The Origins of Blood Libel

The Origins of Blood Libel

E.M. Rose reconsiders where the anti-Semitic slur came from, and how it stuck around.


In March 1144, a dead body was found in the forest outside the town of Norwich. No one paid much attention to it at first. England was then in the middle of a civil war between Stephen and Matilda, the grandchildren of William the Conqueror. In East Anglia, where Norwich is located, the war was particularly violent. Soldiers hung men and women by their thumbs for extortion. Others met a different fate: “Knotted ropes were put round their heads and twisted till they penetrated to the brains,” according to one contemporary. “They said openly that Christ and his saints were asleep.” The large library in Norwich was burned; a kidnapping ring terrorized the surrounding area. It wasn’t unusual for dead bodies to turn up without much explanation. So when a peasant came across a corpse in the forest underbrush one day, he simply avoided it and continued on with his chores.

The body was that of a young man named William of Norwich, and the debate over his death eventually became the basis for one of the most heinous and lasting accusations against the Jews: that they conspired to kill children and use their blood for religious rites. The explanation for William’s death that emerged, though slow to take hold in medieval England, became a mainstay of anti-Semitic thought and a justification for atrocious crimes against Jews in the Middle Ages and beyond. A little over 100 years after William’s death, more than 90 Jews in Lincoln, a cathedral city in the English Midlands, were arrested when the body of a young boy was found in a well; 18 died hanging. Centuries later, town magistrates in the northern Italian town of Trent alleged that Jews had killed a 2-year-old named Simon and used his blood to make matzo. Trent’s Jewish community was tortured to force their confessions. Some were burned at the stake; two converted to Christianity and were then beheaded. In Spain, Jews and conversos were condemned by the Inquisition for allegedly forcing a child to relive the trials of Christ’s Passion.

This accusation—often called the blood libel—didn’t die with the Middle Ages; it has been made many times since. Jews were charged in mid-19th-century Damascus with the death of a Christian monk, supposedly to use his blood in their rites. A 1913 indictment in Kiev alleged that the Jewish superintendent of a local brick factory had killed a 13-year-old at the start of Passover. Depictions of these supposed rites—some featuring Jews crowding around a corpse in their hunger and greed, others showing the lifeless bodies of innocent youths—appear in illustrations and stained glass. There are references to ritual murder in British folk songs and poetry. The accusations still happen today. In 2014, a Hamas spokesman told a Lebanese television channel: “We all remember how the Jews used to slaughter Christians, in order to mix their blood in their holy matzos. This is not a figment of imagination or something taken from a film. It is a fact, acknowledged by their own books and by historical evidence.” He did not present any such evidence when asked.

* * *

The Murder of William of Norwich, by E.M. Rose, seeks to understand the rise of the blood libel by examining the circumstances of the young man’s death and the way his story spread and was replicated around Europe. Rose’s exacting book tries to show that, rather than being the result of a misunderstanding of Jewish law or a by-product of changing English national identity, as others have previously argued, the initial dissemination of the idea of Jewish ritual murder was closely tied to the system of moneylending and debt at the time, a system tested by the failures of the Second Crusade.

William’s story was first recorded in print by Thomas of Monmouth, a monk who arrived in Norwich several years after the young man died. The Life and Passion of William of Norwich, completed in the early 1170s, remains the only detailed record of William’s supposed murder. Thomas’s treatise is more an impassioned argument for William’s sanctity than a factual record of his death; in presenting William’s holiness, he was helping to establish a patron saint for the city while possibly advancing his own reputation. This hagiography, however, became the template for anti-Semitic discourse distinct from its local origins. Analyzing Thomas’s account against other historical evidence, Rose argues, can help us understand what really happened in Norwich and why the ritual-murder accusation took the shape that it did.

William came from a family of clerics closely affiliated with the local cathedral. As an apprentice tanner and a bright boy, he had a promising future. According to Thomas’s text, a messenger for the Jews approached William during Easter week and asked him to work for the local archdeacon as a cook. William’s mother refused, suspicious of the offer, but after some coaxing (and money), she fearfully allowed her son to go with the Jews.

William’s stay was peaceful at first. But Thomas writes that as the Jews began to celebrate Passover, they grabbed William from behind and tortured him with a fuller’s tool. They then shaved his head and pricked him with thorns in a cruel imitation of Christ’s Passion. They bound his right foot with chains and pierced his left side. When blood began to flow uncontrollably, they doused the dying boy with boiling water. Finally, after a few days, they hung the body from a tree, until passersby eventually buried it.

When William’s mother heard of her son’s death, she immediately blamed the Jews. But the accusation was slow to gain credence. The local priest attempted to have the Jews tried by ordeal, but Sheriff John protected them. Brother Thomas would later write that they had paid John 100 marks to keep their sin secret. The only result of the trial was that William’s remains were moved from the forest to the monks’ cemetery. Thomas recorded what he took to be several small miracles: William’s body was said to smell sweetly, even after days in the woods; a rose bush at the head of his tomb flowered during the winter. But by all accounts, the townspeople quickly forgot about William and his gruesome death. No one seems to have thought him a saint, or even to have thought about him at all.

* * *

This changed, Rose writes, when William’s story was invoked five years later in a second murder trial, that of Simon de Novers, a knight who killed his Jewish moneylender when he could not repay his debts. While the civil war raged, much of the local nobility, including many in de Novers’s social circle, had left Norwich for another, holier fight: the Second Crusade. Some 50 years earlier, the First Crusade had recaptured Jerusalem, but the second was a series of disappointments. Attempts to reclaim territory lost in modern-day Turkey were unsuccessful; an effort to gain Damascus ended after only four days; and most of the crusaders never reached Jerusalem.

This failure wasn’t only humiliating for the knights who’d gone off to become heroic Christian soldiers; it also put them in a difficult financial bind. A crusade cost money. A knight needed arms and funds to go eastward. No conquest meant no spoils, and no spoils meant no resources to pay off loans. Many of the knights who returned, heads hung low, found themselves in a great deal of debt—to monasteries and churches, who had furnished many of the loans, and to moneylenders, a great number of whom were Jewish. “The crusaders returning at mid-century were not greeted by their religious communities in ceremonies of mutual respect,” as those returning from the First Crusade had been, Rose notes. “More often they ended up in disputes with their churches, which is how we learn the little we know of them.”

After migrating to England with the Norman Conquest, Jews lived there in relative peace. While the First Crusade had ignited anti-Semitic sentiment on the continent, spurring pogroms across the Rhineland, the 200 or so Jews in Norwich were fairly well integrated into town life. Much of what we would describe as anti-Semitic discourse had not yet been created. The plague, and with it the idea that Jews were poisoning wells, had not spread. The Fourth Lateran Council had not yet decreed that Jews and Muslims had to distinguish themselves by dress to avoid “prohibited intercourse” with Christians. Jews were not yet regularly depicted in Western art with large, hooked “Jewish” noses.

During this period, however, violence against Jews was prevalent, often for financial extortion. During the civil war, for example, both Stephen and Matilda demanded money from the Jews of Oxford. When Stephen reclaimed the town from his sister, he threatened to burn Jewish homes to raise money—and, in 1141, three years before William of Norwich’s death, he made good on his promise, likely burning the residents as well. (Some 60 years later, when a moneylender refused to pay a tax for King John’s Irish campaign, he was imprisoned and his teeth removed one by one until, eight teeth later, he gave up 10,000 marks, an enormous sum at the time.) Jews were attacked along crusade routes; they were struck outside Cologne for refusing to convert. More than 150 Jews were killed in Ham, a town now thought to be in France. Jewish students from Bachrach were pursued and killed by knights inflamed by religious fervor. “It was easy,” Rose writes, “to let crusade enthusiasm degenerate into physical aggression.”

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 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.

* * *

Rose limits her study to the world of the 12th century. “My subject,” she writes early on, “is not eternal truths of the Christian-Jewish encounter, but one particular encounter—its creation, elaboration, interpretation, cultural construction, and its dissemination as an enduring narrative.” This is an important distinction. The Middle Ages have often been seen as an incubator for religious hatred, and historians have long tried to use past persecution as an explanation for current religious violence. For historians of the Holocaust especially, the persecutions of the Middle Ages seem to offer a clear starting point for otherwise unfathomable and irrational acts. “‘When did Europe go wrong?’ is a question that has been asked more and more frequently over the past fifty years,” David Nirenberg writes at the beginning of his study of religious violence in 14th-century Europe. “A frequent answer, it seems, is ‘in the Middle Ages.’”

Yet, as Rose notes, drawing connections between the 12th century and the present can obscure the development of historical ideas more than it illuminates them. Similarities in actions don’t necessarily mean similarities in thought. Many studies of anti-Semitism end up erasing historical difference to advocate the idea of an eternal, unchanging form of hatred. “The only reason the blood libel accusation has persisted against Jews is because Jews continue to exist,” writes the Australian historian Darren O’Brien in his book The Pinnacle of Hatred (2011). “Witches, heretical Christians, and other groups accused in the past have all but disappeared from view. The only scapegoat remaining on which to hang the allegation is the Jew.”

Rose strongly fights this tendency. She makes it clear that the blood-libel story didn’t emerge from an untapped well of hate. “This supposed ‘irrational,’ ‘bizarre,’ ‘literary trope’ was the product of lucid, cogent arguments, thoughtfully and carefully debated in executive councils, judged in detail by sober men who were not reacting under pressure to thoughtless mob violence,” she writes. She argues that the blood libel was an accusation developed by rational men in need of a “strategy”—a word Rose uses repeatedly throughout her book. She shows how slowly the blood libel spread and takes this as an indication that the myth’s anti-Semitic sentiments were not easily accepted. Thomas’s account of William’s death, for example, contains repeated defenses of his holiness, as if the monk is constantly imagining the retorts of naysayers who don’t believe the young man should become a saint. “I would like to confront some of those whom I know not what malice or jealousy leads to verbose chatter,” he writes before introducing William’s miracles. “I pick out from the satchel of my mind some spiritual claims of reason like stones.” The extortion of Jews in Gloucester using the blood libel happened two decades after William of Norwich’s death; it wasn’t until 1168—more than 20 years after the initial charge was made—that the blood libel began to gain ground in Europe.

Nor did this discourse immediately provoke violence. No pogroms against Norwich Jews were recorded. The Jews were not expelled from England shortly afterward, as some reviewers of Rose’s book have written, but almost 150 years later. After William’s death, Norwich became, temporarily, a center for rabbinic scholarship and writing. It even produced a poet, who, likely writing during the Jews’ expulsion from England, memorialized the city in the acrostic to his poem “Exodus”: “I am Meir, son of Rabbi Elijah from the city of Norwich, which is in the Isle called Angleterre.”

* * *

Rose stops short of showing why the blood libel persisted, consistent in form, for centuries after its first dissemination. In her emphasis on the rational reasons for the story’s initial diffusion, she downplays the enduring, and less rational, religious stories it might well have echoed among the people who heard it. Yet once it gained initial acceptance, the accusation of ritual murder was easily believed by men and women far removed from the debts of the Second Crusade, Simon de Novers, or any of the tangible, tactical reasons for its spread.

Why did they find this charge credible? One story that would have been familiar to them is the account of Christ’s Passion and suffering at the hands of the Jews. It’s not hard to imagine that the popularity and tenacity of the blood libel rests in part on how deftly it reimagines that story. Rose discusses the religious climate in which the accusation spread, in particular how the ritual-murder charge would have resonated at a time when Christian worship emphasized the death of young children, mirroring the losses that parents routinely experienced. This so-called cult of the Innocents was particularly popular in the 12th century. But while Rose mentions the biblical elements of William’s tale, she presents them as deliberate choices by Thomas of Monmouth and other, later disseminators of the myth: “Thomas wanted to emphasize the literary overtones, for he adds that, like Christ, William was ‘an innocent lamb led to the slaughter.’”

The biblical echoes in William’s story are so loud as to be almost deafening, and they go well beyond the cult of the Innocents. Even the supporting characters in the story speak in citations from the Bible. When Thomas describes the corrupt sheriff’s death, for example, he writes that “divine vengeance showed itself around him, so he himself could truly say with the Jews, ‘His innocent blood be upon us and our children’”—an allusion to a scene in the Gospel of Matthew in which the Jews in Pilate’s court seem to realize their guilt. Many of the tropes in Thomas’s account—the references to Christ’s Passion, for example—reappeared in the accusations that followed years later. Thomas’s account of William’s murder may not have tapped into enduring hatreds, as Rose is keen to argue, but it did, as she notes, recall familiar accounts about Jews in sacred Christian texts. If the story seemed credible, it may be partly because it reimagined how a pivotal but historically distant death would have resonated in places like Norwich.

In the history of anti-Semitism, there are the real Jews, who lent money and were extorted and lived among Christians and were often persecuted or expelled by them, and there are the imaginary Jews, the Jews of the Bible and religious scholarship—and the Jews who were used as insults and foils in Christian thought, a point that historians such as Nirenberg have made. Rose’s book is mostly about the real Jews. But if the accusation of ritual murder persisted, if it was repeated over and over so often that it became almost a ritual in itself, it is partly because for those who spread the story, the most important Jews they knew were the imaginary ones.

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