Book Review // The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe

By | Sep 03, 2015


The Murder of William of Norwich:
The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe
E. M. Rose
Oxford University Press
2015, pp. 394, $27.95

Predecessor to ‘The Protocols’

Jonathan Brent

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic forgery published in Russia in 1903, has been called a “warrant for genocide.” However, as early as the 12th century in England, what is now known as “the blood libel”—the false accusation that Jews murdered Christian children for their blood—may be the original warrant that gave the world a pretext to deny the Jewish people a place in civilized society.

While the story of the murder of William of Norwich has been written about since at least the beginning of the 20th century, how and why an entire people came to be condemned for a fictitious crime has never been satisfactorily explained. E.M. Rose’s groundbreaking and painstakingly documented study, The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe, looks beyond religion to investigate the social, economic, political and historical conditions in which the first blood libel against the Jewish people took shape.

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The blood libel, known as “ritual murder,” though repudiated by officials of both the Christian and Muslim faiths over many centuries, remains a potent tool of public incitement—its persistence is amply attested to today in the ugly anti-
Semitic provocations throughout the Muslim world. Christianity is not immune, either. In the early 1990s, for instance, the Russian Orthodox Church seriously investigated the possibility that the execution of the Tsar and the royal family in 1918 was a “ritual murder.”

Only recently has a famous fresco depicting a blood libel in St. Paul’s Church in Sandomierz, Poland been veiled from public view. The now-unseen inscription above the painting carries this message: son of an apothecary killed by infidel Sandomierz Jews.

Perhaps the most important fact about this heinous accusation is that it indicts an entire people. Jewish individuals would stand accused of murders from the 12th century until the last such trial in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1913, when Mendel Beilis, infamously accused of ritual murder, was eventually acquitted of the charges. Such individuals were usually humiliated, tortured and executed as representative of an entire people.

The story of William of Norwich and his hagiographer, one Brother Thomas, began in the year 1144 when William, a young leather apprentice in Norwich, England, was persuaded to leave home with the promise of a job in an archdeacon’s household. According to Brother Thomas, he was taken instead to the house of an eminent Jew, a leading Norwich banker. There he was subjected to “all the tortures of Christ” and then murdered. According to Brother Thomas, the Jews crowned William with thorns, tied a rope around his head and placed a gag in his mouth.  They took the mutilated body and hung it up in the woods. Through a remarkable literary sleight of hand, William’s death was equated with the death of Christ, and the Jews who purportedly performed it, with Judas. 

The murder itself was never investigated by the civil authorities, perhaps because at the time, the area of England in which Norwich is situated, East Anglia, was engulfed in civil war, while the catastrophe of the Second Crusade (1145-1149) brought much social disorder in its wake.  Random murders were far from uncommon.  As Rose writes:

Knights were inured to violence. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Gesta Stephani (1149) record that knights committed one atrocity after another, even and especially against church property…The profession of arms, for which they trained from adolescence, involved killing and intimidation…Instances abound of knights attacking churches and monasteries, and committing rapes, arson, extortion, and other crimes.

In fact, the initial reaction to both the murder of William of Norwich and Brother Thomas’s incendiary account was minimal.  Even the accusation that the Jews murdered Christian children for their blood did not immediately resonate within the gentile population, because until the chaos of the 12th century, as the author explains, “Judaism was not a heresy…Jews were not subject to the canons of the Church. They lived under their own laws, and it was expected that at least some Jews would still be present in Christian society to convert at the End of Days.” Until then, they had never been sentenced to the flame or condemned en masse as unfit to live in Christian society.

Religious doctrine and sentiment did not cause the blood libel to propagate. The cause was to be found, rather, in the social, economic and political upheavals brought about by civil war and the failed Second Crusade—the crushing debt incurred by the knights errant and the humiliations of the crown heads of Europe for their disgraceful defeat.

During this period, William of Norwich’s death was promoted, Rose writes, “in the manner of any successful capital campaign” by the intellectual leaders of the time. Once political, social and economic interests fused with religious sentiment, the blood-libel accusation became a warrant for genocide.

The search for spiritual purity—whether of Catholic souls or of the Nazi Volk—was the pretext for murder, extortion, rape and humiliation of the Jews, and was always associated with the liquidation of debts, the seizure of Jewish property, the perceived economic gains of local Christian society, and the power of rulers, whether clerical or secular. In short, plunder. Impoverished knights could absolve themselves of debt to Jewish moneylenders, kings and counts could lay claim to vast new riches for their treasuries, peasants and townspeople could take the Jews’ businesses and possessions, and the Church could command the attention of the people and their sovereigns alike.

By the 20th century, this nexus of religious-economic-political interests became twisted into the Nazi ideology against Bolshevism; and though much less visible than The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the postwar Soviet Union, the blood libel clearly resonated throughout Stalin’s infamous Doctors’ Plot of 1953, in which Jewish doctors were accused of poisoning Kremlin leaders.

E. M. Rose’s deeply learned book on the 12th-century history of the murder of William of Norwich provides a compelling and much-needed explanation of one of the most important elements in the tragic, brutal history of anti-Semitism.  In a broader sense, Rose’s analysis of the cynical manipulation of the religious sentiments of the masses by the political interests of the powerful illuminates how and why so many myths and stereotypes about Jews and Jewish/Christian relations arose and acquired such destructive power.

Jonathan Brent is executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and a visiting professor of history and literature at Bard College.

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