Review, “The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe”

Where do our most pernicious myths begin? Is it something within us, or maybe within our time and place, giving birth to these evil narratives?

Where did the Holocaust actually begin? Perhaps we can honestly say it began in late 12th century Norwich, England with the publication of an unfastidious genesis of the blood libel. After all, E.M. Rose, the author of The Murder of William of Norwich, notes that rather than having the blood libel (see her note on terminology, 241–42) as a centuries old account only coming to life with a poorly sourced tale, the stories did not begin to take hold until the Early Modern period. And, as she recounts, in a 60-plus year time frame ending in 1935 (p11), there were more charges of blood libel than all the centuries before. Perhaps, then, we see the power of myth — the deep, dark power of words chosen only to inflict harm to a people — and the damage it has done. Rather than a history of the blood libel and damage it has caused, the story Rose so eloquently tells us is about the first audience, the first myth givers, and the cult of William of Norwich.

Rose eloquently challenges long-held notions of the roles of Jews in Europe — and how Christians in England and on the continent treated them. Simply put, her historical narrative reveals a world quite unlike Brother Thomas’ Life and Passion (the first and only surviving account about the trial of William of Norwich) but one of  harmony usually accompanying Jews and Christians. So, how did we end up with a story permeating and fueling anti-Semitic tropes for the past 1000 years? How did we go from a well-knitted social fabric of allowing Jews and Christians to work together to the expulsion of Jews from England and the continued use of this horrendous myth to further subjugate the Jews, almost to the point of extension? As with all stories, there is no beginning ex nihilio .

Legend of the Jew calling the Devil from a Ves...
Legend of the Jew calling the Devil from a Vessel of Blood.–Fac-simile of a Woodcut in Boaistuau’s “Histoires Prodigieuses:” in 4to, Paris, Annet Briere, 1560. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the first several chapters (constituting Part 1), Rose slowly introduces us to the world of William of Norwich, the cult that sprang up after his death, and the larger world full of failed crusades and rampaging knights intent on eking out a sense of victory, even at the expense of whole peoples. We meet the genesis of the blood libel not as some historical fact — although there are plenty of historical myths and stories giving birth to this horror — but as a genius of a judicial strategy to save a knight from embarrassment, a king his allies, and England her financial due.

Rather than having any real basis, the blood libel began as a way to end a trial, becoming quickly a tool to preserve the martyrdom of William (and the financial windfalls of a reliquary), the all but forgotten murdered boy at the center of the story in our mythmaking. Once the charge was made— a charge never proved true and never properly investigated — it became alive, with new stories and tales popping up to build upon the case. Rose makes it clear that Brother Thomas, the first transporter of the tale, had no actual first hand information, but relies on, at best, a third-hand recounting. Simply put, the only real thing about the libel is the harm it has caused Jews and Jewish-Christian relationships in the intervening years. The presentation of the small, almost forgettable judicial strategy, makes one believe it was entirely possible to have never encountered the blood libel as a myth. It is, simply, a haphazard point of history, a minuscule argument – a statement so preposterous that we are left to wonder about the legal dullards who bought it. Surely, we moderns say, no one in a country that treated the Jews as well as England did, would believe such a thing.

The Murder of William of Norwich reveals nothing tangible about the murder of said lad, but turns us upon ourselves, to reveal our history and fascination with convenient fiction.  Once the die had been cast, the cult of William exploded in Norwich, at the expense of the Jews. The same expense cast relics as prized positions — after all, the local dead boy had done well. He has suffered a violent and tragic death at a time when heroes were needed. His death saved a knight — a knight who was guilty of a murder of a Jew — and promoted Norwich as a seat of mystical miracles. Two deaths — William and Deulesalt — brought riches to Norwich, but at the expense of a thousand-year charge against the Jews of the blood libel. What was most likely a suicide (as Rose notes) became a martyr and what was a martyr became a cause. However, to Rome’s credit, William was never formally canonized. At least, I think, we can thank our God for that.

The book is divided into 2 parts, 4 chapters between them. Part I ends with the elevation of the cult of William of Norwich in East Anglia. Part II takes us through the continuation of the cult by continental kings. There, the blood libel tale was expanded and applied to other youths, creating a mythos taking root in Europe that is still not completely burned out. As Rose points out, the great tragedy is that the death of a Christian individual was applied to the whole of the Jewish people rather than any individual person (237). While a relatively short book (240 pages), the breadth of scholarship is expansive. This is seen in the in-depth endnotes (nearly 100 pages) which includes more than citations. Rather, the endnotes must be read in part with the narrative of the book. They exist as something more than the usual academic footnotes, but more like an annotated bibliography. The storytelling by this first-time author is quite voluble, with the pen of a master narrator. The text is never boring, picking up new lines just when the old ones had run their course. A brilliant entry by this author, leaving us wanting a next book soon.

E.M. Rose’s The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe arrives at a time when we see the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, labeling of whole people in the United States, and an uncertain world seeking someone or something to blame for the chaotic state of world affairs. Everything spoken seems to have a hyperbolic quality. We have forgotten the power of words and stories and how carefully we must choose to employ them for our defense. When the Bishop Turbe stepped into history to defend the depraved knight, he chose to play on the stereotypes of a people. I doubt Turbe believed it would go as far as it did, nor did he have a malicious intent. However, the road to hell, and such as that. Rose’s work reminds us that things don’t just happen. Her intricate weaving of the social context around the death of William, the role of the initial charge, and the elevation of the cult, shows us that sometimes societies are ripe for evil.

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