This installment, the first in a while because of a hiatus I was forced to take (thank you for your patience!) represents a continuation of sorts from my two-part Halloween special on accusations of devil worship through history, for if you recall, I noted that some of the accusations leveled against supposed Satanists—that of the desecration of Christian symbols and the ritual murder of children—would have been dreadfully familiar to Jews of the Middle Ages.
Jews in Christian Europe of the Middle Ages may have been the perfect target for vilification. They were perceived as holding themselves apart from almost every community in which they settled; they were the literal “other” with their distinct garb—which in later years was imposed on them by papal order—and their supposedly recognizable physical characteristics, which were often, in rumors, inflated out of cruelty or fear to include a bad smell and diabolical facial features. Their depiction in the New Testament and in Catholic traditions as the betrayers and murderers of Christ—a narrative revived every Easter—certainly singled them out for persecution and massacre during the Crusades, when some crusaders believed that killing a Jew absolved them of all sins. And when the only alternative was forced conversion, many Jewish communities made the horrific decision to commit collective suicide in order to maintain their faith and dignity.
Considering the long history of Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism, which stretches much further back than the Crusades, it is sadly unsurprising when one hears the outlandish justifications that have been trotted out at different times to rationalize atrocities committed against them: for example, the patently absurd accusation that they connived to desecrate the host. This ridiculous myth held that Jews so hated Jesus Christ that they conspired to steal consecrated host wafers from churches in order to do them physical harm by stabbing them. This, of course, was their way of murdering Jesus again, because according to the doctrine of transubstantiation, the host wafers were the literal body of Christ. A moment’s logic is enough to dismiss this, since its premise relies on the notion that the Jews themselves actually believed these arcane and ludicrous Catholic doctrines.
But other myths propagated to justify the persecution of Jews in the Middle Ages, while still patently preposterous, are too dark to laugh off. I refer, of course, to the persistent myth that Jews engaged in ritual murder, the so-called “blood libel.” This accusation was comparable to the rumor that they desecrated the host as from its very origins it appears as an accusation of ritually recreating Christ’s crucifixion, often through the sacrifice of a Christian child. Various motivations were offered to explain these imagined crimes, some far more foolish than others. Vaguely, it was usually asserted that their religion demanded it—a claim that few of their accusers or persecutors would have challenged, as they rarely knew much of anything about Jewish customs. A more specific and more bizarre claim eventually emerged that the Jews required Christian blood to make their matzo, the unleavened bread they had to eat at Passover. This, again, is certainly reminiscent of the accusations widely made against heretics and perceived devil worshippers in the Middle Ages, that they baked their sacrifices into wafers for the unholy communion of their black masses. But undoubtedly the most outrageous and bizarre motivations attributed to the Jews for their alleged crimes were physical rather than religious. Playing on the perception of Jews as the utterly different other, whose rites of circumcision set even their sexual organs apart, it was suggested that the Jewish male menstruated and had to replenish his blood through the sacrifice and consumption of others. And since this hemorrhagic curse was part and parcel with the blood curse, because Jews accepted the responsibility for Christ’s death from Pontius Pilate, it was said that they must specifically consume the blood of a Christian.
This collection of myths, which drove persecution and pogroms throughout the Middle Ages and afterward and is even today, unbelievable as it may seem, hauled out of mothballs by gullible and vitriolic anti-Semites, must have begun somewhere. That is the focus of this, Episode 14: Bloody Libel, or the Slaughter and Sacralization of Young William of Norwich.
Many have looked to antiquity for the origins of the blood libel. Some point to the Hellenistic age, when Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes sacked the temple in Jerusalem, defiling it by sacrificing a pig on its altar and erecting in its place an altar to Jupiter. In a seasonal aside, Antiochus Epiphanes’s aggressive persecution of the Jews in ancient Judea, outlawing the practice of their faith, forbidding circumcision and selling thousands of families into bondage, eventually led to the Maccabaean revolt and the re-consecration of the Temple, an event which, along with the legend of its attendant miracle of long-burning oil, represents the basis of the Jewish holiday, Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, which as I understand it starts the day I plan to release this episode, Wednesday, December 12.
Well, according to one later account by Greek historian Posidonius (poe-see-though-nius), when Antiochus Epiphanes took the Temple in 168 BCE, he found a Greek captive there who claimed that the Jews ritually cannibalized a Greek every seven years. Needless to say, the account can neither be confirmed nor trusted, considering the gross anti-Judaism rampant among Greeks of the era, as especially demonstrated in the bitterly anti-Semitic emperor himself, and even if the story were true, in that a Greek prisoner made the claim, it would remain problematic, for considering the source, you’d have to assume the man fabricated the tale to please the emperor. Regardless of its plausibility, the tale issued forth and persisted in a few other texts, but scholar Gavin Langmuir, in his influential work on the origins of the blood libel, makes a compelling argument that not only does this tale bear little resemblance to the blood libel as it later emerged in medieval Europe, but also that books containing this obscure anecdote were few and far between, such that the myth likely did not spring from this font.
In similar fashion, Langmuir dismisses another possible origin of the myth from Syria during the First Persian Empire, where intoxicated Jews at Inmestar, according to a Christian historian writing at some historical distance, supposedly tied a Christian boy to a cross in mockery of Christ, accidentally or purposely killing him in the process. As Langmuir shows, this incident was not widely recorded in texts that would have been available in medieval Norwich, England, where it is generally accepted that the first accusations of ritual murder appeared in the mid-1100s, and so could not have been their inspiration.
Other scholars continue to quibble, suggesting that the accusations made in Norwich were not made up out of whole cloth, that their inspiration can be found in the First Crusades, when Christian soldiers were shocked by the Jews’ willingness to kill not only themselves but also to sacrifice their wives and their very children rather than submit to forced conversion. Nevertheless, it appears that the incident I will now relate was the very first appearance of the blood libel, and that it emerged all at once and almost wholly formed—a notion that is deeply disturbing, for it seems somehow easier to comprehend that such an evil appeared gradually, built upon slowly throughout the ages, rather than materializing so abruptly, a sudden monster.
To understand the origins of the blood libel in Norwich, one must first consider the cultural and political context of medieval England after the Norman Conquest. Following the invasion and occupation of England by William the Conqueror, many Anglo-Saxons fled the country, and those who stayed faced something of an identity crisis. The conquest remade the country, not only physically, with structures being demolished in order to raise castles and cathedrals, but also culturally and racially, installing a new class of elites that spoke a language foreign to most. Situated near the North Sea on the River Wensum and therefore easily accessible for trade with Normandy, Norwich benefited from this change greatly. A new castle was raised, as well as a Cathedral, and a great influx of Norman merchants created a thriving burgh there. The affluence of this burgh, which had swelled to a population exceeding 10,000 and become one of the largest cities in England, drew a small community of Jews as well, plying their customary trade of money lending and injecting money into the economy through their commerce with local artisans. This was a city divided by race as well as language, for the Jews kept mainly to areas where the French-speaking Normans had settled, and there were those of Anglo-Scandinavian descent who had little contact with them and, as we shall see, held them in low regard.
It is important here to note that everything we know about what happened in Norwich the week of Easter 1144 we take from a decidedly biased and dubious source, the Life and Passion of Saint William the Martyr of Norwich, by Thomas of Monmouth, about whom I will have plenty to say as the story progresses. Suffice to say now that Thomas arrived in Norwich years later, and he composed his book on the events of 1144 later still. Moreover, his bias is evident to even the most credulous reader, for as can be gleaned from the title alone, Thomas was campaigning to have William of Norwich, who in that fateful year turned up dead, canonized as a saint. Nevertheless, we may deduce from Thomas’s record, considering his words as well as his omissions, what is likely to be fact and what embellishment, as Gavin Langmuir so shrewdly explores in his work. Here I will recount the “facts” in outline before laying out the legend in its entirety as Thomas of Monmouth wrote it.
At the broken heart of this story is a boy of twelve years, an English child who bore the Norman name of William. Although he did not live at home but rather with a local man named Wulward, his family lived nearby: his mother, Elviva, and his aunt, Leviva. There were many connections with the church in his family—his grandfather was a priest; his aunt Leviva’s husband, Godwin Sturt, was a priest as well; his cousin, Leviva’s son, was a deacon; and his own brother would later become a monk—but William had taken up a trade, apprenticing himself to a skinner at eight years old. During the course of his work, he had some contact with the local Jewry. However, during Lent in 1144, the man Wulward with whom he lived and his uncle Godwin Sturt both told him not to have any more interaction with the Jews in the burgh—and here we see one of the first hints of his family’s opinion of Jews.
On March 20th that same year, a mysterious man approached William. He was the archbishop’s cook, he said, and he had some work for William. This stranger went with William to his mother’s home to ask her permission to take William to the archbishop’s kitchen, and Elviva assented after taking a little money for herself from this cook. Now after the fact and years later, when Thomas of Monmouth went about playing detective and piecing together a narrative for his Life and Passion Saint William, Elviva would say that she was suspicious of this man, and William’s aunt Leviva would make further claims of having encountered the supposed cook herself before William’s disappearance, but there is reason to doubt these claims, so I shall impart them later, as we examine Thomas’s version of events. For now, it must only be known that William vanished after supposedly going to work for the archbishop.
On Good Friday, the boy’s body was stumbled upon in Thorpe Wood, a dense and brushy forest across the river Wensum east of the city. A nun by the name of Legarda found the corpse on her return from visiting a house of lepers. William wore only his jacket and shoes. Legarda would later claim that a preternatural beam of light led her to the body’s location, and that as she watched ravens attempting to feast on his remains, she saw that his flesh was impenetrable to their claws and their beaks. Thus the tales of miracles associated with the dead child commenced, but it is certainly strange that she then went on her way rejoicing at the sight and never told anyone of the poor child’s demise or the miracle until later. Thereafter, a forester named Sprowston happened upon the body, and his observations seem keener. The boy’s head had been shaved, and there appeared to be wounds on his scalp. Perhaps the oddest detail was that some strange device had been placed in his mouth—this, it turned out upon closer inspection, was a wooden teasel. A comb- or brush-like device traditionally used on cloth to raise its nap, it was clearly a torture device, having been forced with its tines into William’s mouth.
This was a disturbing discovery, but strangely, Sprowston went back to town. He must have told others of the body, for there are reports of curiosity seekers visiting the body over Easter weekend, like a medieval Stand By Me, but he did not return himself until Monday, whereupon he buried the boy where he lay. However, at least one visitor to the corpse seems to have recognized William and informed his family, for the next day, his uncle, Godwin Sturt, arrived to the designated spot in Thorpe Wood with his cousin and brother, disinterred the corpse, identified it as William, and reburied it in the same place. Godwin went back to tell his wife, Leviva, the sad news, and Leviva responded, seemingly apropos of nothing, by sharing a nightmare she’d recently had, one that betrays an alarming fear of Jews. In her dream, Jews surrounded her in the marketplace, clubbed her, and tore her leg off, stealing away with her limb. Why would she suddenly share her dream when told this news? Because apparently she had told him of the dream already, and as she reminded him, he had interpreted it to mean that the Jews would cause her to lose someone she loved. When Leviva and her husband shared this news with William’s mother, it seems likely they also shared their thoughts on Leviva’s supposedly prophetic dream, for Elviva promptly went about shouting that the Jews had murdered her boy.
As I mentioned in my caveat at the beginning, all of this is gleaned from Thomas of Monmouth’s Life and Passion of Saint William and therefore dubious, but if it were true, it only goes to show the malicious prejudice of this family, jumping to this conclusion on no further evidence than the interpretation of a nightmare. And indeed it seems clear that Thomas of Monmouth was not entirely putting words in their mouths, for not long after the discovery, Godwin Sturt publicly accused the Jews of William’s murder, standing before the Bishop’s synod and citing some vague and ridiculous evidence. He pointed to the dream as a premonition, and he suggested that this man who posed as the archbishop’s cook in order to kidnap William was so cunning that he must have been a Jew. He also spoke of Jewish religious practices vaguely and made unclear references to the wounds on William, but he never made the outright assertions that the Jews had crucified William as part of a profane ritual recreating Christ’s murder. That would all come later, and indeed, it may be that Thomas of Monmouth put those ambiguous and vaguely corroborative statements into his mouth in an effort to confirm the outrageous claims he would make.
The church called upon the Norwich Jews three times to come and answer the charges, but the Jews—certainly no strangers to persecution and wary of Catholic judgment—sought the counsel of the king’s representative, the sheriff, who advised them against submitting to ecclesiastical authority and ended up offering them shelter in the castle until the outcry subsided. Of course, afterwards, it would be claimed that the Jews bribed the sheriff for his protection, an accusation that simultaneously painted the Jews as guilty and the law that protected them as corrupt.
A full month after the body’s discovery, the Bishop ordered that the boy’s body be disinterred a second time and buried a third time in the cemetery at the cathedral, where according to Thomas, monks washed the corpse and examined it further. It appeared the body had been badly burned, as if by boiling water. Moreover, as Thomas records it, these monks found indications that the boy had suffered a crucifixion similar to Christ’s, as they saw a wound on his side as well as wounds on his hands and feet that might have corresponded to being nailed to a cross. Additionally, they identified the cuts on his scalp as being from thorns and even claimed to have found pieces of the thorns still in the wounds. Of course, by the time Thomas wrote about this, he was entirely devoted to establishing a cult in William’s honor and sacralizing him as not only a saint but a genuine martyr, and this puts the entire medical examination into doubt, especially considering the boy’s corpse had been exposed to carrion for days and decomposing in the ground for a full month by the time they examined it. And even if Thomas’s account is accurate in this regard, the monks of the priory themselves may have made these claims upon examining the body for the very same reasons, for it seems the Bishop didn’t order the body moved to the cathedral until after a Prior from an abbey far away south in Sussex approached him after the synod at which Sturt had accused the Jews and offered to take the boy’s body away to his monastery, where he would build upon the legend of the boy’s death and turn him into a holy relic. So it seems even before Thomas of Monmouth arrived on the scene and began pushing for the child’s canonization, the bishops and monks of the Norwich Cathedral saw an opportunity to turn the poor murdered child into a venerated figure, something that could elevate their cathedral into a destination for pilgrimage. And sure enough, after William was moved from the woods to the monk’s cemetery, some few reports of miracles began to appear.
What else we know about the events prior to Thomas arriving and insinuating himself into the affair, and again this comes to us through Thomas’s eventual writings as well, is that two years later, around 1146, a prominent Jewish moneylender named Eleazar was murdered in Norwich by the squires of a knight who was indebted to him. According to the legend as composed by Thomas years afterward, some in the church again brought up the case, suggesting that no Christian should have to answer murder charges made by the Jews until they answered for William’s murder. Thus when Thomas arrived at the Norwich cathedral priory circa 1149, there seems to already have been a nascent movement afoot to see William canonized—at least one miracle was supposed to have been reported around that time and related to Thomas, of a virgin who, stalked by an incubus, received instruction in a vision to carry candles to William’s grave and, having done so, claimed to have been delivered from her tormentor. And the supposed manner of William’s death was part and parcel with the growing legend of his martyrdom and surely also found its way through rumormongering to Thomas. Not only was there still a thriving belief in some circles that one or more Jews had killed the boy, but there was also a handy prime suspect in the Jewish community leader, Eleazar, who having been murdered himself could no longer answer any accusations made against him. Considering these circumstances and the fact that having the relics of a bona fide saint would not only improve the station of a cathedral but could also immortalize a monk like Thomas in folklore and religious literature, it’s clear Thomas may have seen an opportunity to serve whatever ambition a Benedictine monk like him might have had. Irrespective of his motivations, however, which might very well have sprung from genuine credulity and faith, Thomas almost immediately set about recording, and likely encouraging, whatever reports of miracles he could find, some of which consisted of visions describing William, crowned and attired in white, at the very feet of God Himself.
Like a quintessential English detective, Thomas also went about piecing together the “facts” of the murder, interviewing witnesses and sniffing out leads. Although years had passed, Thomas somewhat dubiously uncovered a variety of new evidence in the form of eyewitness testimony of a suspiciously damning nature. For example, although she had never made the claim before, even though it certainly would have helped to prove the accusations against the Jews, William’s aunt Leviva told Thomas that the mysterious “cook” with whom William had last been seen had come with William to visit her as well, the day after paying her sister Elviva for the privilege of obtaining William’s labor, and according to her, she was so suspicious of him that she sent her young daughter to shadow them and asserted that the little girl returned to report that they’d gone into the house of a Jew.
Then, another damning report happened to fall into Thomas’s lap. Another man of the cloth, one who had been actively sharing with Thomas tales of supposed miracles associated with William’s grave, dropped quite a bombshell. He claimed to have taken the deathbed confession of one Aelward Ded, in which Ded described seeing two Jews on horseback in Thorpe Wood on the Friday before Easter 1144, recognizing one of them as the prominent moneylender Eleazar who would be murdered a couple years later. According to the supposed confession, Ded approached them because one of them carried a suspicious looking sack over the neck of his horse, which Ded touched and realized contained a body. As the tale went, the Jews fled and later bribed the sheriff to intimidate Ded into keeping what he’d seen a secret, which astonishingly he had until the day of his death.
And if all these testimonies weren’t enough to seal it, Thomas next found a Christian maidservant who had worked for Eleazar during the Easter of 1144. She reportedly took Thomas to Eleazar’s house, into which Leviva’s daughter claimed to have seen William disappear, and showed him further physical evidence of the crime. She claimed that during the week leading up to Easter, she had been called on to bring her master Eleazar boiling water, and she described peeping with one eye through a hole to see a boy child fastened to a post. Of course, like the other witnesses Thomas reports interviewing, this servant also had never told a soul for the lame reason of worrying about losing her job and being afraid of the Jews—who remember represented an extremely small portion of the population in the overwhelmingly Christian burgh. But it didn’t matter because Thomas could then claim to have seen hard evidence of the boy’s manner of death, which he had all along rather bizarrely insisted was a recreation of the crucifixion. He says he saw the holes where William was nailed to the post, but since either the wounds recorded by the monks who’d examined William’s body or the marks on the post did not seem to indicate the traditional form of a crucifixion, he was careful to explain in his manuscript that the Jews had only nailed his left hand and foot to the post and merely bound the other limbs in place. Why? Well, to avoid the appearance that the boy had been crucified, of course. Never mind that scalding him with boiling water and forcing a barbed wooden teasel into his mouth also looked nothing like crucifixion; those flourishes must also have been performed just to throw savvy investigators like Thomas of Monmouth off the trail.
The biggest piece of “evidence” Thomas produced seems to have only been offered in Book 2 of his manuscript in order to answer those who doubted his outrageous theory. In the first book he had several times referred to converted Jews who had confided in him that sacrificing a Christian in imitation of Christ’s crucifixion was a vital Jewish tradition, but in Book 2, he revealed that it had just been one former Jew to tell him this, one Theobald of Cambridge who had become a Christian monk when he’d heard of William’s posthumous miracles. Theobald painted the picture of a vast Jewish conspiracy to ritually murder a Christian. This they did annually in accordance with their ancient scriptures, which told them that they must shed Christian blood “in scorn and contempt of Christ,” whose crucifixion had caused them to be scattered in foreign lands, and that if they did not, they would never return to their homeland and be free. Theobald spoke very specifically about how the chiefs among the Jews gathered at Narbonne, where the royal seed resided, and drew lots to determine which country among all those in which the Jews resided would be the setting for that year’s sacrifice, after which the Jews of that country’s largest city would draw lots to determine the town or city where the ritual murder would take place. And in 1144, according to Theobald, Norwich had been chosen, and all the Jews knew and accepted it.
Now this is manifest nonsense. Scholars Jewish and Gentile alike have pored over every foundational work of Judaism, and there exists no such edict. Actually, this claim mirrors in some ways the fears of the Talmud that would appear during the next century, which based on incomplete and erroneous understandings of that collection of writings claimed that it was an anti-Christian work encouraging violence against followers of Christ. But this was a hundred years before that. And there appears to be no historical precedent for such an accusation unless one goes all the way almost 1300 years back to that Greek prisoner in the Temple with his claim that the Jews engaged in a ritual sacrifice every seven years—a claim that as I explained earlier scholars doubt Thomas of Monmouth had ever heard of! Therefore, that would make Thomas himself the origin of this very specific and despicable accusation…or the converted Jew Theobald, if such a man existed. And there is reason to believe he may have, for it turns out that there was indeed a King of the Jews at Narbonne, as Theobald had supposedly told Thomas. There exists a legend of a scholar from Babylon named Machir, who settled in Narbonne, France, with the blessing of Charlemagne to establish himself there as King of the Jews. And it is true that descendants in the Machir family enjoyed the title of “nasi” or prince. Scholars including Joseph Jacobs in 1897 and the aforementioned Gavin Langmuir have argued that Theobald must have been real, for it seems unlikely that Thomas of Monmouth would have had such knowledge of the Jewish community at Narbonne.
So, the question is, who was the true source of this blood libel? Was this notion that Jews had committed a ritual recreation of the crucifix already present among the people of Norwich, among whom there certainly were those prejudiced against Jews, as evidenced in some of the statements made by William’s family? Was it just a one-of-a-kind rumor that sprang from the fact that the murder had occurred at Easter, when the story of Christ’s crucifixion was ubiquitous? Or had it been an imaginative invention of Thomas as he wrote his manuscript in order to paint William as Christ-like in his martyrdom? And more particularly, where had the concept that Jews were compelled annually to engage in such ritual murder originated? If Theobald was real, was he led by Thomas to make such a claim? Had Thomas coaxed this lie out of him to fit a narrative he was already composing? Or conversely, was this Theobald, about whom historians know nothing else, the true author of the lie? Did he pour this poison in Thomas’s ear, causing Thomas to then force all the rest of his evidence, whether real, embellished or contrived, to conform to this implausible theory? And if so, if it is possible that the blood libel was essentially started by a Jewish man, what was his motivation to start this lie that would spread like fire and burn many of his brethren?
As with all blind spots in our history, we may never know the truth in all its particulars. But we do know that this incident seems to be the birth of this great lie, which lived on in various forms for centuries. Within a couple decades it had spread to France, and soon more dead boys were suggested to have been victims of Jewish ritual murder. However, the first time the libel resulted in the shedding of innocent Jewish blood was back in England, in Lincoln, an affair recorded by Chaucer. In 1255, an 8-year-old boy named Hugh who had gone missing was found dead on land owned by a Jew, who on the promise that his life would be spared, accused other Jews of assembling on his land to ritually kill the lad. Henry III executed this man despite the promise of sparing him and sent 91 other Jews to London for trial, putting 19 to death. On and on the blood libel spread, resulting in miscarriages of justice and massacres. The rest of the 13th century saw incidents in numerous Germanic towns and cities, and in the 15th and 16th centuries, the lie resurfaced, with accusations spreading as far as Spain and Hungary. Even after the Age of Reason, we see the Damascus Affair and the Tisza-Eszlár Affair in the mid- and late-19th century, respectively, and the Polna and Kolnitz Affairs at the dawn of the 20th century. Even after thorough debunking and condemnation by monarchs and popes alike, this dark and destructive myth lay dormant and then stirred again, over and over, to corrupt the minds of those who were blind to its history. And tragically, it would not be the only such myth to inspire distrust and persecution of the Jews, for embryonic in this accusation was one of vast, international conspiracy, a further lie that would rear its foul head in manifold ways.
I relied on several scholarly articles for this episode that I cannot easily link to, so here’s my bibliography, in MLA style because that’s what I’m accustomed to using. :)
Cohen, Jeffrey J. “The Flow of Blood in Medieval Norwich.” Speculum, vol. 79, no. 1, 2004, pp.
26–65. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20462793.
Langmuir, Gavin I. “Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder.” Speculum, vol. 59, no. 4,
1984, pp. 820–846. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2846698.
McCulloh, John M. “Jewish Ritual Murder: William of Norwich, Thomas of Monmouth, and the
Early Dissemination of the Myth.” Speculum, vol. 72, no. 3, 1997, pp. 698–740. JSTOR,
Rubin, Miri. "Making a Martyr: William of Norwich and the Jews." History Today, vol. 60, no. 6,
June 2010, p. 48. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?