The blood libel endures as one of the more egregious legacies of medieval Europe. Fallacies of Jews murdering Christian children to obtain blood for baking matzo swept through the continent for centuries, finding fresh audiences in the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century and persisting today in a cloud of conspiratorial environments. In its origins, the blood libel entailed vicious incitement, religious anxiety, political theater, and social inequity, while its endurance today indicates that literacy and access to information do not necessarily make a thoughtful or intelligent human being.
Paola Tartakoff’s Conversion, Circumcision, and Ritual Murder in Medieval Europe cuts to the heart of this history of blood libels and the larger context of Jewish-Christian religious interaction. The book investigates an enigmatic case from 1144, in which local Jews in Norwich, England, were charged with seizing and circumcising a five-year-old Christian boy named William in order to “make him a Jew.” Though not a typical charge of ritual murder, Tartakoff shows its direct correlation to Jewish vilification in Christendom. The unusual accusation led to show trials, resulting in the confiscation of Jewish property and the hangings of at least three Jews. Using a wide variety of sources with dizzying erudition, Tartakoff explores Christian vulnerabilities, links between circumcision and ritual murder accusations, and a myriad of issues related to religious conversion.
The core of the book focuses on conversions to and from Judaism during the medieval period. As Jews and Christians lived in close proximity to each other, conversion from one religion to the other occurred with some regularity, though most prominently in the direction of the dominant society. Ecclesiastical concern about religious deviance, in what Tartakoff calls the “instability of Christian identity,” made conversion to Judaism particularly egregious. Emancipated slaves, commoners, women, and learned churchmen joined Jewish communities for any number of social or theological reasons. Christian attempts to prevent such spiritual transformation coincided with the ambivalence of Jews wary of harsh penalties imposed upon converts and their enablers. Tartakoff’s juxtaposition of contrasting perceptions is especially powerful in her discussion of
Jewish converts to Christianity who reverted to Judaism. Jews regarded apostates as Jews deserving of efforts to bring them back into the fold, while Christians condemned such incidents as errant conversions like any other.
This discussion of conversion and reversion to Judaism is the key by which Tartakoff unlocks the perplexing Norwich circumcision accusation. Assessing primary sources for what they both contain and omit, Tartakoff argues convincingly that young William was the son of a Christian man and a Jewish woman, raised by Christians but the subject of a Jewish retrieval effort. She accepts a basic premise of the case — that Jews sought to circumcise the boy — but presents William as having been a “contested” child, with Jews and Christians each claiming him as theirs. In doing so, she sheds light on the deep ambiguity that permeated medieval Jewish-Christian relations, particularly in the movement between religions and conceptions of identity.
Tartakoff’s portrayal of Christian vulnerability and Jewish anxiety is vivid, sound, and enlightening. It undermines simplistic readings of medieval Europe and points to the significance of relating micro-historical investigation to broader historiographical themes. Conversion, Circumcision, and Ritual Murder in Medieval Europe is well written and thought provoking, and despite its sober subject matter, it should appeal to a wide readership interested in Jewish-Christian relations, the vagaries of religious identity, and medieval Europe more broadly.
David Sclar studies Jewish history and culture in the early modern period. He earned his doctorate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and has held fellowships at Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Oxford, the University of Toronto, New York University, and the Center for Jewish History. He worked for several years in the Special Collections of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and presently teaches history at the Frisch School.