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.
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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.