- The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe by Emily M. Rose
In 1144 a twelve-year old skinner's apprentice named William, a younger son in a clerical dynasty of some local note, was lured from his residence in Norwich and murdered by person or persons unknown. William's uncle, a married English priest named Godwin Sturt, accused the small, recently-established Jewish community of Norwich of the murder, but little seems to have come from this initial accusation. William's body was buried in the churchyard of Norwich Cathedral Priory, to which his family had some connections; but there it lay, largely ignored, until 1149, when the claim of Jewish culpability for William's murder was revived by William Turbe, the newly-elected Cathedral Prior, who used the charge to defend Simon de Novers, a local Norwich knight against allegations that Simon had murdered Deulesalt/Eleazar, the leader of the Norwich Jewish community, to whom Simon owed large sums of money. A year later a newly arrived monk of the Priory named Thomas of Monmouth took it as his life's mission to vindicate William not only as a victim of Jewish malice, but as a martyr and saint whose body and relics were a precious gift to Norwich Cathedral Priory.
Thomas began composing his Life and Passion of William of Norwich in 1150. By the time he completed it, sometime after 1170, the claim that Jews kidnapped and murdered Christian children in a ritualized demonstration of anti-Christian animus had already been repeated in Gloucester (1168) and on the continent, where it led, in Blois (1171), to the execution by fire of more than thirty Jewish men, women, and children. Ten years later, this "blood libel" (or, as other historians will prefer, the "ritual crucifixion charge") was employed by King Philip II to justify the expulsion of all the Jewish communities from the Ile-de-France. From France the libel swept on to the rest of Europe, passing ultimately to Russia and the Middle East, where it continues even today to be repeated, promoted, and believed, with horrific consequences for Jews and Jewish communities that have rippled down through the centuries.
Dr. Rose's new book is the boldest and most thoroughgoing of the many attempts over the past sixty years to make sense of this enormously consequential yet entirely specious claim. Her argument is straightforward, and in its broad strokes persuasive. Although Thomas of Monmouth was the first to give literary form to the blood libel, the libel spread not through Thomas's text, nor as a result of competition from rival pilgrimage centers for visitors, but as a result of the efforts of a series of political and religious authorities to make use of the charge for their own ends. In Gloucester, the libel was used to extort loans from the local Jewish community to support Earl Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare's (Strongbow) longshot invasion of Ireland. In Blois, Count Thibaut V used it, and the executions that resulted from it, to assert his independence from the growing strength of the Capetian monarchy. In Bury St. Edmunds, the alleged martyrdom of Robert of Bury at the hands of Bury's Jews was an element in Samson of Bury's successful [End Page 568] campaign to be elected Abbot; while in Paris, Philip II used the libel to clear Paris of Jews, so that he could redevelop the city into a modern commercial capital from which he profited handsomely.
The sources for reconstructing this story are not plentiful, but Dr. Rose has done excellent work in unearthing plausible details about William's family and its clerical connections in East Anglia, and in emphasizing King Philip II's associations with the Cult of the Holy Innocents. These points will surely find their way into other historians' arguments. She is also clear and fair in addressing the contrary interpretations that...