Most anti-Semitic origins are difficult, if not impossible to trace to the beginning. Much is lost to the thousands of years of anti-Jewish history throughout the world. When it can be tracked back to a perceived beginning, there is often competing sources and conflicting histories.
The origin for the blood libel attack is not one of those cases. Its origin is well recorded and had nothing to do with the anti-Semitism it morphed into decades after the event occurred. The myth began as an interesting mystery of the day.
Norwhich, England, during the 12th century, was a major trading town with a small Jewish population. They had been brought over by the Normans to foster the loans needed, which was forbidden by Christians under the laws of the time.
From History of Norforlk, Twelfth Century Norwich (1100 to 1200):
“By 1159, Jewish people made up 7% of the population of Norwich. As the Jewish Quarter continued to grow, they built more public buildings, including; A synagogue, a school, and Abraham’s Hall. Though there appears to be no information about what was during its early years, what we know is that it became an inn in around 1619.”
In late March, 1144, William, a 12-year-old tanner apprentice went missing and was later found dead. Since the boy’s work dealt with Jewish households the same as Christian, he had plenty of contact with the Jewish community.
As a result of the death, many Christians blamed the Jews. Despite the odd wounds on his forehead that came from thorns. Thorns were from certain Christian practices, not Jewish.
Jewish Encyclopedia, William of Norwich, includes a description of William’s body given by his own family:
“March 26, when his uncle, cousin, and brother found his body, covered with sand, in Thorpe Wood, near Norwich, with the head shaven and with marks of puncture by thorns. Although there were signs of life in the body, it was reburied in the same place; and Godwin Sturt, the boy’s uncle, at the next synod, accused the Jews of having murdered William, whereupon the prior of Lewis Priory claimed the body as that of a martyr, and the canons of Norwich Cathedral seized it for themselves.”
The only ones in Norwich at that time who would have used a thorn crown, which is what happened, was a particular sect of Orthodox Christians who did it to themselves and their families. It was a belief pain brought some degree of holiness.
The sheriff of Norwich when the body was discovered was William de Chesney, a wealthy landowner. William’s family wanted the Jews charged. De Chesney, being a land owner had borrowed money and had debt to the Jewish people. He could have saved himself some money by arresting them, but chose not to. Not only did he not prosecute any Jewish person for murder, he actively protected them.
From Wikipedia, William of Norwich:
“The Christians of Norwich appear to have quickly blamed the local Jews for this crime, and to have demanded justice from the local ecclesiastical court. Members of the Jewish community were asked to attend the court and submit to a trial by ordeal, but the local sheriff, John de Chesney, advised them that the ecclesiastical court had no jurisdiction over them, as they were not Christians. He then took the Jews into protection in the castle. After the situation had calmed down, they returned to their homes.”
The Jewish community went about their lives and never heard another word about it. It was a clear case of William’s own family killing the boy. De Chesney, by all appearance, was a fair sheriff, which made him unique in his day.
It should have been the end of any accusation, but some accusations take on lives of their owns, which is the reason anti-Semitic claims are so difficult to kill. It does not matter what the facts are when perception takes on greater importance than historical fact.
From Facing History, The Power of a Lie: The History of the Blood Libel:
“Within just 50 years’ time, Christians in eight European cities had accused Jews of ritual murder. In the German town of Fulda in 1255 a new element was added to those charges… It was the strange notion that the Jews murder innocent children for their blood. By the end of the 13th century, the number of known accusations had more than tripled and spread to almost every part of Europe, despite the many rulers and popes who insisted that this charge was false. They insisted that Judaism does not permit ritual murder.”
Regardless of what it morphed into and continues to this day, it remains an honest sheriff who protected the Jewish people from what was an absurd accusation from the start. History should be based on what happened, not what was perceived to have happened.