The cult of saints and relics was a true medieval European phenomenon. By the High Middle Ages, the number of saints easily outnumbered the number of days in the year. There were patron saints for professions as well as specific towns. Some had elaborate shrines, richly decorated with precious metals and valuable gemstones. Most were somewhat humbler in nature, but nevertheless attracted their fair share of pilgrims.
Most of these cults were benign enough, serving as a genuine source of comfort and spiritual inspiration. Some were founded on miraculous stories that seem most far-fetched, and even bizarre, to a modern audience. Yet virtually anyone might be elevated to sainthood under the right circumstances.
New saints were popping up all the time. So when, in the mid-twelfth century, some Norwich monks proposed a new saint be added to the list, it seemed like business as usual. The newly proposed saint had been a boy named William, who’d died in suspicious circumstances a few years earlier. The monks claimed he was Christian martyr. But this time it was different. For the cult of William of Norwich was poisoned by a particularly virulent strain of antisemitism.
This is the story of how the tragic death of a boy was exploited to incite antisemitic persecution.
Antisemitism in the Classical World
Medieval Europe did not invent antisemitism. Neither, for that matter, did Christianity. Antisemitism was present across the Roman Empire well before Christianity became its official religion.
The Jews became targets of Roman prejudices for much the same reasons as anything else that wasn’t purely Roman. The druids followed a non-Roman religion, so they were systematically eradicated. The cult of Bacchus appeared dangerously Greek, so persecution seemed like the only sensible response. Likewise, Christianity, also un-Roman, was heavily persecuted for several centuries. Christians were, as every good pagan Roman knew, cannibals. (They conflated the Sacraments, ie. the eating of the body and blood of Christ, with cannibalism.)
Judaism and hence the Jews were persecuted for similar reasons. They formed a distinct and identifiable religious and cultural minority that did not fit in. Partly that was to do with monotheism – pagan Rome did not get that. And, inevitably, it was partly down to not being 100% Roman. Anything that was not 100% Roman was, as everyone back then knew, basically ‘wrong’. And anything like that should clearly be overtly discouraged and ridiculed, if not violently persecuted.
Given its origins within the Roman Empire, it would have been surprising if Christianity had not inherited at least some antisemitism from the Romans.
At one level, it is somewhat bizarre that Christianity should hold any antisemitic views. After all, venerated Old Testament figures such as Abraham, Noah and Moses were all Jews. And, of course, Jesus himself was Jewish.
However, on another level, the presence of antisemitism is less surprising. Jesus was, ultimately, crucified (according to the New Testament) at the behest of Jewish religious leaders.
During the Middle Ages the condemnation of Jesus by the Sanhedrin (the Jewish judicial court) became conflated with the persecution of Christ by all Jews.
At Easter time, during the Good Friday service, a significant emphasis was placed on the role played by ‘the Jews’ in the crucifixion. This was done by reading out those sections of the New Testament accounts that especially emphasised the concept of Jews as Christ killers. This was further supplemented by liturgy.
Part of the medieval Good Friday service involved saying prayers for wrongdoers. This included such people as heretics and idolaters. However, it also included the Jews. A particularly notorious prayer from the medieval Good Friday service ran as follows:
“Let us also pray for the perfidious Jews, that the Lord our God may remove the veil from their hearts, that they too may know Jesus Christ as Lord.”Liber Sacramentorum Romanae Ecclesiae
Such overt religious condemnation of the Jewish community naturally inflamed prejudice. It can therefore be no surprise that Jewish communities in medieval Europe experienced a spike in violent attacks at around Easter time.
Usury and the Jewish Community
Medieval Christianity held the practice of usury (moneylending) as a sin. Therefore, anyone who lent money for interest could be excommunicated if they did not mend their ways.
This was, of course, a bit of a problem as far as banking was concerned. However, members of the Jewish community were not part of the Church and, therefore, this restriction did not apply. It was also the case that significant legal restrictions were placed on the professions that Jews were permitted to engage in. Banking was one of the limited number of occupations they could freely practice. With so few others able to offer such services, Jewish bankers provided an invaluable service. This was particularly useful for kings and other powerful nobles who, on occasion, may have the need to raise significant sums of money quickly.
Such services were also used by lesser members of the nobility, knights and the untitled gentry. These were precisely the kind of people most likely to find themselves in financial difficulties and potentially struggle to repay their debts. When this occurred it naturally caused friction with the lender, who might often be Jewish.
This placed certain members of the Jewish community in the invidious position of being very useful and potentially very unpopular at the same time.
The Jewish Community in Medieval England
The first community of Jews in England was founded in London, in the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest. It was founded by bankers and other merchants from Rouen in Normandy, people who’d provided valuable services to Duke William and his barons.
Jewish bankers had an important role to play in society, but the threat of latent antisemitism was ever present. To prevent lawless persecution, the Jewish community was placed directly under the protection of the king.
Over time other Jewish communities sprang up across England in other towns and cities. By the mid-twelfth century, there were nine different communities spread across England, one of which was at Norwich. There were around 200 Jews living in Norwich at this time. And even a century after the Norman Conquest, they still maintained important trading ties with Rouen.
The Tragic Tale of William the Tanner’s Apprentice
At Easter time in 1144, a twelve-year-old boy by the name of William, a tanner’s apprentice, disappeared. It was not long before his body was discovered under suspicious circumstances in woods just outside Norwich. He had clearly suffered a violent death but how he’d ended up there and what exactly had happened was a mystery.
His mother and his uncle alleged that local Jews were responsible. Local gossip spoke darkly of anti-Christian Jewish conspiracies. One story held that the Jews had crucified William, just as they had crucified Christ before him. The local sheriff, however, could find no evidence for any of this. Nor indeed, did investigations at the time shed any further light on what might have happened.
Certainly, the Middle Ages were violent times. Roadside robberies and kidnappings were commonplace. Furthermore, young William was unfortunate enough to be living at an especially dangerous time. The year 1144 sat squarely in the middle of a period of civil war known as the Anarchy. King Stephen and Queen Matilda had been fighting a brutal war for control of the English throne for six years. Indeed, by 1144, Geoffrey de Manville was in open rebellion against King Stephen in the nearby fenlands, waging an active campaign of raiding and banditry.
Despite the rumours of Jewish involvement, no arrests were ever made. By 1145 William’s was just another unsolved death. Overshadowed by all the chaos and killing of the Anarchy, people soon began to forget about young William.
Thomas de Monmouth
Several years passed. A monk by the name of Thomas de Monmouth arrived in Norwich keen to make his mark. He noticed that Norwich Cathedral was unusual in so far as it was not dedicated to any specific saint. It was simply dedicated to the Holy Trinity. In part this was down to the influence of the Cathedral’s founder, Bishop Herbert of Losinga. Herbert initiated the construction of the Cathedral in 1090 and oversaw the building work until his death in 1119. Unusually, Herbert was not a great fan of the cult of saints. He was very much of the view that down-to-earth good works and personal witness were far more important than glitzy saintly miracles and fancy relics.
Thomas felt that the lack of a decent local saint’s cult was a glaring omission. His bishop, William de Tuberville, with half an eye on the money that pilgrims to a decent saintly shrine might bring, tended to agree. Thomas therefore set to work and, by 1150, he published the first part of his life’s great work ‘The Life and Passions of Saint William, the Martyr of Norwich’.
The Life and Passions of Saint William, the Martyr of Norwich
Thomas claimed that his book was the result of detailed research. It had finally uncovered the full details of a diabolical Jewish plot that had resulted in the murder and martyrdom of an innocent twelve-year-old Christian boy.
His work contained details acquired from witnesses (witnesses who had, strangely, not come forward six years before). Despite this and even though Thomas himself had not even been living in the area at the time, there were many who were more than willing to believe the lurid details of his story.
According to Thomas, an evil Jewish cult had abducted William and proceeded to subject him to ritual torture and crucifixion before dumping his body in the woods. Thomas even claimed to have access to a witness who’d seen the cross used to crucify the boy.
As evidence that the boy was a saint, Thomas claimed that those who had buried William had noticed the boy’s body remained miraculously immune to the effects of decomposition. He even claimed he’d taken a peek himself and could personally confirm the miracle.
Birth of a cult
Whilst Bishop de Tuberville and several local monks were eager to support William’s saintly candidacy, the new cult was not without its detractors.
The local sheriff, John de Chesney, was far from keen. He understood better than the clerics that stories about Jewish plots and child murders were a recipe for local anarchy. Local anarchy at a time when there were already more than enough troubles to contend with. He refused to support the cult, pointing out that neither Thomas nor the local Bishop had the authority to declare people saints.
Attempts to get young William’s body moved from the cemetery to a prestigious location in the local Priory met with opposition from Prior Elias. Elias was eventually persuaded to change his mind but still imposed a lot of restrictions. William had not been officially recognised as a saint after all.
But then, in October 1150, Prior Elias died. Thomas was quick to insinuate that perhaps this was ‘God’s judgement’ on Elias for disrespecting Saint William. William’s remains were quickly conveyed for prominent display near the Priory’s high alter.
More tales of miracles associated with the new saint quickly followed. By 1154 William’s remains were considered holy enough to be conveyed to the chapel of martyrs in Norwich Cathedral.
The ‘Perfidious Jew’
Despite the growth of William’s cult and its obvious antisemitic nature, it did not immediately lead to any notable uptick in antisemitic violence in the Norwich area. Partly this was down to the new king, Henry II, a man keen to ensure peace was kept in his kingdom after years of the Anarchy.
Nevertheless, the story of William of Norwich set a precedent. It was, as far as we know, the first time the Jewish community had been accused of ritual child murder in England. Other lurid accusations of child murdering Jews soon followed: Gloucester (1168), Bury Saint Edmunds (1181), Winchester (1192), Norwich again (1235) and Lincoln (1255). The accusations made in 1255 led directly to the hanging of 19 Jews and, were it not for the intervention of the king’s brother, 90 more would have followed them. Similar accusations appeared in continental Europe from the mid-twelfth century onwards. Overall, accusations of Jewish child murder featured in around 150 different trials during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
What began with ad-hoc antisemitic rumour, evolved in time into a fully rounded conspiracy theory that became known as ‘Blood Libel’. And Thomas de Monmouth was the primary author this conspiracy theory.
According to Thomas, Jews across Europe were secretly conspiring to abduct, torture and murder Christian children as part of a bizarre ritual. In time others added embellishments to Thomas’ antisemitic conspiracy theory. Within a century it was being claimed that Jews would harvest the child’s blood and distribute it to other Jewish communities. These ideas spread not only across England but also across Europe. By 1260, Thomas de Cantimpré, writing in Flanders, reports ‘Blood Libel’ as if it was an accepted and well established fact:
“It is quite certain that the Jews of every province annually decide by lot which congregation or city is to send Christian blood to the other congregations.”Thomas de Cantimpré
By the mid-C13th the concept of ‘Blood Libel’ was firmly established in western European cultural consciousness. In 1235, the bodies of five dead boys were discovered in Fulda in Germany. Local Jews were accused of murdering them in Blood Libel rituals. 34 Jews were rounded up and burnt at the stake, despite the lack of any solid evidence.
Saint William of Norwich
Although the cult of William of Norwich was venerated locally throughout the Middle Ages, he was never officially recognised as a saint. His cult finally disappeared along with all the other saints’ cults during the Protestant Reformation of the C16th. But, in the centuries that followed his death, this unfortunate child’s legacy was destined to be a bitter catalogue of antisemitic persecution.
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References & further reading
Saint William of Norwich – anonymous rood screen painting from St Peter and St Paul Church in Eye, Suffolk
Death of William of Norwich, C15th painting, Simon Knott
Representation of a massacre of the Jews in 1349: from a miniature in Antiquitates Flandriae