The Times of Israel
How a 12th century murder became an international Jewish conspiracy
Blood libel, the myth of Jews killing Christian children, has taken on its own life — and that of many Jews — since a Benedictine monk penned the first chronicled fabrication, says author E.M. Rose
London – The earliest known story of blood libel originates in England in 1150, when Thomas of Monmouth, a Benedictine monk living in the cathedral priory in Norwich, East Anglia, began collecting notes for a narrative that he eventually published two decades later entitled “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich.”
The manuscript, which currently resides in Cambridge University Library, tells the story of a young leatherworker in Norwich, who was taken to the house of an eminent Jew, where he was held for a number of days. Shortly afterwards, so the story goes, William was secretly held and subjected to “all the tortures of Christ,” before finally being murdered, mutilated and hanged from a tree in a nearby forest.
The long-standing accusation that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood — usually referred to in popular mythology as the blood libel — has never withstood historical scrutiny. But the myth, nevertheless, has fitted neatly into hundreds of years of anti-Semitism throughout all of Christendom and beyond.
In her recently published book, “The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe,” author E.M. Rose attempts to reconsider the circumstances surrounding William of Norwich’s death, which, Rose tells The Times of Israel, was the starting point of seeing Jews as an “international conspiracy.”
The historian’s raison d’être for writing the book is to distinguish fact from fiction by properly analyzing Brother Thomas’s interpretation of the story with rigorous scholarly research. Rose points out, for example, that his writings are a treaty of martyrdom, rather than a legal document that accumulates any hard evidence to back up its claims.
Still, she argues, Thomas’s ritual murder accusation is seen as a major turning point in the history of the Jews in medieval England. In fact, the legacy of Brother Thomas’s account has not just been the canonization of William of Norwich, but it also helped to encourage the torture, death and expulsion of thousands of individual Jews throughout Europe, leading to the extermination of hundreds of Jewish communities too.
“By the end of the 12th century [the blood libel] took on a structure that was repurposed and reinterpreted in every generation,” Rose tells The Times of Israel.
Many modern writers, she posits, see the blood libel accusation as an excuse to demonize Jews, particularly Jews to whom money was owed. And although the ritual murder accusation is largely perceived as a medieval idea, the mythology spread most widely during the modern period, especially between 1870 and 1935.
Anti-Semitism was on the rise [during the modern era] and the blood libel tended to fit into a newly racialized discourse that was popular at the time,” Rose explains.
Over the course of the narrative, Rose sketches out the variety of catalysts that ensured William of Norwich’s story would, over time, balloon outwards, from a tale about a local dead teenager into a story of international acclaim which celebrated a newly crowned Christian holy martyr and saint.
“The mythology about Jews and biblical interpretations, over the course of the 12th century, became increasingly antagonistic,” says Rose. “Much of this took place because of the major loss of the Second Crusade… Christians in the late 12th century were feeling threatened and looking for people to blame. Moneylending was on the rise too. So Jews became easy scapegoats to lay blame on.”
“It’s important to remember that this all takes time though,” says Rose, rather cautiously. “Jews did lend money, but they were not the only people to do so [in England and throughout Europe]. Eventually they did assume that role. And, moneylending, over time, became denounced as usury.”
“If you fast forward all the way to the 19th century, moneylending became a nasty, derogatory term to refer to Jews,” she says.
The years immediately surrounding the Second Crusade witnessed tremendous turmoil in the Jewish communities throughout all of Christendom where riots, forced conversions, exile and violent attacks on Jewish communities were all common occurrences.
“So [Christians] began going to moneylenders, many of whom were Jewish. But then as Christians went across Europe, they began attacking wealthy Jewish communities, primarily to get funds to support them to get to the Holy Land.”
Thus, the more Brother Thomas’s mythology began to gain in popularity, and traction, across Europe — as the crusaders marched onwards to the Holy Land in the east — Jewish identity itself went on trial, says Rose.
So, does Rose see Brother Thomas’s narrative as a major cultural shift, particularly in how dramatically anti-Semitism rose during this period of European history?
“I think it was,” she says. “The important thing to remember about Brother Thomas’s accusation is not just that he accuses an individual Jew of homicide. But actually, he accuses the entire Jewish people.”
“So in a way, the story becomes the starting point of Jews as an international conspiracy. And it serves to add to the notion that there is something in Jewish belief and tradition that contributes to this.”
Another component of ritual murder accusation that Rose dissects with considerable detail in her book is that Jews needed to shed Christian blood in order to return to their homeland. This, says Rose, is a conflation of two myths that circulated in the high Middle Ages.
The first was that Jews were cursed to wander the earth until their conversion at the Second Coming of Christ. The second was that Jews needed blood for medicinal purposes.
Devotion to the Christian belief in the Virgin Mary, Rose’s book also points out, became a signal element of ritual murder accusations. This was often understood as a Christian response to traditional Jewish antagonism to the veneration of Mary and to the ridicule of the virgin birth.
“Mary and devotion really peaked in the 13th century,” says Rose. “And anti-Judaism was a significant part of that. During this period of history, we see the beginnings of numerous collections of stories of the Virgin Mary, many of which have the Jew as an evil character, or have the Jews questioning the notion of the Virgin birth at least.”
Rose argues that it’s important to remember that with the concept of the Virgin Mary and devotion, it wasn’t just an intellectual argument that was limited to Christian monasteries.
“The stories of Mary became amazingly popular during this period of history,” says Rose. “And those narratives trickled down to society as a whole, becoming part of the general culture of Christendom over the course of the 12 and 13th centuries. But really in these stories of Mary and miracles, Jews essentially become the fall guy.”
Scholars who have studied the blood libel have generally assumed that the ritual murder accusation diffused easily through European society right after Brother Thomas began to accumulate the first notes for his manuscript, sometime around 1150. However, the evidence actually suggests, says Rose, that it took two decades for the libel to spread out from Norwich to European society at large.
During those interim decades, commercial and social life was flourishing for Jews, both in England and in northern Europe too. But when the libel did eventually hit, it did so with a bang.
The pivotal turning point was 1170, where ritual murder accusations erupted across northern France. Most notably in Blois, where 30 Jews were burned publicly. The burning of the Jews proved to be extremely profitable from the rulers of Blois, who appropriated loans from the Jews who were killed.
The condemnation of the Jews at Blois marked a huge turning point in European history too, says Rose. From this point on, the general consensus was that Jews were not to be tolerated in Christian society, but to be rooted out instead and killed.
“The burnings in Blois was the first time in a 1,000 years that Jews were burnt,” she says.
Burnings are punishment not kept for murderers, but for heretics, she points out. “So what we see in this period, is that Judaism — in Christian eyes at least — becomes an illicit religion.”
It’s important to remember that Judaism was a legal religion in the Roman Empire, even after the empire was Christianized, Rose stresses. But the Jewish position, under Christian rule, changed dramatically after the burnings of Blois, the historian explains.
The blood libel may have started out as a local mythology in the city of Norwich, which at first didn’t seem like a huge big deal to begin with. However, that mythology then began to spread across Europe over a couple of decades. And when it eventually began to gain in popularity, it did so with those at the top echelons of the European power structures, namely the kings of England and France.
“The blood libel is a story that was used, retold and gained significant strength with every retelling,” says Rose.
“And what that story says is: Jews are not just dangerous as individuals, but as a people they are very threatening.”