Thomas of Monmouth:
The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich, 1173
The Accusation of the Ritual Murder of St. William
See the Catholic Encylopedia  article William of Norwich for much background information. [Note that this article, while rejecting the Ritual Murder and Blood Libels, does end by suggesting that some of the cases were based on real incidents.]
Also see the file on Anderl von Rinn, supposedly martyred in 1462, for much more information on this subject.
[Marcus Introduction] Medieval Christians (and some modern
ones, too) believed that Christian children were seized and tortured
to death by the Jews during the Passover season. This myth appears
in a complete form for the first time in The Life and Miracles
of St. William of Norwich, a Latin work written about 1173
by Thomas of Monmouth, a contemporary of the events which he relates.
The story of the ritual murder of the boy William in 1144 is virtually
the first of a long series of such accusations, a series that
has not yet come to an end. The significance of these accusations
is that by such descriptions of the Jew they have served throughout
the ages to create an anti-Jewish mentality. Generations have
believed that no Christian child was safe in Jewish hands. Hundreds
of Jews have been imprisoned, killed, or burnt alive on this charge.
The Papacy has frequently denounced this charge, yet it is equally
true that in numerous instances the accusation of ritual murder
was not made except with the vigorous support of the local Church
The author, Thomas of Monmouth, a monk in the Norwich Benedictine
monastery, was an exceedingly credulous person. Dr. Jessopp of
Norwich, one of the editors of Thomas' work, believes that our
monkish author belongs to the class of those who are "deceivers
and being deceived."
In the specific case of William of Norwich, the evidence, critically
sifted leads one to believe that he actually existed and that
his body was found after he had died a violent death. Everything
beyond this, however, is in the realm of speculation.
HOW WILLIAM WAS WONT TO RESORT TO THE JEWS, AND HAVING BEEN
CHID BY HIS OWN PEOPLE FOR SO DOING, HOW HE WITHDREW HIMSELF FROM THEM
When therefore he was flourishing in this blessed boyhood of his,
and had attained to his eighth year [about 1140], he was entrusted
to the skinners [furriers] to be taught their craft. Gifted with
a teachable disposition and bringing industry to bear upon it,
in a short time he far surpassed lads of his own age in the craft
aforesaid, and he equaled some who had been his teachers. So leaving
the country, drawn by a divine urge he betook himself to the city
and lodged with a very famous master of that craft, and some time
passed away. He was seldom in the country, but was occupied in
the city and sedulously gave himself to the practice of his craft,
and thus reached his twelfth year .
Now, while he was staying in Norwich, the Jews who were settled
there and required their cloaks or their robes or other garments
(whether pledged to them, or their own property) to be repaired,
preferred him before all other skinners. For they esteemed him
to be especially fit for their work, either because they had learnt
that he was guileless and skillful, or, because attracted to him
by their avarice, they thought they could bargain with him for
a lower price, Or, as I rather believe, because by the ordering
of divine providence he had been predestined to martyrdom from
the beginning of time, and gradually step by step was drawn on,
and chosen to be made a mock of and to be put to death by the
Jews, in scorn of the Lord's Passion, as one of little foresight,
and so the more fit for them. [William is to be put to death to
mock the crucifixion.]
For I have learnt from certain Jews, who were afterwards converted
to the Christian faith, how that at that time they had planned
to do this very thing with some Christian, and in order to carry
out their malignant purpose, at the beginning of Lent they had
made; choice of the boy William, being twelve years of age and
a boy of unusual innocence.
So it came to pass that when the holy boy, ignorant of the treachery
that had been planned, had frequent dealings with the Jews, he
was taken to task by Godwin the priest, who had the boy's aunt
as his wife, and by a certain Wulward with whom he lodged and
he was prohibited from going in and out among them any more But
the Jews, annoyed at the thwarting of their designs, tried with
all their might to patch up a new scheme of wickedness, and all
the more vehemently as the day for carrying out the crime they
has determined upon drew near; and the victim, which they had
though they had already secured, had slipped out of their wicked
Accordingly, collecting all the cunning of their crafty plots,
they found-I am not sure whether he was a Christian or a Jew-a
man who was a most treacherous fellow and just the fitting person
for carrying out their execrable crime, and with all haste-for
Passover was coming on in three days-they sent him to find out
and bring back with him the victim which, as I said before, had
slipped out of their hands.
HOW HE WAS SEDUCED BY THE JEWS' MESSENGER
At the dawn of day, on the Monday [March 20, 1144] after Palm
Sunday, that detestable messenger of the Jews set out to execute
the business that was committed to him, and at last the boy William,
after being searched for with very great care, was found. When
he was found, he got round him with cunning wordy tricks, and
so deceived him with his lying promises....
HOW ON HIS GOING TO THE JEWS HE WAS TAKEN, MOCKED, AND SLAIN....
Then the boy, like an innocent lamb, was led to the slaughter.
He was treated kindly by the Jews at first, and, ignorant of what
was being prepared for him, he was kept till the morrow. But on
the next day [Tuesday, March 21], which in that year was the Passover
for them, after the singing of the hymns appointed for the day
in the synagogue, the chiefs of the Jews.... suddenly seized hold
of the boy William as he was having his dinner and in no fear
of any treachery, and ill-treated him in various horrible ways.
For while some of them held him behind, others opened his mouth
and introduced an instrument of torture which is called a teazle
[a wooden gag] and, fixing it by straps through both jaws to the
back of his neck, they fastened it with a knot as tightly as it
could be drawn.
After that, taking a short piece of rope of about the thickness
of one's little finger and tying three knots in it at certain
distances marked out, they bound round that innocent head with
it from the forehead to the back, forcing the middle knot into
his forehead and the two others into his temples, the two ends
of the rope being most tightly stretched at the back of his head
and fastened in a very tight knot. The ends of the rope were then
passed round his neck and carried round his throat under his chin,
and there they finished off this dreadful engine of torture in
a fifth knot.
But not even yet could the cruelty of the torturers be satisfied
without adding even more severe pains. Having shaved his head,
they stabbed it with countless thornpoints, and made the
blood come horribly from the wounds they made. [Jesus had worn
a crown of thorns before his death.] And so cruel were they and
so eager to Inflict pain that it was difficult to say whether
they were more cruel or more ingenious in their tortures. For
their skill in torturing kept up the strength of their cruelty
and ministered arms thereto
And thus, while these enemies of the Christian name were rioting
in the spirit of malignity around the boy, some of those present
ad judged him to be fixed to a cross in mockery of the Lord's
Passion, as though they would say: "liven as we condemned
the Christ to a shameful death, so let us also condemn the Christian,
so that, uniting the lord and his servant in a like punishment,
we may retort upon themselves the pain of that reproach which
they impute to us."
Conspiring, therefore, to accomplish the crime of this great and
detestable malice, they next laid their bloodstained hands
upon the innocent victim, and having lifted him from the ground
and fastened him upon the cross, they vied with one another in
their efforts to make an end of him.
And we, after enquiring into the matter very diligently, did both
find the house, and discovered some most certain marks in it of
what had been done there. [This was supposed to be the house of
a rich Jew, Eleazar, who was later murdered by order of his debtor,
Sir Simon de Novers]. For report goes that there was there instead
of a cross a post set up between two other posts, and a beam stretched
across the midmost post and attached to the other on either side.
And as we afterwards discovered, from the marks of the wounds
and of the bands, the right hand and foot had been tightly bound
and fastened with cords, but the left hand and foot were pierced
with two nails. Now the deed was done in this way, lest it should
be discovered, from the presence of nailmarks in both hands
and both feet, that the murderers were Jews and not Christians,
if eventually the body were found. [Both hands and feet were not
nailed lest it look like a crucifixion.]
But while in doing these things they were adding pang to pang
and wound to wound, and yet were not able to satisfy their heartless
cruelty and their inborn hatred of the Christian name, lo! after
all these many and great tortures, they inflicted a frightful
wound in his left side, reaching even to his inmost heart, and,
as though to make an end of all, they extinguished his mortal
life so far as it was in their power. [Jesus was similarly pierced
by a lance while nailed to the cross. The chronicler here imitates
the Apostle John's narrative.] And since many streams of blood
were running down from all parts of his body, then, to stop the
blood and to wash and close the wounds, they poured boiling water
Thus then the glorious boy and martyr of Christ, William, dying
the death of time in reproach of the Lord's death, but crowned
with the blood of a glorious martyrdom, entered into the kingdom
of glory on high to live for ever. Whose soul rejoiceth blissfully
in heaven among the bright hosts of the saints, and whose body
by the Omnipotence of the divine mercy worketh miracles upon earth....
[St.. William after his death worked many miracles that brought
streams of people to his shrine.]
As a proof of the truth and credibility of the matter we now adduce
something which we have heard from the lips of Theobald, who was
once a Jew, and afterwards a monk. He verily told us that in the
ancient writings of his fathers it was written that the Jews,
without the shedding of human blood, could neither obtain their
freedom, nor could they ever return to their fatherland. [There
is no such statement in Jewish law or literature.] Hence it was
laid down by them in ancient times that every year they must sacrifice
a Christian in some part of the world to the Most High God in
scorn and contempt of Christ, that so they might avenge their
sufferings on Him; inasmuch as it was because of Christ's death
that they had been shut out from their own country, and were in
exile as slaves in a foreign land. [The Jews rejected Jesus and
were as a result punished by exile from Palestine. Angry, they
took revenge by secretly crucifying Christian children-thus Theobald.
This libel is reminiscent of Apion, an Alexandrian writer of the
Wherefore the chief men and Rabbis of the Jews who dwell in Spain
assemble together at Narbonne, where the Royal seed [resides],
and where they are held in the highest estimation, and they cast
lots for all the countries which the Jews inhabit; and whatever
country the lot falls upon, its metropolis has to carry out the
same method with the other towns and cities, and the place whose
lot is drawn has to fulfill the duty imposed by authority. [Lots
are cast in Narbonne, France, where Jews had a "king"
to decide which city was to seize the Christian victim. ]
Now in that year in which we know that William, God's glorious
martyr, was slain, it happened that the lot fell upon the Norwich
Jews, and all the synagogues in England signified, by letter or
by message, their consent that the wickedness should be carried
out at Norwich. "I was," said he, "at that time
at Cambridge, a Jew among Jews, and the commission of the crime
was no secret to me. But in process of time, as I became acquainted
with the glorious display of miracles which the divine power carried
out through the merits of the blessed martyr William, I became
much afraid, and following the dictates of my conscience, I forsook
Judaism, and turned to the Christian faith."
These words-observe, the words of a converted Jew-we reckon to
be all the truer, in that we received them as uttered by one who
was a converted enemy, and also had been privy to the secrets
of our enemies.
REFERENCES IN STANDARD TEXTBOOKS
Elbogen, pp. 102ff.; Roth, pp. 183ff.
READINGS FOR ADVANCED SIVDENTS
Graetz, III, pp. 378381; GraetzRhine, 111, pp. 226229.
Grayzel, S., The Church and the Jews in the Xlllth Century, pp. 7980. |
Strack, H. L., The Jew and Human Sacrifice. The standard
work on the relation of
human blood to Jewish ritual.
Jewish Enclopedia, "Blois"; "Blood accusation."
ADDITIONAL SOURCE MATERIALS IN ENGLISH
Child, F. J., The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 111
(1890), pp. 233254:IV (1892), pp. 497498; V (1898),
p. 241. Here is a series of ballads dealing with Hugh of Lincoln
who was reported to have been crucified by the Jews of England
in 1255. The widespread influence of this ballad may be gauged
from the fact that the compiler quotes twentyone versions
in his notes, some of which were collected as sung in the United
Grayzel, S., The Church and the Jews in the Xlllth Century, contains, pp. 263271, 275, papal statements on the ritual
Halper, B., PostBiblical Hebrew Literature, "A
Jew Is Accused of Murdering a Christian, but His Innocence Is
Proved," 11, pp. 225229. This account by the ibn Vergas,
sixteenth century Jewish historians, is probably fiction but is
important for its typical Jewish reaction to the ritual murder
Jacobs, J., The Jews of Angevin England, pp. 19ff., contains
two other brief accounts of the "martyrdom" of William
of Norwich; one is a contemporary account; the other dates from
the fifteenth century.
Jessop, A., and M. R. James, The Life and Miracles of St. William
of Norwich by Thomas of Monmouth. This work contains the complete
text al translation of the St. William legend.
Roth, C., The Ritual Murder Libel and the Jew: The Report by
Cardinal Lorenzo Ganganelli. Dr. Roth has translated here
the refutation of d ritual murder libel by Ganganelli, later Pope
Clement XIV. The bull Innocent IV against the ritual murder accusation
is also included. There also a good introduction.
Tager, A. B., The Decay of Czarism: the Beiliss Trial, describes
a mode ritual murder trial and its background in modern Russia.
SOURCE: Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World:
A Sourcebook, 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938), 121-127.
Later printings of this text (e.g. by Atheneum, 1969, 1972, 1978)
do not indicate that the copyright was renewed)
This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book.
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© Paul Halsall October 1997