Blood Libel and the Murder of William of Norwich

The murder of a twelve-year-old boy is a tragedy in any circumstance.  However, it was the historical circumstances surrounding the murder of a twelve-year-old boy named William in the twelfth century that catapulted him to the status of a saint and instigated a new form of antisemitism that lasted for centuries.

It is uncertain who actually murdered William (probably not a Jew), but in the court of public opinion at the time there was little doubt that Jews were responsible — a claim that likely had more than one driving force.

Murder

The events surrounding William’s death are not entirely clear and are largely based on an account by a monk called Thomas of Monmouth, a contemporary of William’s.  Thomas’ chronicle was completed later in the twelfth century within the monastery at Norwich.  The generally agreed upon date of William’s death is 22 March 1144.  He was last seen alive on the preceding day.  On 26 March 1144, the body of William was discovered in a heath in Norwich, bloodied and mutilated — seemingly tortured.  William’s family initiated a search for him and his uncle, brother, and cousin discovered his body.

William had been an apprentice skinner in the community for several years.  On 21 March, William left his home to seek additional employment as a scullion for the archdeacon of Norwich.  It was on this outing that William was supposedly lured into a Jewish home.  It was reported that the Norwich Jews then ritually murdered William on 22 March in the home of a Jew named Eleazar, just days before Passover.  As has become the pattern with tales of blood libel, William was supposedly murdered to acquire his blood to celebrate Passover.  Various interpretations of Jewish texts at the time were said to indicate that this was a long-standing tradition among Jews.

Reactions

No formal action was ever taken against anyone in the case of William’s death.  The local officials refused to bring charges against the accused Jews because of the lack of any evidence against them.  This inaction stoked anger among the local populace.  William came quickly to be viewed as a martyred saint and was venerated for several centuries.  (The picture of ‘Saint’ William, above, is from the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Eye in Suffolk).

The death of William is the first known instance of the accusation of “blood libel.”  According to this accusation, Jews were supposed to have sacrificed a gentile boy each Passover because the blood was necessary for religious ceremonies. (Pictured is an example taken from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. Click to enlarge). Several decades later, in 1190, following the massacres of Jews in other English cities, the Jews of Norwich were also massacred.

Anger toward the Jewish community was at a boiling point for several reasons.  During his reign, King Stephen took various measures to protect Jews throughout England from persecution.  Anger toward King Stephen, due to the civil war with Matilda, was directed at Jews who were seen as being in collusion with Stephen.  Additionally, the First Crusade had ended in 1099 and the Second Crusade started soon after William’s death in 1145.  Crusading fervor usually occurred in tandem with antisemitic violence.  So, as unrest grew toward another Crusade in the Holy Land, so did anger toward Jews in Europe.  (The Third Crusade began in 1189—the year before the massacre of Jews in Norwich.)

Consequences

The episode of William of Norwich was just one of many in an increasing antisemitic attitude in England and Europe.  Jews were eventually expelled from England in 1290.  Most of these Jews settled in Spain, Italy and France.  When the Black Death appeared in the mid-fourteenth century, these new communities of Jews suffered enormously from antisemitic violence.  Indeed, this violence was fueled by continued accusations of blood libel and other alleged conspiracies such as host desecration and well poisoning.  Blood libel accusations against Jews have continued through recent history, though most reports of it now occur within the Middle East.

It is possible that the saint cult that appeared in and around Norwich following William’s death was at least partially economically motivated.  The pilgrimage of religious adherents in many parts of Europe during this time provided an economic boon to communities of religious significance.  In fact, William’s uncle and cousin (who discovered his body) became officials at the monastery soon after his death.  William was never formally canonized, but the Norwich area received an influx of pilgrimage (and income).

At least six other blood libel “saint” cults are known to have grown up around boys who were purportedly murdered by Jews in the Middle Ages including Hugh of Lincoln, Robert of Bury, and Harold of Gloucester.  Therefore, it was a growing anger toward Jews fuelled by the Crusades and King Stephen that caused the murder of a boy in Norwich to become a new chapter in antisemitism.

Sarah Jane Bodell