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

  • Review
By – May 18, 2015

The blood libel is often evoked as an eter­nal exam­ple of anti­semitism. The notion that Jews mur­der Chris­t­ian chil­dren in order to extract blood for use in the bak­ing of matzah may epit­o­mize the per­se­cu­tion of Jews dur­ing the medieval era, but such accu­sa­tions con­tin­ued to be levied through the Renais­sance and Mod­ern periods.

E. M. Rose’s The Mur­der of William of Nor­wich is noth­ing less than an anti­dote to the impres­sion that anti­semitism — and the blood libel in par­tic­u­lar — has always exist­ed. This superbly researched and ele­gant­ly writ­ten mono­graph shat­ters the amor­phous myth by recount­ing its polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and reli­gious con­texts over a four-decade peri­od in Eng­land and France of the twelfth cen­tu­ry. Through an analy­sis of innu­mer­able sources, includ­ing a close read­ing of Broth­er Thomas of Monmouth’s Life and Pas­sion of Saint William of Nor­wich, Rose uncov­ers the his­tor­i­cal William, the mak­ing of his saint­hood, and the pre­car­i­ous, though not pow­er­less, posi­tion of Jews in medieval England.

Rose shows that the first blood libel devel­oped over sev­er­al years, and did not imme­di­ate­ly take root as an anti-Jew­ish trope. It orig­i­nat­ed in the tri­al of Simon de Novers, an impov­er­ished knight accused of mur­der­ing his Jew­ish banker. Simon was unable to pay his debts fol­low­ing the mil­i­tary and finan­cial deba­cle that was the Sec­ond Cru­sade. The knight’s bish­op, William Turbe, suc­cess­ful­ly defend­ed Simon before the roy­al court through obfus­ca­tion, insist­ing that the slain banker be charged in the mur­der of his for­mer employ­ee William of Nor­wich, and that the entire Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty be deemed cul­pa­ble in William’s death. Rose argues that this last point ini­ti­at­ed the rad­i­cal view that Jews as a whole were deemed unholy and dan­ger­ous, a sharp con­trast from long-held beliefs that Jews were to be tol­er­at­ed in Christendom.

Rose sub­se­quent­ly shows that Broth­er Thomas’s account of William’s life and the latter’s even­tu­al saint­hood were cyn­i­cal attempts to make Nor­wich a place of pil­grim­age. Sim­i­lar­ly, the rit­u­al mur­der accu­sa­tion in Blois in 1171, for which more than thir­ty Jews (includ­ing chil­dren) were burned in a syn­a­gogue, was the result of polit­i­cal intrigue and pow­er plays. With an eye for detail and feel for the time peri­od, Rose traces the spread of blood libel accu­sa­tions from Nor­wich to four addi­tion­al cities, pre­sent­ing a very real and tan­gi­ble his­to­ry long in need of elucidation.

The Mur­der of William of Nor­wich is an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to medieval Jew­ish his­to­ry, and to the study of Eng­lish and Euro­pean his­to­ry as a whole. In this par­tic­u­lar con­text, Jews are not for­mu­la­ic vic­tims as much as indi­vid­u­als simul­ta­ne­ous­ly cru­cial and irrel­e­vant to larg­er polit­i­cal and social machi­na­tions. This book is fas­ci­nat­ing and enlight­en­ing, and even read­ers not usu­al­ly drawn to the medieval peri­od should appre­ci­ate Rose’s emi­nent­ly read­able prose.

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.

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