The Mundane Origins of a Historical Drama

July 30, 2015   •   By Irven M. Resnick

IN A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (2010), the late Robert Wistrich remarked that Great Britain has often been a European pioneer — even in the formation of anti-Semitism. In 1290, Edward I ordered the first mass expulsion of an entire Jewish community and created what would be, for almost 400 years, an England without Jews.

Around 1150 England had brought the first medieval accusation of ritual murder against the Jewish collectivity, which established the basis for the blood libel: the notion that each year Jews ritually murder Christian children to express their contempt for Jesus and his followers. In some medieval and modern reiterations, the blood libel proclaims that Jews need Christian blood to heal themselves of various ailments and afflictions. Once they harvested it, many believed, Jews would mix that blood into their wine or bake it in the Passover matzo — a charge whose absurdity stands in direct proportion to the number of internet sites that still repeat it.

Emily Rose’s The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe takes us to the blood libel’s roots. In a stunning first book, she reconstructs the political, economic, and social context from which the first blood libel arose: the alleged murder of young William of Norwich by Jews in 1144. The story was woven by the Benedictine monk Thomas of Monmouth in his Life and Passion of William of Norwich. This Latin text, completed in 1173, survives in only one medieval manuscript, first published in Latin and English in 1896. (In a testimony to its importance, in 2014 it was translated anew by Miri Rubin for Penguin Classics.)

Brother Thomas first arrived in Norwich some six years after William’s death and set out to prove that the boy was a holy martyr and saint. His effort necessarily shifted attention away from the victim to the alleged perpetrators. And for good reason: only if William had died at the hands of “enemies of the faith” — viz the Norwich Jews — could his death have religious significance. Had the adolescent William committed suicide or been killed by a Christian, his demise could not be construed as a martyrdom.

While past scholarly attempts have often focused on the evidence (or lack thereof) that Thomas presented in order to implicate the Jews of Norwich, Rose focuses on the many individuals who stood to benefit from the blood libel. Central to her “revisionist” history is her well-substantiated claim that before Thomas’s arrival in Norwich there was little public pressure to investigate William’s death. Violent assaults and murder were so widespread during the English civil war between Stephen and Matilda that, when William’s body was discovered, he may have been seen simply as another casualty of civil disturbance. No perpetrator was identified, and no one was prosecuted. Unlike St. Thomas Becket, moreover, who was instantly acclaimed a martyr and saint upon his death in 1170, the Norwich community did not at first identify William as a victim of religious violence.

So Thomas found little evidence to demonstrate his sanctity. The boy’s uncle — a priest called Godwin — had denounced the Jews of Norwich in an ecclesiastical court, perhaps to extort money from them, or just to divert attention from the possibility that William had committed suicide. Before 1150, however, no further mention was made of William, no miracles recorded, and relations between Christians and Jews appear to have continued undisturbed, controverting the claim that the original blood libel arose out of popular hostility toward Jews.

But once Brother Thomas reopened the case in 1150, everything changed. Thomas was a redoubtable promoter, and William’s body was progressively moved — from the Norwich churchyard, to the monks’ chapter house, to the high altar, and ultimately to a special chapel dedicated to the holy martyrs. William acquired his own feast day on the local church calendar, and Thomas was assigned to care for his relics. The creation of a saint had begun.

One of Thomas’s motives certainly was tied to the monastic economy. Thomas’s Norwich priory needed funds: a patron saint and child martyr could bring pilgrims to the monastery, and they would bring money with them. The priory, moreover, sought to compete for this pilgrim trade with the Benedictine abbey in nearby Bury St Edmunds. The relics of the latter’s patron saint — the martyred warrior King Edmund — had helped establish it as one of the wealthiest houses in England. Norwich had no such “draw,” and it is fair to assume that Thomas hoped that the body of a new holy martyr would equally benefit his own monastery.

Rose, however, identifies a more important motive: the accusation that the Jews had killed William provided a clever legal device to Bishop William Turbe of Norwich, who used it to free his vassal and client, the impoverished knight Simon de Novers. The latter was being held in the murder of a Norwich Jewish banker whom Brother Thomas identified with the Latin name Deus-adiuvet (“May God save”). Rose suggests that he likely was known in the vernacular as Deulesalt (or Deulesaut), and may have been a Jew, Dieu-le-saut, identified in a pipe roll from 1130, during the reign of Henry I.

Deulesalt may have been one of several Jewish moneylenders in Norwich who became quite wealthy in the 12th century. The city had not only been devastated by civil war, but many of its knights and nobles had failed to return from the disastrous Second Crusade (whose sole success was the capture of Lisbon in 1147). Participation in the Crusade was exceedingly costly: to equip himself with arms and a horse, a knight required substantial funds. Whereas wealthy monasteries had provided credit for participation in the First Crusade, during the civil war very few had the capital to extend loans even when secured by mortgaged estates. So moneylenders — especially Jewish ones — became all the more important. Upon their return, however, because they had failed to profit from the campaigns, crusaders often found themselves unable to pay their debts. Simon de Novers was a knight of a once-notable family, yet with no land, no money, no prospects, and with many debts. Moreover, by winter 1149 he found himself imprisoned in Norwich — on a murder charge no less. What happened?

Apparently de Novers sought to eliminate his debt by having his Jewish creditor ambushed and murdered in the woods outside Norwich. The city’s Jews appealed to the crown, and King Stephen felt compelled to prosecute de Novers. Yet the King could ill afford to alienate the knightly class from which he stemmed, or the religious leaders whose endorsement was essential to support his contested legitimacy. A hearing, which Thomas of Monmouth reports in the Life and Passion of William of Norwich, took place in Norwich and in London.

The Jews of Norwich presented compelling evidence of de Novers’s guilt to the king. But the accused had a rather talented advocate in the person of Norwich’s Bishop William Turbe. At the London hearing, Turbe presented a novel defense that turned the accusation around against the Jews. He argued that de Novers should not have to answer for the death of the Jew until the Jews of Norwich were forced to answer for their role in the death of the child-martyr William. The bishop charged that Deulesalt had kidnapped and tortured the boy for three days, to imitate the suffering inflicted upon Jesus. Turbe blamed the victim, and framed the murder of Deulesalt as a justifiable revenge killing.

Indeed, the bishop went further: he introduced the testimony of a purported Jewish convert, Theobald (absent from the hearing), according to whom Jewish communities were required to sacrifice a Christian child every year, in a location determined by an international Jewish cabal. The tactic was successful because it appealed to a characterization of Jews as killers of Christ, and identified William as another Christ-like victim of Jewish perfidy. De Novers’s trial and William’s public recognition as a child martyr occurred only months apart.

Turbe achieved a brilliant result for his client: he obtained his release and a postponement of the trial until such a time as the Jews’ complicity in William of Norwich’s murder had been addressed. Neither de Novers nor the Jews were ultimately prosecuted, leaving questions of guilt and innocence unresolved. But Turbe’s strategy produced, as a side effect, the blood libel.

Brother Thomas expanded and enhanced the tale thereafter in order to create a saint. Together, Rose suggests, the bishop and Brother Thomas produced a master narrative of Jewish ritual murder. De Novers went free and Norwich obtained a local patron saint — moreover, one whose cult was expected to enhance the status and finances of the cathedral and priory.

This met only partial success. There is no evidence that William’s relics attracted significant patronage; the cult never really took off. Even though later on Thomas appended to his original Life five books of miracles attributed to William, they were rather mundane and failed to capture the popular imagination.

Had Rose ended her book here, she would have made an important contribution to the history of Anglo-Jewish relations in the 12th century and to that of the blood libel. But in the second part of her book, she examines four 12th-century “copycat cults” that promoted child martyrs: Harold of Gloucester (ca. 1168); an unnamed child martyr of Blois (1171); Robert of Bury (1181); and Richard of Pontoise (1181). In each case the cult that emerged advanced the political goals of prominent figures — Richard (fitzGilbert) de Clare, later known as “Strongbow”; Count Thibaut V of Blois; Samson, abbot of Bury St Edmunds; and the French King Philip II. None of these cults, however, seems to have been advanced primarily by popular fears of Jewish aggression against Christians.

The “copycat cults” borrowed from the master narrative used to promote William of Norwich. Their impact upon the Jewish communities was severe. Many of the Jews of Gloucester felt compelled to seek safety in nearby Bristol. In Blois, even though no missing child was reported and no body found, Thibaut V consigned more than 30 Jews to die in the flames as a collective punishment for ritual murder. Although Bury St Edmunds did not prosecute or impose corporal punishment on its Jews, less than a decade later King Richard I permitted Abbot Samson to expel them from the Liberty of Bury St Edmunds. About the same time that the ritual murder accusation appeared in Bury, Philip II promoted the cult of another child victim in Paris: Richard of Paris (or Pontoise). The ritual murder accusation gave the king a justification for the temporary expulsion of the Jewish community from the royal domain, and for the expropriation of its wealth and property.

Once untethered from the case in Norwich, blood libel accusations proliferated. Hardly a single European Jewish community would escape a charge of ritual murder, which spread across medieval and modern Europe, and then was carried to the Middle East and elsewhere. Although still invoked to demonize a people and to assert its perpetual collective guilt, Rose reminds us of its mundane origins in economic and political interests.


Irven M. Resnick is professor of philosophy and religion, and Chair of Excellence in Judaic Studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.