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Archive/File: people/n/nicholls.william/blood-libel
Last-Modified: 1997/06/07

"The blood libel, as Jews call it, first made its appearance
in the middle of the twelfth century. This is the accusation
that Jews ritually murder a Christian child at the season of
Passover and mingle the child's blood with the unleavened
bread they eat at that time.

"The first recorded case of the accusation occurred in the
year 1144 at Norwich in eastern England. The body of a twlve-
year-old child called William was found, and the Jews were
accused of murdering him. He had engaged in business
dealings with the Jews as a skinner and was well known to
them. No doubt suspicion arose for the simple reason that
they treated him in a friendly manner, and it was assumed
that this must have some hidden purpose.

"The Jews were believed by many of the locals to have
kidnapped him and kept him for a few days until the actual
day of Passover. On that day, according to the accusation,
under the supervision of the head of the synagogue, they
bound and gagged the child, tortured him, stabbed his head
with numerous thorns, fastened him to a cross (without using
nails since this would have led to the discovery of the
perpetrators of the outrage), and finally killed him with a
stab in the side. All this was supposed to be a horrible
mimicry of the events of Christ's passion.

"The information confirming these fantasies in the mind of
the local Christians came from a Jewish convert to
Christianity, now a monk, Theobald by name. He told a
bizarre story of how the Jews of Europe, being obliged by
their law to do so, and with the aim of avenging themselves
on Christ, on whose account their exile had arisen, selected
a community each year to perform the sacrifice of a
Christian child at Passover. The choice of city was supposed
to be made at a grand gathering of Jewish leaders at
Narbonne in southern France, where there was indeed a
flourishing Jewish community.

"Theobald claimed to have been present at Cambridge when,
the lot having fallen on Norwich, all the synagogues of
England by letter or personal representative gave their
consent to the deed. He claimed to have been fully aware of
what was done. Later, however, he heard of the miracles that
had come about through the intercession of the martyred
child, became afraid, and forsook Judaism for Christianity.

"Not for the last time, a Jewish convert to Christianity was
willing to malign and traduce his former coreligionists in
order to gain credit with his new associates. The Christian
population knew virtually nothing about Jews by this time,
and their fantasies were based on Christian models. They
were only too ready to believe a lying convert who told them
what they wanted and expected to hear.

"A popular cult of the child martyr, soon to be known as St.
William of Norwich, speedily grew up and miracles began to
occur through his intercession as the medieval account
mentioned. Pilgrimages to his tomb were frequent and
doubtless profitable for the citizens of Norwish.

"Another such case was that of Hugh of Lincoln, who was
found dead in 1255. The Jews of the city were accused of
crucifying him, and after taking him down from the cross,
removing his intestines, no doubt for magical purposes. The
story turns up in Chaucer's `Canterbury Tales,' completed in
1387, when there had been no Jews in England for almost a
century. He gives the story to the Prioress, who is not
represented as an attractive character; no doubt, her morbid
dwelling on the horror story is not meant to be to her
credit. Nevertheless, there is no reason to suppose that
Chaucer himself disbelieved it.

"Marcus also reproduces a contemporary account, in this case
Jewish, of an incident at Blois, in France, in 1171, in
which similar accusations were made against the local Jews
after a boy's body was found in the river. A Jew selected as
the principal accused failed an ordeal by water. A number of
the Jews were imprisoned. They attempted to ransome
themselves with money and the cancellation of debts owed to
them, but in vain. Thirty-one of them were put to death,
some by the sword, some by burning. Those who were burned
died bravely as martyrs. 

"Not everyone took much notice of the accusation against the
Jews of Norwich, but once the libel had been started it
seemed to acquire a life of its own. Toward the end of the
century it reappeared in various English cities, though the
Jews were not in all cases punished. There are 150 recorded
cases of the charge of ritual murder, and many led to
massacres of the Jews of the place.

"In Germany, the problem created by the persecution of the
Jews on this ground became so serious, since so many Jews
had lost their lives, that the Emperor Frederick II decided
to conduct an inquiry into the truth of the charges. He
first asked a number of leading churchmen whether they were
well-founded, but he received inconclusive answers. He then
convened a conference of converts from Judaism, who showed
conclusively that Jews do not harm children and have no use
for Christian blood. In any event, Jewish teaching, as they
informed him, inculcates abhorrence of the ingestion of
blood. The emperor issued a Golden Bull, forbidding the

"Pope Innocent IV also issued several bulls to the same
effect. One issued in 1247 stated: "They [the Jews] are
falsely accused that in the same solemnity [Passover] they
receive communion with the heart of a murdered child. This,
it is believed, is required by their Law, although it is
clearly contrary to it. No matter where a dead body is
discovered, their persecutors wickedly cast it against

"Other popes, including Gregory X, Martin V, Paul III, and
Nicholas V, also vindicated the Jews from the charge of
ritual murder, but this did not stop it from being widely
believed. The accusation continued to be made into the
twentieth century, and it is even showing signs of revival

"One of the last reported cases occurred in Czarist Russia
in the first decade of the present century, when a Jew
called Mendel Beilis was accused of the ritual murder of a
Christian boy. He would doubless have been convicted and
executed but for an international outcry.


"The same libel is being revived in our own day by the
enemies of Israel. 

"So many Jews were being accused of ritual murder in
eighteenth-century Poland that Cardinal Ganganelli
(afterward to be Pope Clement XIV) made a careful
investigation of the whole matter. He concluded that with
two exceptions, the incidents at Rinn and Trent, the stories
were without foundation. More modern and critical scholars
have concluded that his cautious approval of even these two
cases was largely motivated by the Church's sanction of the
cultus of the children in question as martyrs. In the
judgment of more recent scholars, there is not a single case
of ritual murder that stands up to critical investigation.

"The accusations could never have been made by anyone who
knew anything actual Jews [sic] or about Judaism. As even
the more honest medieval authorities were ready to admit,
Jews are forbidden by the Torah to consume blood in any
form. The laws of ritual slaughtering require that all the
blood be drained out of the animal, and that it then be
salted and washed to absorb whatever remains. Even the tiny
speck of blood in a fertilized egg renders that egg
forbidden to the observant Jew. In the Middle Ages, almost
all Jews were observant.

"Apart from the Torah itself, Jews would have been
restrained from harming children by their traditional love
of them. Children represent life, the highest value in
Judaism.  The Jew who might have been guilty of these
charges was not the real Jew but a fantasy in the sick
imagination of the medieval Christian.

[...] "Flannery's comment is apt. `The ritual murder calumny
stands in the judgment of history as the most monstrous
instrument of anti-Jewish persecution in the Middle Ages.'
" (Nicholls, 237-239)

(See Dr. Nicholl's comments with respect to church
repudiation of the blood libel, found on page 365.)

                         Work Cited
Nicholls, William. Christian Antisemitism: A History of
Hate. Northvale, New Jersey & London: Jason Aronson Inc.  1993.

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