How The Blood Libel Began

The summer solstice has passed, and with it that anomaly of the season: just as summer begins, the days start getting shorter, hinting of the fall ahead. I’m always sad to see the summer days waning just when I want them to stretch out forever. And now, in July, at the height of sunshine and cheer comes the next blow. In a brief few weeks we will commemorate the saddest day on the Jewish calendar — Tisha b’Av (July 26). It is a day of disasters, marking not only the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people from their homeland, but also other catastrophes of Jewish history.

Among them were the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Although these events may not have occurred exactly on the ninth of Av, they happened close enough to be linked to that date’s darkness.

A stunning new book I have just finished reading tells of the first Jewish expulsion from a Western country, France in 1182. That, too, occurred in the summer months (the Jews probably left in early July), but while it is not usually marked on the Jewish calendar, its cause lies at the root of much Jewish misery through the ages. The book, by E.M. Rose, “The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe” (Oxford University Press), investigates the source of ritual murder accusations that have plagued Jews from the Middle Ages until today. A work of fine scholarship, the book also reads like a gripping novel. The main protagonists, as the author presents them — “the Monk, the Knight, the Bishop, and the Banker” in the first part of the book and “The Earl, the Count, the Abbot, and the King” in the second — could be characters straight out of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Unfortunately they were real people, not Chaucer’s 14th-century fictional ones, and in one way or another all were complicit in the false murder accusations against Jews. At the base of all their actions, also, was money.

The story begins with the discovery in March 1144 of the murdered body of a young apprentice, William, in the woods outside the city of Norwich in eastern England. Nobody pays much attention to the incident until a different murder occurs five years later. A knight, Simon de Novers, unable to repay a loan he had taken from a Jewish banker called Deulesalt, has the banker killed, also in the woods outside Norwich. In defending Simon, his lawyer, Bishop Turbe, concocts a tale accusing Deleusalt and the entire Norwich Jewish community of having murdered William five years earlier for ritual purposes, in mockery of the crucifixion of Jesus. The knight’s murder of Deleusalt was, then, therefore, a justifiable revenge killing, the Bishop argues, and, indeed, the knight is freed. The monks of the Norwich Cathedral, sniffing out profits, turn William into a sainted martyr, and begin to sell his relics. They also commission one of their own, Brother Thomas, to write “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich.” That work, composed over the course of 20 years, and with much exaggeration and rhetoric, becomes the source for the entire narrative.

Nothing significant comes of the cult of Saint William, but the blood libel spreads through the region. Dr. Rose describes four “copycat” cases in England and France, all serving political and financial ends. It is the fourth that leads to the expulsion of many Jews from France in 1182. The king of France, Philip II Augustus, uses the pretext of a child’s ritual murder in a Parisian suburb to justify forcing the Jews out of his domain and confiscating their property. He then utilizes their money to greatly expand Paris.

During the next centuries, ritual murder accusations against Jews, begun with the fabrications of a lawyer and elaborated on by a monk, became part of the rationale throughout Europe for expulsions, massacres, and other violence against Jews. At some point, the idea that Jews used their victims’ blood in baking Passover matzahs joined other charges, leading to vicious pogroms at that time of year. The blood libel continued well into the 20th century, and, yes, still appears today on key websites in Iran.

With searing poetry, the Book of Lamentations, chanted on Tisha b’Av, portrays the torment of the exiled Jews after their temple was destroyed. “They have bartered their treasures for food,” the poet laments, and images of the Jews expelled from France or England or Spain also come to mind. “Their skin has shriveled on their bones/It has become dry as wood,” and one sees Auschwitz and Dachau. Contemplating Jewish suffering over the centuries in these texts and Dr. Rose’s book fills me with profound sorrow. And unmitigated rage.       

Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.

About the Author
Francine Klagsbrun, a Jewish Week columnist, is the author of more than a dozen books, among them Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. She was the editor of the best-selling Free To Be You and Me, produced by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation. Her newest work is an in-depth biography of Golda Meir to be published in September 2017 by Schocken Books.