Copyright © 1896 N.J.R. James. Reprinted here by kind permission.
Introductory Note Copyright © 2002 Rosemary Pardoe
The long-lost manuscript of Thomas of Monmouth's twelfth-century Life of St William of Norwich was discovered by M.R. James in 1890 ("one of the few lucky finds of MSS which fell to my share"), in "a small dank building in the churchyard" at Brent Eleigh, between Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich, Suffolk (MRJ, Eton & King's, 1926, pp.205-206). It was part of a library donated to the parish in around 1700. MRJ was instrumental in acquiring it for Cambridge University Library. Over the next few years, he and his elderly antiquarian associate, Augustus Jessopp, worked together to produce an edition for publication. The resulting book, which saw print in 1896, contains the text of the manuscript in Latin and in translation, prefaced by seven introductory chapters. Jessopp and MRJ shared the translating and the writing of the introductory material, with MRJ contributing three chapters on "The Manuscript, The Text, The History of the Book", "The Legend" and "The Cult and Iconography of St William".
The Life of St William of Norwich, a Christian boy supposedly ritually tortured and crucified by the Jews of that city, is the first medieval instance of the Jewish "blood libel", which would give birth in ensuing centuries to a series of similar stories and allegations, and would be (in MRJ's words) "responsible for the blood of thousands of [Jews]". In his Chapter VI, "The Legend", MRJ gives a very accessible analysis of the events described in the Life, as well as noting possible influences and briefly describing some subsequent examples. He also points out that similar allegations were made "against Christians by Pagan Greeks and Romans, against heretical sects by orthodox Christians, against the Templars by their contemporaries, [and] against Christian missionaries (in 1870 and in 1895) by the Chinese". To this list, today, one might add modern panics such as the Satanic Child Abuse scares, of which resonances can certainly be sensed in William of Norwich's story.
I decided to reprint this chapter in particular from the Jessopp/James book, because MRJ's dissection of the facts and fantasies of this important case is well thought out, open-minded, and entertaining (if that is not too tasteless an adjective to use about such uncomfortable subject matter). In addition, there's no doubt that it is the work of a person who was fond of a good detective yarn. According to Gwendolen McBryde, MRJ "made a habit of reading [them] from their earliest appearance in literature... [and] he liked to hear your conjectures on the solution as you read the story"; it's known that he enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes tales and Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels, among others (Gwendolen McBryde's introduction to MRJ, Letters to a Friend, 1956, p.15; Eton & King's, p.177). As far as the identity of the culprit in the William of Norwich case is concerned, there might be some disagreement on whether MRJ's final suggestion makes sense from a psychological viewpoint, but few will fail to warm to a man who could so effortlessly turn a piece of serious scholarship into a whodunnit!
Original notes [numbered in the text].
Some additional notes [asterisked in the text].
On what scale is the enormous subject of the alleged murders of Christian children by Jews to be treated in this Introduction? It was possible for Adrian Kembter, a Praemonstratensian of Wilthin, writing in 1745, to enumerate 52 instances of these supposed crimes, and his last is dated in 1650.(1) A systematic investigation would bring to light perhaps double the number, and would end at a date later than the discovery of Thomas's book. For a research of this magnitude I have not the time, nor, what is more important, the knowledge. It is work which demands a specialist of no ordinary qualifications. Yet, impossible as it is for me to give a complete survey of the subject, it is equally impossible (even at the risk of some repetition of facts which Dr Jessopp also deals with) to pass over certain main questions connected with it. The story, which is now first appearing in its full form, is the foundation of all the subsequent ones of the kind: and our readers would justly blame us if we did not try to set before them to the best of our ability some means of answering the following questions:
1. What suggested the notion?
2. What is the truth of the story which Thomas tells?
3. How did the story develop in the period immediately following its publication?
It has long been held, and I think rightly, that the earliest occurrence of child-murder by Jews in literature is in a passage of the fifth century Church historian, Socrates. In dealing (vii.16) with events about the year 415, he says:
"Now a little after this the Jews paid the penalty for further lawless acts against the Christians. At Inmestar, a place so-called, which lies between Chalcis and Antioch in Syria, the Jews were in the habit of celebrating certain sports among themselves: and, whereas they habitually did many foolish actions in the course of their sports, they were put beyond themselves (on this occasion) by drunkenness, and began deriding Christians and even Christ himself in their games. They derided the Cross and those who hoped in the Crucified, and they hit upon this plan. They took a Christian child and bound him to a cross and hung him up; and to begin with they mocked and derided him for some time; but after a short space they lost control of themselves, and so ill-treated the child that they killed him. Hereupon ensued a bitter conflict between them and the Christians: this became known to the authorities: orders were sent to the provincial magistrates to seek out the guilty persons and punish them: and so the Jews of that place paid the penalty for the crime they had committed in sport."
It is clear from the words of Socrates that this outrage was no ritual murder. It began in rough horse-play and ended, seemingly owing to the drunkenness of the Jews, in actual violence, which had not been contemplated by the perpetrators. We have no clue as to the occasion of the "sports" referred to, which seem to have been an annual institution. Possibly they were connected with the Feast of Purim: and as it is known that parallels were drawn by the Jews between Haman the Hung and Jesus Christ, it is conceivable that the child who came by his end at Inmestar was the representative of Haman and Christ, partly one and partly the other, at some quasi-dramatic entertainment.(2) This view of the event (which had occurred to me independently) is taken by Graetz.(3)(*)
It ought to be mentioned that there was a source from which Thomas of Monmouth or his contemporaries might have derived a knowledge of the story which Socrates tells. It is given in Latin in the Historia Tripartita of Cassiodorius: and it may have been a formative element in the myth. Still, as we shall see, Thomas's notion of the practice was derived from another witness.
A story which, while differing in many essential particulars from the tales we are concerned with, yet deserves mention, is preserved to us by Evagrius (iv.23), and repeated by Gregory of Tours.(4) It is that of the Jewish glass-maker of Constantinople who cast his son into the furnace for receiving the Eucharist. The boy was delivered by the Virgin. The date assigned to this occurrence is 536-552. It is merely as a tale of Jewish cruelty shewn upon a child for anti-Christian reasons that the story has anything in common with ours. But the history of it is instructive, because in mediaeval collections of miracles of the Virgin the scene is transferred, and the Jew, instead of living at Constantinople, is a resident at Pisa or Bourges. This transplantation is, I think, significant.
The story of the child of Inmestar comes to us from the 5th century. Between that date and the date of William of Norwich there seems to be a complete blank. There are no child-martyrs, and there is no trace of a belief in ritual murder. After the Norwich story we encounter a rapid succession of child-martyrdoms, and the belief in ritual murder appears fully developed. It becomes therefore all-important to investigate the story which seems to have given new life, if not birth, to so appalling and destructive a myth. What is the evidence for the life and death of St William of Norwich?
This is the story as told by Thomas: but in telling it we shall do well to pass lightly over the parts which treat of William the Saint as apart from William the murdered child: I mean the vision which presaged his greatness, the accounts of his early devoutness and the miracle which happened on his weaning-feast. These, save perhaps the last, may well be afterthoughts.
William is the son (born in 1132 or 1133 on Feb. 2) of Wenstan and Elviva (or as Capgrave and Bale read it, Elwina). Of Wenstan we hear nothing save that he lived in the country and was a farmer, comfortably off. At the time of the martyrdom he was dead. Of his wife we know something more. She was the daughter of a married priest, Wlward, who was a well-known man in the neighbourhood and had the reputation of being wise in the interpretation of dreams. She also had a sister named Liviva (or Livina) who was married to Godwin Sturt, a priest whose son Alexander was in deacon's orders, and, Bale tells us, was destined to succeed his father in the living (what living we know not, but it was clearly in Norwich) which he held.
Besides William, Wenstan and Elviva had other children. The name of one only is given, Robert, who afterwards became a monk at Norwich Priory.
It is at first sight a striking fact that we are not told where William's parents lived: but we see from Book 1, Ch. 2, that William was baptized by the parish priest of Haveringland: and it is natural to suppose that in Haveringland the family lived. For the story of the penitent whose iron bands William broke in his infancy, it may be very likely true and yet no miracle. The priest of Haveringland had the broken arm-ring in his church, and told Thomas about it afterwards. William's early sanctity may or may not be founded on fact: but the next point we reach is his apprenticeship to a skinner in Norwich. This took place when he was eight years old (1140-41) and lasted until he was twelve. He lived with a man of the name of Wulward, not his grandfather, but possibly a relation: and we are told that his master and he had frequent dealings with the Jews. His constant visits to them attracted the attention of his friends; and Wulward, and also the boy's uncle Godwin, forbade him to have anything more to do with them.
On the Monday after Palm Sunday in 1144 William calls on his mother in company with a man who describes himself as the cook of William, archdeacon of Norwich, and offers the boy a place in the archidiaconal kitchen, on condition that he should have his services at once. Some unwillingness on the part of the mother is overcome by a small payment, and the boy returns to Norwich in company with the man.
This messenger - said by Thomas to be the emissary of the Jews - is a very mysterious figure. He was unknown to the mother, and Thomas is ignorant whether he was a Christian or a Jew. The interview, as he reports it, is coloured by attempts to draw a parallel to the Betrayal of Christ. The traitor is made to mention 30 pieces of silver, and eventually produces the tithe of that sum - three pieces - as the price of blood. Still, there is nothing impossible in the narrative so far.
The supposed traitor calls next day with William upon Liviva the aunt in Norwich, and tells her of the arrangement he has made for the boy. This seems an unnecessary proceeding for a man who would naturally be anxious to avoid attracting notice. However, they leave the house, and the aunt tells her daughter to follow them and see where they go. She watches them into a Jew's house, and sees the door shut, and William is never seen alive again. The girl returns home and tells her mother what she has seen. This is on the Tuesday before Easter.
For the events of the next day (Wednesday, the Passover Day), we are dependent largely upon Thomas's unsupported testimony. The evidence on which he relies covers but a very small portion of his story. We will take his own account first.
William spends the Tuesday night with the Jews, and is kindly treated and well fed. On the Wednesday, after their service in the synagogue, they seize him as he is at table, insert a gag in his mouth and tie it elaborately with cords round his head and neck, shave his head and lacerate it with thorns. Then, after a mock trial, he is adjudged to the cross: they take him to a part of the room where there were three uprights of wood and a horizontal bar connecting them, and to these they bind his right hand and foot with ropes, attaching the left hand and foot with nails. They then pierce his left side as deep as his heart, and finally pour scalding water over the body to cleanse the wounds and stop the flow of blood.
By way of external testimony to this detailed account the following facts are adduced by Thomas. First, the daughter of Liviva saw him enter the Jew's house. Next, there was a Christian woman who waited on the Jews, and who told Thomas this tale. On the day in question she was ordered to heat some water in the kitchen, the Jews being in the inner room, where she heard them making some considerable noise. After a time they called to her to bring in the water, and they opened the door to take it in. She, through the chink of the door, caught sight - with one eye only - of a boy fastened to a post; and in another instant the door was shut. In the evening she had to clean up the room, and found lying in a corner a boy's belt, and attached to it a knife in a sheath and (seemingly) a case of needles. Besides this, we are told, she perceived in the room "the certain signs of what had been done." In after years she shewed the belt and its accompaniments to Thomas, and pointed out the marks of the martyrdom on the timbers of the house. These, then, Thomas himself saw, and we gather that there were two nail-holes in one of them. Lastly, when the body was washed in the Cathedral on the 24th of April (more than a month after the death) the monks are said to have found thorn points in the skin of the head, "traces of the martyrdom" in the hands, feet, and side, and "indications" that boiling water had been poured over the body. What these indications were - unless, perhaps, a bloated state of the skin, not surprising in a corpse a month old - it is difficult to say. The actual evidence of the martyrdom in the Jew's house reduces itself to the momentary glimpse which the maid-servant caught with one eye of a boy tied to a post, and to the existence of a couple of nail-holes in a post seen some years afterwards.
And even this evidence, be it noted, was not produced until the view that the Jews had done the deed had been for some time in circulation. The servant does not come forward when Liviva and the mob are ranging about the streets and threatening an outbreak. It is seemingly not until Thomas has conceived the project of writing the life of St William that any attempt is made to ascertain the precise place and manner of the murder. True it is that Godwin in his speech to the Synod refers to the well-known practice of the Jews in Passover week: but Thomas in one case gives us speeches which are avowedly imaginary, and Godwin's words are highly Thomian in style. At present, the evidence for a ritual murder is simply nil.
We return to Thomas's narrative. The Maundy Thursday was spent by the Jews in deliberation as to what they should do with the body. Thomas's knowledge of this was derived from "one of them," meaning, I have no doubt, Theobald of Cambridge - of whom more anon. And here there is a trifle more plausibility about the story. For if the Jews had contemplated murder from the first they would surely have made their preparations for disposing of the body: but supposing some rough pranks, such as those at Inmestar, had accidentally ended in the death of the boy whom they had only meant to make a butt of, it is intelligible that a council of the kind described should have been held. Theobald is not a first-rate witness, I will allow; but the hypothesis of an accidental death deserves to be considered.
The verdict of the assembly, led by Eleazar, was that the body should be taken to some remote place and left there. So on Good Friday, Eleazar and another put it into a sack and set out for Thorpe Wood. On the edge of the wood Aelward Ded met them, and asked whither they were bound. Happening to lay his hand on the sack, he perceived by its shape that it contained a human body. The Jews saw that they were discovered, galloped off into the wood, hung the body to a tree, and returned to Norwich to take counsel in this new crisis. They repaired to John the Sheriff and bribed him to keep their secret and force Aelward Ded to keep it too. The Sheriff sent for him and extracted an oath of secrecy from him. It was not broken till five years after, when, on his death-bed, he told Wicheman and another what he had seen. From them Thomas heard the story. Perhaps the weakest point of it is this, that Aelward does not break silence until 1149, though the formidable John de Caineto had died in 1146.
On the Good Friday evening a light was seen in the sky pointing to a spot in Thorpe Wood. It was seen by Henry de Sprowston from his house-door, and by Legarda from the hospital by St Mary Magdalene. On the following morning (Easter Eve) Legarda set out to see what it meant. What she found was this. The body of a boy lying under an oak tree (not hanging up - but this is not a real difficulty), fully clothed, with shaven head, and marks of thorns on the scalp. Besides this there were two crows which were unsuccessfully attempting to eat the body, and kept falling down. Legarda did not taken any action herself, but returned home.
On the same morning Henry de Sprowston went on his rounds in the forest. He met a woodcutter who said he had found a murdered boy near by. The two men went to the spot. Henry looked with some care at the body and noticed that it was wounded, and had a wooden gag in the mouth. He inferred from the unusual character of the wounds that the murderer could not be a Christian, but must be a Jew. This, if it is not an afterthought, may mean that Henry said that only a 'miscreant' and no Christian man could have treated a boy in such a way. He further noted that it was to this spot that the light he had seen had pointed; and then he went home and told his family. They sent for the priest of Sprowston, and suggested that the body might be buried in Sprowston churchyard. However, as it was Easter Eve, they decided to do nothing until Easter Monday: which does not indicate any great amount of excitement at their discovery.
However, the rumour of the discovery had got to Norwich; and a number of the boys and young men of the place went to Thorpe Wood. Some of these visitors suspected the Jews - again because of the nature of the wounds inflicted; others definitely said that the Jews were the murderers. Easter Eve and Easter Day were spent in this rush to see the body; and there was a distinct wish to invade the Jewry, only the mob were afraid of John de Caineto.
On Easter Monday, Henry de Sprowston and his family, unaccompanied by any priest, set out to bury the body; and on second thoughts decided not to remove it, but to bury it where it lay. And when they took it up, they smelt for the first time the "odour of sanctity" which it diffused. So it was buried without any ceremony.
Meanwhile some of William's boy-friends had said that the body in Thorpe Wood was that of William, who used to visit the Jews so often. His uncle Godwin Sturt heard this, and set out for the grave with his son Alexander, and Robert, William's (elder?) brother. They opened the grave, and when they got near the body, the earth was twice seen to move and stir, suggesting to them, as it does to us, that all this time the unfortunate boy was not really dead at all. When the body was uncovered, the brother, cousin and uncle recognised it as William's, and, after due expression of their sorrow, recited the proper offices, and covered in the grave again. They noticed the absence of corruption and the odour of sanctity: and probably it was at this time that Godwin removed from the mouth of the corpse the gag which later on we find in his possession. It does not, however, seem to have occurred to any of them that it would be desirable to transfer the body to consecrated ground. They went back to Norwich, and Godwin told the matter to his wife. She was at once greatly agitated, and declared that on the Saturday week before she had had a warning dream about the Jews. Soon the boy's mother Elviva arrived on the scene and, though she could learn nothing certain about the matter, she too flew to the conclusion that the Jews were the culprits, and by rushing about the town and declaring her convictions on the subject she greatly excited the populace.
We have now come, perhaps, to the Wednesday after Easter: and after this until the day of the Synod there is an interval, during which Godwin settled his plan of action. The Synod met; the discourse was preached; and then Godwin rising in his place - in the apse of the Cathedral - publicly proclaimed that his nephew had been murdered, that he accused the Jews of the deed, and that he demanded justice. On the same day the secular dean summoned the Jews to appear on the morrow before the Synod. They went to the Sheriff, who told the Bishop he had no jurisdiction over the Jews. A second and third summons were sent, but no answer was received. After the Synod was over a message was sent to the Sheriff, threatening a peremptory sentence against the Jews; which, I suppose, meant a license to the mob to devastate the Jewry.
John and the Jews - the former individual being extremely angry - now appeared, and Godwin in their presence reiterated his accusation, and pointed it this time with his appeal to the ordeal. The Jews pleaded not guilty and demanded a respite. This was twice refused, and that night all the inhabitants of the Jewry moved within the Castle bounds, under the immediate protection of the Sheriff.
Among other persons present at Norwich happened to be Aimar, the Prior of the Cluniacs of St Pancras at Lewes, who, as Dr Jessopp acutely conjectures, had come thither on business connected with the establishment of the Cluniacs at Castle-Acre. Aimar interviewed Godwin on the matter of the murder and saw possibilities in it; for he at once begged the Bishop to let him have William's body for Lewes Priory. The Bishop, who, though not so enthusiastic for St William as was his successor in the see, still was impressed by what had happened, declined the request: and in after years the report was current that Aimar had applauded his prudence, and that the result of the transaction was to stimulate Eborard to translate William's body from Thorpe Wood to the Monks' Cemetery, whence, if further developments should take place, there might be an easy step to a position of greater dignity. Accordingly, on the 24th of April, the transference was effected: and it was on this occasion, 32 days after the death of the boy, that those unequivocal signs of the manner of his martyrdom were discovered which have been already noticed. In addition to these, it was stated that blood flowed from the nose of the corpse, and that the odour of sanctity was perceived for the third time.
The narrative of events need not just now be pursued any further: but we must take stock at this point of the confirmatory evidence which Thomas adduces. He urges seven arguments in his second book. The first is that William was seen "by many people" to enter the Jew's house on the Tuesday before Easter, and in particular by his cousin, Liviva's daughter; and that no one saw him come out. The second argument is drawn from the evidence of the Jews' servant. This I have set forth, and no one can describe it as convincing. The third is that some days after the martyrdom, when the Jews were being charged with the murder, they sought to bribe William's brother Robert with the sum of ten marks to hush up the charge. This Thomas heard from Robert, and it may be true. But it may only mean that the Jews were afraid of the disturbance likely to be excited by the trial, and not that they acknowledged themselves guilty. The fourth argument is of exactly the same kind: namely, that the Jews tried to bribe Bishop Turbe, on the occasion of the trial of Sir Simon de Novers before Stephen, to drop the counter-charge against themselves. It was not a prudent step to take, if they took it, but it does not nearly amount to a confession of guilt. The fifth is the most sensational of all. Theobald, a Jew of Cambridge, was converted to Christianity and became a monk (as it seems) in Norwich Priory.(5) He told Thomas that the Jews had a written tradition that in order to regain their freedom and their fatherland they must sacrifice a Christian every year. In order to select their victim the leading Jews of Spain assembled annually at Narbonne, where they were exceedingly influential, and cast lots for all the countries of the world where any Jews lived. The country which was selected by lot had in turn to cast lots for all its cities, and the city thus selected had to furnish the victim. Theobald asserted that it was within his knowledge that in 1144 the lot had fallen on Norwich.
If this is a lie - and we are assured that it is by those who have studied the subject - it is one of the most notable and disastrous lies of history; and we must look upon Theobald of Cambridge, as responsible for the blood of thousands of his fellow-countrymen.(**)
The sixth argument sets forth that the Jews (when their security was re-established) used to remind the Christians jocosely of the service they had done them in adding a new saint to their kalendar. But this was merely a joke, and all that it shews is that the murder was attributed to the Jews, and that they felt they could afford to treat it humorously.
The seventh argument rests on the evidence of a law officer, William of Hastings, Dean of Norwich. He said that at a suit in his court between two Jews one had accused the other of having been concerned as a ringleader in the murder of William. What the accused Jew said we are not told; but there is no hint that the truth of the charge was inquired into.
In which of all this mass of assertions may we reasonably put confidence? The points that seem to my mind worthy of credence are these: The existence, name, birth, and parentage of William: his connexion with the skinners' craft: his violent death: the discovery of the body in Thorpe Wood: its burial: the events connected with the Synod: the removal of the body to the monks' cemetery. This much I see no reason to doubt: only, we shall see, there is a confusion in a subsequent part of Thomas's book as to the order of events about the time of the Synod. More doubtful, but not, I think, necessarily to be rejected, are the visits of William to the Jews and the prohibition to continue them: the apprenticeship to the Archdeacon's cook: the entry into the Jewry on the Tuesday before Easter: the experience of Aelward Ded. This last is a crucial point no doubt. It carries with it our acquiescence in the statement that William did, somehow or other, meet his death in the Norwich Jewry: and to me this is not inconceivable. I should think nothing of the evidence, were it not for the fact that we are dealing with the first of all the mediaeval accusations of child-murder. But that is a very important point. The way in which those on the spot received the notion is instructive. It did not command an unquestioning reception. There were many doubters, against whom Thomas finds it necessary to fulminate; and their disbelief was owing in great part, no doubt, to the lack of good evidence; but also, we must allow, to the fact that the idea was a new one. No one can accept Theobald's account of the murder as a thing done every year by the most cultured and enlightened Jews of Europe: but as the result of accident, or as the deed of an insane or superstitious Jew, it is not incredible.
The sequence of the miracles which are recorded to have followed upon the burial in the Monks' Cemetery is worth looking at for a moment. The first is the deliverance of Botilda the cook's wife by the fern that grew on the grave: the next is the blossoming of the rose-tree on the grave. Then follows the vision of Lewin of Welney (or whatever the place is meant by "Welle"): and herein is a matter which gives us some pause. The vision is dated before Easter of 1144, that is, within a day or two of the martyrdom. In it the sick man is bidden to go to St William's tomb. The father accordingly sets off for Norwich and makes inquiries: but no one can tell him who St William is. However, it is said, the Jews were disturbed at the fact of his making inquiries, and "iterum, ut altera uice," "for the second time, as on another occasion," betook themselves and their belongings within the Castle precinct. After some days the priest of Welney goes to Norwich to attend the Synod, and hears Godwin's accusation of the Jews. This by no means agrees with Thomas's former categorical account. In that, as we have seen, the speech of Godwin, made at the Synod, leads to the summoning of the Jews, and this again to their retreat within the ramparts of the Castle. This is intrinsically much more probable; and we are forced to suppose that Thomas has considerably ante-dated the episode of Lewin. It might be an entire fiction: but that is not necessarily the case. After the martyrdom and Synod and the consequent excitement were over, it is quite possible that a sick man might have had a dream about St William; and that inquiries made at Norwich might necessitate a second retreat of the Jews. One thing, however, is clear; Thomas has made a bad blunder in one of his two accounts.
Next we have the vision of the Mulbarton girl, which Thomas classes with Lewin's vision because of its similarity, not because it followed next in order of time. This is followed by the wonderful experience of the girl of Dunwich and her fairy lover. Wicheman, the bishop's deputy for hearing confessions, is the witness for this; and he was the man who received the dying confession of Aelward Ded in 1149. No date is given for the Dunwich miracle; but Thomas says that at the time of its occurrence the memory of St William had become almost extinct. This may mean that Wicheman heard the tale in 1145-7.
The murder of Eleazar the Jew is not dated either: but it must have been near about the time when Bishop Eborard retired and Bishop Turbe succeeded him. This happened in 1146; and "some time" after the murder Stephen came to Norwich and the trial of Sir Simon de Novers was held. It is to be remembered that John de Caineto cannot have been present at the trial. He died in 1146, shortly after the consecration of William Turbe, whose election he had done his best to prevent.
With the death of John the Sheriff the second book of Thomas's work ends, and the third opens with the translation of William to the chapter-house in the spring of 1150. It is at this point that Thomas comes before us in propria persona as a witness; and as he does not attempt to hint that he was present at any of the previous events, it is likely that he had not long been an inmate of the Priory. The shortest interval which we can reasonably suppose to have separated him from the death of William is four years; the longest, six years. His sources of evidence were the boy's mother Elviva, whom he certainly knew, the uncle Godwin Sturt, Liviva the aunt and her daughter, Robert the martyr's brother, Theobald de Cambridge, Wicheman the confessor, the Jew's servant, and also, as it seems, Legarda and Henry de Sprowston. This is a strong body of witnesses, and, discount their stories as we may, we cannot well dispute at least the existence of the boy William, his violent death, and the discovery of his body in Thorpe Wood.
Leaving to the last our consideration of the general question, let us look very briefly at the alleged child-murders which followed most closely upon that of William of Norwich.
The first is earlier than the publication of Thomas's book. On March 18th, 1168, the body of a boy named Harold was found in the Severn at Gloucester, much mutilated, with traces of burning on the flesh and the garments, thorns in the head and armpits, marks of melted wax in the eyes and ears, and some of the teeth knocked out. The murder was supposed to have taken place on Friday, March 17th. The convent went out in procession to receive the body, and it was inspected and washed by the monks, and buried before the altar of SS. Edmund and Edward, on the northern side. The boy was reported to have been stolen by the Jews about Feb. 21 and hidden until the day of the murder; and Jews from all parts of England were summoned on pretext that a boy was to be circumcised and a great feast held "according to the Law" (ex lege). No Christian was present, and no Jew confessed to the deed, which was matter of conjecture. The source of this extremely shaky story is the Historia Monasterii S. Petri Gloucestriae p.21 (Rolls Series). It is to be observed that nothing is said concerning the customary or ritual nature of such murders, but the season is near the Passover. Other chroniclers who speak of the boy Harold are Chron Petroburgense under 1161, Brompton under 1160, and Knighton.
In 1171 there was an accusation of child-murder against the Jews of Orleans, and another against those of Blois, this last in the Pascal season, as reported by Robert of Torigny. In 1179 we have the martyrdom of St Richard of Pontoise by the Jews of Paris or of Pontoise, whose passion, by Robert Gaguin (1498), is printed in the Acta Sanctorum for March 25. It speaks of the slaying of a Christian as a yearly custom, and makes Richard - of whose identity and parentage nothing is said - to be examined in a cave by a priest of the Jews and asked to deny his faith. He is crucified and quotes Scripture when on the cross. The result of the martyrdom is a grand persecution by Philip Augustus. The late date of the Passion deprives it of all importance for this investigation. Two years afterwards, in 1181, the boy Robert is killed at Bury. The earliest authority for this is Jocelin de Brakelond.(6) He says, "at the same time the holy boy Robert was martyred, and buried in our church, and many signs and wonders were done among the people, as I have elsewhere written." There is little prospect, I fear, of Jocelin's tract on Robert being recovered now; it would be an exceedingly interesting document. John de Taxster in his chronicle says the boy Robert was martyred at St Edmund's by the Jews on Wednesday the 10th of June. William of Worcester says that his feast was celebrated in May, and that the boy was crucified.(***) The Chronicle of Melrose also mentions the fact (p.91, ed. Bannatyne Club):
(1181) Miracula multa et magna apud S. Aedmundum per beatum puerum Robertum quem quidam Iudaeus occulte crudeliter neci tradidit.
It then goes on to mention the death of a boy Herbert at Huntingdon, thus:
Similiter apud Huntodinam de alio puero Herberto nomine noua contigerunt, quem proprius pater ad stipitem impie ligauit et in aqua que iuxta ipsam uillam decurrit miserabiliter extinxit.
In these words there is nothing to shew that the Jews were in any way concerned: and as there seems to be no other authority for Herbert of Huntingdon, he may as well drop out of the list.
In 1192 there was a martyrdom at Winchester, reported by Richard of Devizes (pp.59-64). The victim was a French boy brought up by a Jew to the trade of a cobbler in France, and sent with a commendatory letter, written in Hebrew, to the Jews at Winchester. He disappeared after some months, and the charge of crucifixion, brought by a boy-friend of his, and confirmed by a Christian woman who served the Jews, was dismissed. The body was never produced.
Further than this we need not carry the tale. But it is important to notice the geographical distribution of the places where the accusations spring up. The first is Gloucester, a place apparently quite out of connexion with Norwich. It must be remembered, however, that we have in Thomas's book a letter from a Pershore monk somewhere near 1170, which shews that the reputation of St William was notorious at Pershore. Why was this? Dr Jessopp has pointed out to me that the Abbot of Pershore at this date was William, a monk of Eye in Suffolk (appointed in 1138).(7) I think this will amply account for the appearance of a child-martyr at Gloucester, the near neighbour of Pershore.
The next two stories are from Orleans and Blois; we have not, however, anything like contemporary evidence for them. But even supposing the stories to have arisen before Thomas's book was known in France, it is always possible that either Bishop Eborard (who died in France, at the Abbey of Fontenay), or some one in his train, spread the story of St William in France, and sowed the seed in receptive soil. St Richard of Pontoise, who is first mentioned by Robert of Torigny, I absolutely dismiss; and the next witness, at Bury, comes from the near neighbourhood of Norwich, and brings us to a date when we may expect to find William's reputation at its zenith. There is, then, in each of these cases something to suggest a connexion with Norwich; in no one of them is any evidence produced which lends them any verisimilitude; and there is a story already current which invites and suggests imitation.
Widely different is the story of William of Norwich, appearing as it does after a blank of seven centuries in the records of child-murder by the Jews (having indeed but one predecessor in those records), and backed by a good deal of circumstantial evidence. It arises too at a time when, and in a place where the Jews were a flourishing and well-protected body. It comes apparently as a novelty to the minds of the people at large; and the extreme frequency of the mention of it in contemporary chronicles shews that it made a considerable impression. It is undoubtedly the strongest case of the kind.
Yet, as we have seen, much of the evidence must be heavily discounted; and we have to remember that Thomas, our one authority, is a very credulous partisan. We must in the last resort formulate the various theories of William's death which seem most probable, and shortly state the reasons for and against each. We may suppose
(1) That William's murder was a genuine case of ritual-murder, on the part of the Jews as a body.
For this we have really only the evidence of Theobald; and, on the other side, ritual-murder as a practice has been learnedly and thoroughly disproved by Strack(8) and others.
Again, it is unlikely that the educated Jews of Norwich in their corporate capacity would perpetrate this crime as an act of anti-Christian spite. They would be running a quite unnecessary risk, and there is nothing to shew that the practice was a recognised one at any period of their history.
(2) That William was killed by a Christian, and the murder laid at the Jews' door with the definite intention of rousing the people against them. That such things were done in later times, there is unfortunately no room to doubt. But in this case it is improbable. Had there been an elaborate intrigue connected with it, there must have been preliminary agitation, and much preparation of the soil for the seed, as well as anti-Judaic speeches by leading men after the murder. But there is nothing of this; no organized attack, and no fanning of the flame against the Jews. After the Synod and the translation the whole affair lapses, the Jews regain security and confidence, and William takes his place as a wonder-worker, and an attraction for pilgrims, not as a monument of Jewish malignity.
(3) That William was killed by a person unknown, and the rest of the story invented. This is the view that most readers of the present day will be inclined to take. It differs from the last mainly in looking upon the affair as a natural growth and not the culmination of an elaborate plot. There is much in favour of this notion, and I have little doubt that the truth of the matter lies between it and the next supposition, namely,
(4) That William was killed accidentally or intentionally by a Jew, and the rest of the story invented. If this theory be accepted, the events we must suppose to have run somewhat after this fashion: either the outrage of Inmestar was repeated, or the boy was the victim of a pure accident, in the Norwich Jewry, at the hands of some one of the baser sort of Jews. The more prominent members of the community, recognizing the certainly fatal consequences which would ensue either if they gave up the body, or if they concealed it and it were discovered, determined to stand by their co-religionists. The story of Aelward Ded would then be substantially true, and also the statement that the sheriff was bribed.
It is, of course, much simpler to adopt the hypothesis that the whole story was a fabrication, suggested by the discovery of the boy's body: and it is clear that there was a good deal of imposture connected with the business. It is true, again, that the accusations of child-murder, of cannibalism and of other horrid practices, are among the first that any set of uneducated people is likely to bring against a tribe or sect whose practices they do not understand.(9) Charges of this kind we know were made against Christians by Pagan Greeks and Romans, against heretical sects by orthodox Christians, against the Templars by their contemporaries, against Christian missionaries (in 1870 and in 1895) by the Chinese. Still we have on the other hand to take into account the possibilities of what a mad hatred of a dominant system, or a reversion to half-forgotten practices of a darker age, might effect in the case of an ignorant Jew seven centuries back. We see from Theobald's disastrous evidence what such a man could imagine. Can we be sure that there were not at Norwich Jews as bad as he, who could give effect to such a fancy? Is it beyond the bounds of possibility that he did the deed himself?(10)
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MRJ's Original Notes:
(1) In his book Acta pro Veritate martyrii corporis et cultus publici B. Andreae Rinnensis (a child killed at Rinn in the Tyrol, 12 July, 1462), Innsbruck 1745.
(2) Nicephorus (xiv.16) gives the story from Socrates. His evidence has no separate value.
(3) Geschichte d. Judenthum, vi. 454.
(4) De gloria martyrum, 9. The story is told by Herbert de Losinga in his first sermon, and must therefore have been known at Norwich.
(5) The word nostro, which would be decisive as to the house in which Theobald was a monk, is mutilated in the MS.: but the reading is not really very doubtful.
(6) Ed. Camden Society, p.13.
(7) See John de Taxster in Florence of Worcester (ed. Thorpe).
(8) Der Blutaberglaube, H.L. Strack, Munich, 1891.
(9) See the paper by the late Isidor Loeb in the Revue des Études Juives 1889, p.184: "Le problème n'est pas un problème d'histoire, mais de psychologie. Le préjugé vient d'un des instincts les plus profonds des peuples qui l'ont inventé;" and also a review of Strack's Blutaberglaube, by S. Reinach, in the same periodical (1892, p.161). The latter writer quotes some words spoken to him by Renan on this subject: "Notez combien la malignité humaine est peu inventive: elle tourne éternellement dans le même cercle d'accusations, sacrifices humains, anthropophagie, attentats aux moeurs." I add a few lines from this same article, which put the case well: "En résumé, il est possible, il est même certain, que plus d'une fois, depuis quinze siècles, un Chrétien a été tué par un Juif; mais il n'est pas moins certain que jamais, à aueune époque, dans aucun pays, un Chrétien, jeune ou vieux, n'a été immolé par un Juif pour servir à l'accomplissement de rites secrets. Cela est certain... parce que l'idée même d'un meurtre ritual Juif est un tissu de contradictions adsurdes en trois mots."
(10) It is true that Theobald says he was at Cambridge in 1144: but it is difficult not to believe that he was the person responsible for the account of William's death, and of the subsequent deliberations of the Jews, which Thomas heard "from one of themselves".
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RAP's Notes (2002):
(*) For "Haman the Hung" see the Book of Esther, Chapters 3-7 (and Chapter 9 on the Purim). A favoured "prince" and officer of King Ahasuerus (of Persia and Media), Haman ordered the slaughter of all the Jews in the kingdom after the refusal of Mordecai (cousin and foster father of Esther) to bow down before him. He built a gallows tree to execute Mordecai, but thanks to the intercession of Esther, Ahasuerus' queen, Haman and his sons were themselves executed instead of Mordecai, and the Jews were saved. The Festival of Purim on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar (March) celebrates the Jews' deliverance. It has, at various periods, involved the destroying of a figure of Haman in effigy, and a living dramatic re-enactment, which Christians automatically assumed to be a mockery of the death of Jesus Christ. Although English Bible translations describe Haman's death as being by hanging from his own gallows, the original language is less clearcut and 'crucifixion' may be a better reading (just as Jesus' death in the Greek New Testament is often described as by 'hanging from a tree'). Many authors and artists, including Dante, Sir Thomas More and Michelangelo, have depicted or described Haman's death as crucifixion. While MRJ clearly thought it possible that the celebrants of the festival at Inmestar, if indeed it was the Feast of Purim, might have referenced Jesus in their commemoration of the killing of Haman, he is highly unlikely to have been willing to go so far as Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough (which MRJ reviled). Frazer saw the Purim as a celebration of the death and revival of the divine king, with Haman as the dying god of the old year, and Mordecai as his successor; both being represented in physical form by selected criminals, the first of whom was executed, the second honoured and released. Frazer went on to suggest that Jesus' death may have been no more than the climax of the Purim of that year, with Jesus as Haman and Barabbas as Mordecai (but with some of the Barabbas-Mordecai ceremonials transferred to Jesus-Haman by the Evangelists).
(**) Thirty-four years later, in Suffolk and Norfolk (Dent, p.19), MRJ noted that "the slander still crops up now and again in Eastern Europe, and in its time has wrought terrible mischief in the way of massacres and injustices".
(***) MRJ, Suffolk and Norfolk (p.19) [Re Robert of Bury]: "Only one clue to his legend remains, in a MS. in the collection of Mr. Dyson Perrins of Malvern. In this is a fifteenth-century picture in four compartments, showing (1) an old woman putting the boy's body into a well; (2) the body lying near a tree, angels taking up his soul, a man shooting an arrow into the tree; (3) a cleric kneeling in prayer with a scroll addressing St. Robert; (4) a robin, painted on something that looks like a charter or deed. The robin must be an allusion to Robert's name: without the text of the legend we cannot properly interpret the rest, but it is evident that an old woman was concerned, and that she tried in vain to conceal the boy's body."
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For more information on Augustus Jessopp, see Jessica Amanda Salmonson's introduction to The Phantom Coach and Other Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by Augustus Jessopp (Richard Fawcett 1999). The text is on-line here.
The Internet Medieval Source Book has a page of excerpts from the Jessopp/James translation of Thomas of Monmouth's account (parts of Book 1, Chapters iii, iv, and v; and of Book 2, Chapter xi). Also on that site is a fascinating (and horrifying) page on aspects of the history of the Blood Libel, with various links and a bibliography.
"St William of Norwich": his entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
"The Lessons of Folklore" by Michael Goss ("Alien abductions, Satanic Ritual Abuse, Faerie Kidnappings, phantom clowns; they all share common roots in the rich history of folklore"): a fine article from Magonia, issue 38, which sets the William of Norwich case in its folkloric context.
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