve into.

Here is how she encapsulates her findings in her conclusion:

Although the frame of the purported victim, William, languished, the structural framework of his passion endured and proved easily adaptable to other situations. The accusation gained power and resonance from typological associations between the purported victims and the Christ Child, as well as from the growing cult of the Holy Innocents and the increasing popularity of miracle stories of the Virgin Mary. The accusation served to link the familiar contemporary provincial medieval landscape directly with the awesome holiness of the biblical story, to tie mundane existence to sanctified time and space. It also proved a practical and efficient tool to extort funds from Jews. Once the charge was accepted by the kind of England [King Richard the Lionheart], and was endorsed and advertised by the King of France [Philip IV], it was available to be widely utilized in multiple ways by different individuals and groups.

Rose admits throughout the book that parts of her argument are speculation but it appears to be very well-informed speculation and fits well the facts we know of. She has not proven all the elements of her argument, because of the lack of records, but she has not merely cobbled something together but in fact delved into the record more deeply than most historians of the period to explain how the ritual murder story originated and was spread. It is to be hoped that her book will remind readers that the story was from the start a mendacious one ‑ “No charge has withstood historical scrutiny,” Rose writes ‑ and that its repetition has been responsible for the shedding of much innocent blood.


Frank Freeman’s poetry has appeared in The New York QuarterlyTiger’s EyeThe Aroostook Review and The Axe Factory. His book reviews have appeared in America MagazineBloomsbury ReviewCommonwealThe Literary Review and The Rumpus, among others.



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