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

by E. M. Rose

Book, 2015

Barcode

123460396

Call number

662 ROS

Publication

Oxford Oxford University Press, 2015

Description

In 1144, the mutilated body of William of Norwich, a young apprentice leatherworker, was found abandoned outside the city's walls. The boy bore disturbing signs of torture, and a story spread that it was a ritual murder, performed by Jews in imitation of the Crucifixion as a mockery of Christianity. The outline of William's tale eventually gained currency far beyond Norwich, and the idea that Jews engaged in ritual murder became firmly rooted in the European imagination. E.M. Rose's engaging book delves into the story of William's murder and the notorious trial that followed to uncover the origin of the ritual murder accusation - known as the "blood libel" - in western Europe in the Middle Ages. Focusing on the specific historical context - 12th-century ecclesiastical politics, the position of Jews in England, the Second Crusade, and the cult of saints - and suspensefully unraveling the facts of the case, Rose makes a powerful argument for why the Norwich Jews (and particularly one Jewish banker) were accused of killing the youth, and how the malevolent blood libel accusation managed to take hold. She also considers four "copycat" cases, in which Jews were similarly blamed for the death of young Christians, and traces the adaptations of the story over time. In the centuries after its appearance, the ritual murder accusation provoked instances of torture, death and expulsion of thousands of Jews and the extermination of hundreds of communities. Although no charge of ritual murder has withstood historical scrutiny, the concept of the blood libel is so emotionally charged and deeply rooted in cultural memory that it endures even today. Rose's groundbreaking work, driven by fascinating characters, a gripping narrative, and impressive scholarship, provides clear answers as to why the blood libel emerged when it did and how it was able to gain such widespread acceptance, laying the foundations for enduring antisemitic myths that continue to present.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Strider66
Pros: fascinating interpretation, lots of endnotes and explanation

Cons: highly academic

The accusation that the Jews of the city of Norwich murdered the apprentice William in a mockery of the crucifixion, and the Life of St William that was later written, set the stage for similar accusations in
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the future, accusations that eventually saw Jews burned at the stake and expelled from the cities they called home.

This is a highly academic book that goes over a wide variety of background information (family trees, identities of various players - and their relations to others who may have had influence, the second crusade, the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, etc.). As Rose is using very limited sources with regards to the actual blood libel cases, there’s a sometimes circuitous route from the background information to how it ties into the cases. It’s quite a fascinating piece of deductive reasoning, putting minor clues together to form a cohesive and intelligent narrative, - even if it’s admittedly based on numerous suppositions.

Rose is obviously aware of all of the scholarship that’s been done on this topic and refutes a lot of theories. For example, there’s the idea that all blood libel cases involved rioting and executions or expulsions, which may be the case for later centuries, but when the cases first appeared any negative consequences generally followed years later, and tended to have political and/or economic reasons behind them (from forcing the Jews to ransom themselves so their captor could pay bills to acquiring their land and assets). While a lot of Rose’s conclusions are based on thin information, there’s enough supporting evidence to show that - though they can’t be proved conclusively -they are plausible.

Rose proves that the murdered children themselves (assuming there’s even a body) are secondary to the economic and political concerns of those citing the accusation. Though nominated for sainthood the boys hardly ever appear in liturgical calendars, prayers, artwork, etc.

I found the earlier chapters very intense, and had to pay close attention in order to not get lost in the various strings being woven into the narrative. Later chapters (particularly the ones in part 2), were much more linear and easier to follow.

Some of the background information was fascinating in its own right, like the extreme financial cost of going on crusade, the raids done by both sides during the civil war and how knights forced churches and civilians to ransom themselves to pay the costs of war (and/or for booty). It also brought out the financial problems some nobles and churches had, and how unpalatable some of the clients were from the point of view of the moneylenders (both Christian and Jewish).

Though the book is highly academic, Rose gave enough background information to allow me - a relative newcomer to the case - to follow along easily. Not only that, the book revealed a lot about the state of research on these cases and how previous historians have interpreted the data. It’s a fascinating history that examines numerous sides of the origins of the blood libel and how the story may have originally spread.
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LibraryThing member Veronica.Sparrow
In 1144 the body of young William of Norwich was found. He had been tortured and then murdered by a person or persons unknown but for a variety of reasons blame was unfairly placed on the entire Jewish community.
This incredibly well researched and well written book details the history of what is
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the first known accusation of ritual murder attributed to Jews in medieval times. It is an enlightening account of Jewish/Christian relations in this time period. I found it to be a fascinating read although some may find it a bit dry. Highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more not only about the origins of the blood libel but also a not so well known part of Jewish/Christian history.
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LibraryThing member Veronica.Sparrow
In 1144 the body of young William of Norwich was found. He had been tortured and then murdered by a person or persons unknown but for a variety of reasons blame was unfairly placed on the entire Jewish community.
This incredibly well researched and well written book details the history of what is
Show More
the first known accusation of ritual murder attributed to Jews in medieval times. It is an enlightening account of Jewish/Christian relations in this time period. I found it to be a fascinating read although some may find it a bit dry. Highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more not only about the origins of the blood libel but also a not so well known part of Jewish/Christian history.
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LibraryThing member antiquary
This book is a full examination of what the author maintains is the first historical example of the 'blood libel" --the claim that Jews as a community would ritually kill a Christian youth, usually around Easter time. What happened in this case was that an apprentice leatherworker named William was
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found dead in the woods outside Norwich. At the time, there seems to have been no public claim that Jews were involved, but several years later Simon, a knight in debt to a Jewish banker, killed the banker, and at his trial (ultimately before King Stephen) the bishop (who ha not been in office when the youth was killed) claimed the banker had been the leader of a group of Jews who killed William. This was apparently enough to prevent Simon's conviction, though the Jews were also never convicted and Rose maintains that (contrary to later examples of this kind) there was no pogrom against the Jews. A local monk (who also had not been present when William died) wrote up the case attempting to prove William should be regarded as saint and a martyr. According to Rose, Thomas achieved only modest success, but decades later, similar charges resurfaced elsewhere, first in Gloucester, where, as in Norwich, the death of a man named Harold was blamed on Jews to little effect, and then in Blois and elsewhere in northern France, were the results were more serious --over 30 Jews were burned to death by the local count. I do not find Rose's explanation what Rose argues was a very minor event in Norwich could set off a long series of charges against Jews lasting until the 20th century. I caught one clear error in the book --it refers to Stephen and his rival Matilda as "children" of King Henry I. Matilda was his daughter, but Stephen was only his nephew. If Stephen had been Henry I's son, he would have inherited the throne without trouble.
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ISBN

0190219629 / 9780190219628
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