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Medieval Sourcebook:
Thomas of Monmouth:
The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich, 1173


The Accusation of the Ritual Murder of St. William of Norwich

See the Catholic Encylopedia [1913] article William of Norwich for much background information. [Note that this article, while rejecting the Ritual Murder and Blood Libels, does end by suggesting that some of the cases were based on real incidents.]

Also see the file on Anderl von Rinn, supposedly martyred in 1462, for much more information on this subject.

[Marcus Introduction] Medieval Christians (and some modern ones, too) believed that Christian children were seized and tortured to death by the Jews during the Passover season. This myth appears in a complete form for the first time in The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich, a Latin work written about 1173 by Thomas of Monmouth, a contemporary of the events which he relates. The story of the ritual murder of the boy William in 1144 is virtually the first of a long series of such accusations, a series that has not yet come to an end. The significance of these accusations is that by such descriptions of the Jew they have served throughout the ages to create an anti-Jewish mentality. Generations have believed that no Christian child was safe in Jewish hands. Hundreds of Jews have been imprisoned, killed, or burnt alive on this charge. The Papacy has frequently denounced this charge, yet it is equally true that in numerous instances the accusation of ritual murder was not made except with the vigorous support of the local Church authorities.

The author, Thomas of Monmouth, a monk in the Norwich Benedictine monastery, was an exceedingly credulous person. Dr. Jessopp of Norwich, one of the editors of Thomas' work, believes that our monkish author belongs to the class of those who are "deceivers and being deceived."

In the specific case of William of Norwich, the evidence, critically sifted leads one to believe that he actually existed and that his body was found after he had died a violent death. Everything beyond this, however, is in the realm of speculation.

HOW WILLIAM WAS WONT TO RESORT TO THE JEWS, AND HAVING BEEN CHID BY HIS OWN PEOPLE FOR SO DOING, HOW HE WITHDREW HIMSELF FROM THEM

When therefore he was flourishing in this blessed boyhood of his, and had attained to his eighth year [about 1140], he was entrusted to the skinners [furriers] to be taught their craft. Gifted with a teachable disposition and bringing industry to bear upon it, in a short time he far surpassed lads of his own age in the craft aforesaid, and he equaled some who had been his teachers. So leaving the country, drawn by a divine urge he betook himself to the city and lodged with a very famous master of that craft, and some time passed away. He was seldom in the country, but was occupied in the city and sedulously gave himself to the practice of his craft, and thus reached his twelfth year [1144].

Now, while he was staying in Norwich, the Jews who were settled there and required their cloaks or their robes or other garments (whether pledged to them, or their own property) to be repaired, preferred him before all other skinners. For they esteemed him to be especially fit for their work, either because they had learnt that he was guileless and skillful, or, because attracted to him by their avarice, they thought they could bargain with him for a lower price, Or, as I rather believe, because by the ordering of divine providence he had been predestined to martyrdom from the beginning of time, and gradually step by step was drawn on, and chosen to be made a mock of and to be put to death by the Jews, in scorn of the Lord's Passion, as one of little foresight, and so the more fit for them. [William is to be put to death to mock the crucifixion.]

For I have learnt from certain Jews, who were afterwards converted to the Christian faith, how that at that time they had planned to do this very thing with some Christian, and in order to carry out their malignant purpose, at the beginning of Lent they had made; choice of the boy William, being twelve years of age and a boy of unusual innocence.

So it came to pass that when the holy boy, ignorant of the treachery that had been planned, had frequent dealings with the Jews, he was taken to task by Godwin the priest, who had the boy's aunt as his wife, and by a certain Wulward with whom he lodged and he was prohibited from going in and out among them any more But the Jews, annoyed at the thwarting of their designs, tried with all their might to patch up a new scheme of wickedness, and all the more vehemently as the day for carrying out the crime they has determined upon drew near; and the victim, which they had though they had already secured, had slipped out of their wicked hands.

Accordingly, collecting all the cunning of their crafty plots, they found-I am not sure whether he was a Christian or a Jew-a man who was a most treacherous fellow and just the fitting person for carrying out their execrable crime, and with all haste-for their

Passover was coming on in three days-they sent him to find out and bring back with him the victim which, as I said before, had slipped out of their hands.

HOW HE WAS SEDUCED BY THE JEWS' MESSENGER

At the dawn of day, on the Monday [March 20, 1144] after Palm Sunday, that detestable messenger of the Jews set out to execute the business that was committed to him, and at last the boy William, after being searched for with very great care, was found. When he was found, he got round him with cunning wordy tricks, and so deceived him with his lying promises....

HOW ON HIS GOING TO THE JEWS HE WAS TAKEN, MOCKED, AND SLAIN....

Then the boy, like an innocent lamb, was led to the slaughter. He was treated kindly by the Jews at first, and, ignorant of what was being prepared for him, he was kept till the morrow. But on the next day [Tuesday, March 21], which in that year was the Passover for them, after the singing of the hymns appointed for the day in the synagogue, the chiefs of the Jews.... suddenly seized hold of the boy William as he was having his dinner and in no fear of any treachery, and ill-treated him in various horrible ways. For while some of them held him behind, others opened his mouth and introduced an instrument of torture which is called a teazle [a wooden gag] and, fixing it by straps through both jaws to the back of his neck, they fastened it with a knot as tightly as it could be drawn.

After that, taking a short piece of rope of about the thickness of one's little finger and tying three knots in it at certain distances marked out, they bound round that innocent head with it from the forehead to the back, forcing the middle knot into his forehead and the two others into his temples, the two ends of the rope being most tightly stretched at the back of his head and fastened in a very tight knot. The ends of the rope were then passed round his neck and carried round his throat under his chin, and there they finished off this dreadful engine of torture in a fifth knot.

But not even yet could the cruelty of the torturers be satisfied without adding even more severe pains. Having shaved his head, they stabbed it with countless thorn­points, and made the blood come horribly from the wounds they made. [Jesus had worn a crown of thorns before his death.] And so cruel were they and so eager to Inflict pain that it was difficult to say whether they were more cruel or more ingenious in their tortures. For their skill in torturing kept up the strength of their cruelty and ministered arms thereto

And thus, while these enemies of the Christian name were rioting in the spirit of malignity around the boy, some of those present ad judged him to be fixed to a cross in mockery of the Lord's Passion, as though they would say: "liven as we condemned the Christ to a shameful death, so let us also condemn the Christian, so that, uniting the lord and his servant in a like punishment, we may retort upon themselves the pain of that reproach which they impute to us."

Conspiring, therefore, to accomplish the crime of this great and detestable malice, they next laid their blood­stained hands upon the innocent victim, and having lifted him from the ground and fastened him upon the cross, they vied with one another in their efforts to make an end of him.

And we, after enquiring into the matter very diligently, did both find the house, and discovered some most certain marks in it of what had been done there. [This was supposed to be the house of a rich Jew, Eleazar, who was later murdered by order of his debtor, Sir Simon de Novers]. For report goes that there was there instead of a cross a post set up between two other posts, and a beam stretched across the midmost post and attached to the other on either side. And as we afterwards discovered, from the marks of the wounds and of the bands, the right hand and foot had been tightly bound and fastened with cords, but the left hand and foot were pierced with two nails. Now the deed was done in this way, lest it should be discovered, from the presence of nail­marks in both hands and both feet, that the murderers were Jews and not Christians, if eventually the body were found. [Both hands and feet were not nailed lest it look like a crucifixion.]

But while in doing these things they were adding pang to pang and wound to wound, and yet were not able to satisfy their heartless cruelty and their inborn hatred of the Christian name, lo! after all these many and great tortures, they inflicted a frightful wound in his left side, reaching even to his inmost heart, and, as though to make an end of all, they extinguished his mortal life so far as it was in their power. [Jesus was similarly pierced by a lance while nailed to the cross. The chronicler here imitates the Apostle John's narrative.] And since many streams of blood were running down from all parts of his body, then, to stop the blood and to wash and close the wounds, they poured boiling water over him.

Thus then the glorious boy and martyr of Christ, William, dying the death of time in reproach of the Lord's death, but crowned with the blood of a glorious martyrdom, entered into the kingdom of glory on high to live for ever. Whose soul rejoiceth blissfully in heaven among the bright hosts of the saints, and whose body by the Omnipotence of the divine mercy worketh miracles upon earth.... [St.. William after his death worked many miracles that brought streams of people to his shrine.]

As a proof of the truth and credibility of the matter we now adduce something which we have heard from the lips of Theobald, who was once a Jew, and afterwards a monk. He verily told us that in the ancient writings of his fathers it was written that the Jews, without the shedding of human blood, could neither obtain their freedom, nor could they ever return to their fatherland. [There is no such statement in Jewish law or literature.] Hence it was laid down by them in ancient times that every year they must sacrifice a Christian in some part of the world to the Most High God in scorn and contempt of Christ, that so they might avenge their sufferings on Him; inasmuch as it was because of Christ's death that they had been shut out from their own country, and were in exile as slaves in a foreign land. [The Jews rejected Jesus and were as a result punished by exile from Palestine. Angry, they took revenge by secretly crucifying Christian children-thus Theobald. This libel is reminiscent of Apion, an Alexandrian writer of the first century.]

Wherefore the chief men and Rabbis of the Jews who dwell in Spain assemble together at Narbonne, where the Royal seed [resides], and where they are held in the highest estimation, and they cast lots for all the countries which the Jews inhabit; and whatever country the lot falls upon, its metropolis has to carry out the same method with the other towns and cities, and the place whose lot is drawn has to fulfill the duty imposed by authority. [Lots are cast in Narbonne, France, where Jews had a "king" to decide which city was to seize the Christian victim. ]

Now in that year in which we know that William, God's glorious martyr, was slain, it happened that the lot fell upon the Norwich Jews, and all the synagogues in England signified, by letter or by message, their consent that the wickedness should be carried out at Norwich. "I was," said he, "at that time at Cambridge, a Jew among Jews, and the commission of the crime was no secret to me. But in process of time, as I became acquainted with the glorious display of miracles which the divine power carried out through the merits of the blessed martyr William, I became much afraid, and following the dictates of my conscience, I forsook Judaism, and turned to the Christian faith."

These words-observe, the words of a converted Jew-we reckon to be all the truer, in that we received them as uttered by one who was a converted enemy, and also had been privy to the secrets of our enemies.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

REFERENCES IN STANDARD TEXTBOOKS

Elbogen, pp. 102ff.; Roth, pp. 183ff.

READINGS FOR ADVANCED SIVDENTS

Graetz, III, pp. 378­381; Graetz­Rhine, 111, pp. 226­229.

Grayzel, S., The Church and the Jews in the Xlllth Century, pp. 79­80. |

Strack, H. L., The Jew and Human Sacrifice. The standard work on the relation of

human blood to Jewish ritual.

Jewish Enclopedia, "Blois"; "Blood accusation."

ADDITIONAL SOURCE MATERIALS IN ENGLISH

Child, F. J., The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 111 (1890), pp. 233­254:IV (1892), pp. 497­498; V (1898), p. 241. Here is a series of ballads dealing with Hugh of Lincoln who was reported to have been crucified by the Jews of England in 1255. The widespread influence of this ballad may be gauged from the fact that the compiler quotes twenty­one versions in his notes, some of which were collected as sung in the United States.

Grayzel, S., The Church and the Jews in the Xlllth Century, contains, pp. 263­271, 275, papal statements on the ritual murder accusation.

Halper, B., Post­Biblical Hebrew Literature, "A Jew Is Accused of Murdering a Christian, but His Innocence Is Proved," 11, pp. 225­229. This account by the ibn Vergas, sixteenth century Jewish historians, is probably fiction but is important for its typical Jewish reaction to the ritual murder a accusation.

Jacobs, J., The Jews of Angevin England, pp. 19ff., contains two other brief accounts of the "martyrdom" of William of Norwich; one is a contemporary account; the other dates from the fifteenth century.

Jessop, A., and M. R. James, The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich by Thomas of Monmouth. This work contains the complete text al translation of the St. William legend.

Roth, C., The Ritual Murder Libel and the Jew: The Report by Cardinal Lorenzo Ganganelli. Dr. Roth has translated here the refutation of d ritual murder libel by Ganganelli, later Pope Clement XIV. The bull Innocent IV against the ritual murder accusation is also included. There also a good introduction.

Tager, A. B., The Decay of Czarism: the Beiliss Trial, describes a mode ritual murder trial and its background in modern Russia.


SOURCE: Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938), 121-127.

Later printings of this text (e.g. by Atheneum, 1969, 1972, 1978) do not indicate that the copyright was renewed)


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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© Paul Halsall October 1997
halsall@murray.fordham.edu