The Nation has a very interesting piece today by Madeleine Schwartz called “The Origins of the Blood Libel.” It’s a book review for E.M. Rose’s The Murder of William of Norwich, which I haven’t read so I can’t say whether it’s worth reading or not, but the review at least is definitely worth your time.
I’m directing your attention to it because it’s good, and because I’m still on light posting today while I work on other projects, and last but not least because of the blood libel’s connection to something we cover here fairly often: the Crusades. The story of William of Norwich, a boy (later canonized) who was supposedly the victim of a Jewish ritual murder in 1144 in, ah, Norwich. It was related in Thomas of Monmouth’s The Life and Passion of William of Norwich that the boy was beaten and eventually crucified so as to mimic the crucifixion of Jesus. Likelier theories about the boy’s murder include the possibility that he was the victim of a sex crime and that he was killed by a recent and zealous Christian convert from Judaism who wanted to make it look like the Jews had done it.
Nothing much was done about William’s murder until a later accused murderer made it the centerpiece of his defense at trial, and here’s where the Crusades come in. A knight, Simon de Novers, who either participated directly in the utterly failed Second Crusade or at least knew a lot of peers who did, murdered a Jewish moneylender to whom he was apparently in debt. Knights going on Crusade often borrowed money from Jewish lenders (Jews weren’t bound by papal rules regarding usury, so they were more likely to get into the lending business), and knights returning from a busted Crusade like the Second Crusade usually couldn’t repay their debts. So if Simon did go on the Crusade, that may have been how he wound up in debt to his victim. Christian resentment against Jews ran high during the Crusades period in general, and this was also happening during the Anarchy, the 1135-1154 English civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda, when Jews were often extorted for money by both sides. Here’s Schwartz:
This is the climate in which Simon de Novers, who had close ties to the crusaders and was possibly one himself, killed his Jewish moneylender in 1149. Because of the prevalence of local violence against Jews, de Novers may have had reason to believe that he would go unpunished for his crime—and, ultimately, he was right. King Stephen traveled all the way to Norwich to witness the case, and the Jews appealed to him for protection. De Novers’s guilt was widely acknowledged, yet the outcome of the trial freed him of any responsibility and placed a much bigger burden on the Jews.
De Novers was defended in court by Bishop Turbe, who argued that the real crime wasn’t the murder of the moneylender, but rather the murder of William five years earlier. The attack on the boy, the bishop claimed, had been led by none other than the moneylender whom de Novers killed. He had supposedly encouraged the Norwich Jews to dupe William’s mother, then led his followers to bury the body in the forest. Turbe called witnesses who claimed to have seen Jews moving William’s body and the cruel tortures they had inflicted on him. Turbe didn’t single out any perpetrators aside from the dead moneylender. All Jews were guilty of the crime—a charge so overwhelming that the king and his stunned entourage adjourned the trial. De Novers was released. Soon thereafter, Rose claims, the clergy moved William’s remains into the cathedral, and Thomas [of Monmouth] began to promote the cult of the young saint in his Life and Passion.
Accounts of ritual murder were exploited in similar ways over the next few decades. In Gloucester, nobles used the blood libel to extort Jews who had lent them money. In the French town of Blois, Count Thibault used the charge of ritual murder to deflect rumors about his infidelity with a Jewish woman and assert his independence from the king. He had 30 local Jews burned, even though the accusation wasn’t only fantastic but entirely baseless: The rumors didn’t mention a specific Christian child, and no body was ever found. A bishop in another English town, Bury St. Edmunds, created an infant-martyr cult to compete with that of William and in the process exacerbated the tensions over local Jews. By the time that Phillip II, the French king, charged the Jews with killing a 12-year-old boy from Pontoise, the accusation of ritual murder had spread across much of France. It was powerful enough to cause the Jews to be expelled from the country in 1182; the king used their money to rebuild Paris.
Too bad those WWJD bracelets didn’t exist back in the 1100s, because it seems to me that making up a grotesque legend about Jewish ritual murder that still reverberates today just to get your hands on some Jews’ money is probably not what Jesus would have done. But that’s just me.
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