Review: The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe
When William of Norwich was murdered in 1144 it could easily have been just another unsolved crime that passed into the pages of history. What followed forms the focal point of Emily M. Rose’s well-executed book that explores William’s story in detail and how it led to the blood libel – a supposed religious tradition involving the murder of Christian children by Jews, akin to the crucifixion of Jesus, and how the Christian community responded.
Rose’s book is set in a fascinating period of European history when the Crusades to the Holy Land had begun and in England the death of Henry I had led to the Anarchy (1135-54) where Henry’s daughter, Matilda, and her cousin, Stephen, fought a vicious civil war over control of England. Religion was a keystone of people’s lives at this time with the Christians at war against Muslims and also Jews.
The significance of William of Norwich is that his death was believed to have been at the hands of the Jewish community in Norwich. This wasn’t a simple killing though, it was believed to be a religious ritual, one that would see William elevated as a saint and the persecution of Jews becoming commonplace following a trial, not against individual Jews, but against all Jews in Norwich. The truth of William’s death will never be known but its aftermath provides a fascinating insight into how pivotal religion was to people and how it could dictate their behaviour in society.
Rose explores later murders in England such as Harold of Gloucester (1168) and Robert of Bury (1181) where the response of the Christian communities is similar to that of Norwich. Ultimately, the blood libel wasn’t confined to England and Rose also give us an account of how the persecution of the Jews continued in France when their community was accused of yet another murder. The violence would soon extend throughout Europe.
While the Crusades were embraced by men, women and later even children as the opportunity to devote one’s self to their faith at this time, The Murder of William of Norwich is a testament to the power of religion at home. With the majority of people illiterate and reliant on religious spokesmen for guidance, the blood libel became another example of Medieval corruption with modern historians of the opinion it was a work of fiction. Fiction or not, the murder of an innocent boy became the perfect foil for a war, one as violent as the Crusades, but fought much closer to home.
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