Sometimes it only takes a tiny spark to light a massive fire, one capable of burning furiously through the ages and killing many innocents in the process. In the case of young William of Norwich, this inferno first began with his brutal murder in 1144 and blazed into a mad vendetta against the local Jewish community who were instantly accused of taking his Christian blood to complete their holy rites. This religious and cultural phenomenon known as blood libel would devastate the livelihood of the Jews for several centuries, destroy hundreds of communities to come, and crystallize their reputation as demons in a white world.
The reasons why blood libel took hold are psychologically complex, yet rooted in a surprisingly simple narrative, which begins with the death of young William. Although the Jews had begun their exodus from Israel ages before, William’s unsolved murder would become the main impetus for the next phase of their global persecution, igniting the pervasive and illogical belief that Jews participated regularly in bloody human ritual. This singular event would take the notion of religious separatism and turn it into a weapon, one that could be used to crush the life from the Jews for the next several centuries, through the 20th century, and all the way to the present day.
Unlike most medieval dramas, the events surrounding the murder of young William were meticulously detailed in The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich, a 12th-century multi-volume Latin work by Thomas of Monmouth, which illuminated the devastating ignorance of the time period, exposed the sheer grit of religious fear, and even more—the unremitting power of a scary story. Because Thomas had been a monk in the Norwich Benedictine of England, historians agree the hagiographic account was clearly influenced by his devout Christian convictions and could not be fully verified. Many experts suggest Thomas had, in fact, been a primary instigator in the aftermath of William’s death, whose documentation had been fueled by an odd fascination with martyrdom.
But despite its jaded perspective, the writing offers up an astonishing glimpse into the medieval mind and its uncanny ability to conjure fear. No one really knows for sure what happened to William of Norwich, but one thing is certain—a boy’s mutilated body was discovered in the ancient forest known as Thorpe Wood on March 24, 1144, and the local Jewish community took the blame. This young man’s untimely death would bring about a decade of communal chaos, give birth to a child saint, and allow a tenacious brand of antisemitism to take root in the European imagination—a sentiment so powerful, thousands of Jews would be burned alive and killed as a result. While this notion may seem fitting for to medieval mind, many say this same hateful trajectory was what fueled fear around the Black Death, the underpinnings of the Holocaust, and an unshakeable level of infamy for the Jewish people.
At twelve years old, young William lived in the provincial town of Norwich, England where he worked as an apprentice in a tannery. In the leather trade, he was regularly involved in transactions with local Jews, sometimes even visiting their homes to sell his wares. He was considered to be an exceptional craftsman for any age and had garnered himself a solid reputation amongst the Jews as being fair and equitable in his dealings. He was known to be a bright, friendly, and innocent young man.
As the story goes, William’s mother was approached the morning after Palm Sunday by a man who claimed he wanted to employ the boy in the Archdeacon’s nearby kitchens. Although he paid her three shillings to release him—a handsome fee at the time—she felt suspicious of the stranger and asked her daughter to follow their movements. The young girl tagged along behind the two as they left and reported that William had gone willingly with the man and eventually entered a home on the Jewish side of town. He would never be seen alive again.
The following Saturday, his grisly corpse was found just outside the city walls, partially dressed and showing signs of extreme violence and torture. His body appeared to have suffered a crucifixion of sorts, suggesting a possible religious motivation. Williams’s dirty face bore the marks of a cross; his shaved head showed signs of bloody thorn pricks; his hands and feet displayed the gaping wounds of Jesus; and he had been mercilessly gagged with a wooden teasel, which was later removed upon discovery.
When a local nun first stumbled upon the body, she fled in terror—but when the local forester, Henry de Sprowston, found it soon thereafter, he moved quickly to bury it on the spot. But he was interrupted by the local priest, Godwin Sturt, who instantly recognized the boy to be his wife’s own nephew, William. They agreed the body must be interred to a more respectable location and the larger community alerted to his death before doing anything further. The next day brought an onslaught of curious onlookers, all of whom wanted to glimpse the sad remains and confirm the boy’s identity.
There was some general disagreement about how and where his body should be laid to rest, as the members of William’s family appeared to have varying thoughts on the matter, but it was eventually placed at an amendable location and given all the proper ceremony. While this was all fine and well, the fact remained that no one knew who had committed this heinous crime. Who would kill such an innocent lad as young William? The man to answer this question ended up being the same one who found him—Godwin Sturt, William’s uncle.
Just a few days later, he outright accused the Jews of murdering the boy during a church meeting, and whispers of foul play soon lapsed into shrieks of anger. The evidence of crucifixion was plain on the body, and given their disdain for Christ, the Jews must have committed this symbolic and hateful act. To make matter worse, Passover had taken place the day after William disappeared, which suggested the Jews had likely needed his blood to bake their unholy matzoh and honor their deity with the purity of an innocent Christian. And he was sure of this because his own wife had seen William’s death in her dreams and knew the Jews were responsible. As we know, there’s nothing like a good old religious vision to consecrate an unlikely belief.
Around this time, in the year 1145, Thomas of Monmouth arrived on the scene and was admitted to the monastery under the watchful eye of Bishop Elias. Once settled in his post, Thomas latched on to this idea of blood libel and began to pursue it in earnest. To his pleasure, some of the more devout members of the community apparently felt the townspeople’s loyalty to God and his grace “had gradually been waning, yea, in the hearts of nearly all it had well-nigh, entirely died out,” and the spirit of William should serve as a blessed martyr, capable of reviving their flagging faith.
Thomas, along with many in the town, adopted this narrative and began to spin wild tales of how the Jews had targeted the young man for his obvious sweetness and lack of guile. According to the theory, William did not die by accident—he was a holy boy, placed in that situation by divine providence and predestined to suffer his meaningful fate from the beginning of time. God had selected him as a symbol of his glory, and once he was destroyed by the avarice of the Jews, their ill nature and evil livelihood would be exposed for all to see. In the finest sense of the word, William was a martyr. And when he was taken from his home, it was done so with the obvious intention of destroying both him and the goodness on Earth.
As history has proven time and time again, Christian rhetoric can be some of the most frightening in the world. For a religion so focused on innocence and purity, their ability to craft a terrifying fiction is legendary. The harrowing details presented in Thomas’s account suggest William was led like a lamb to the slaughter, treated kindly at first by the Jews until they had him in their grasp. At this point, they turned ugly and held him down, shoving a wooden gag down his throat and fixing it with leather straps behind his neck so it could be tightly fastened. They then tied a knotted rope around his head and under his chin, making sure the central knob dug fiercely into his forehead.
As further humiliation to the death of Jesus, they had shaved the lad’s head, piercing his poor scalp with thorns until it bled profusely and nailed him upon the cross, vying with one another for the opportunity to take his innocent life. Their “inborn hatred of the Christian name” was apparently so great, they could barely satisfy their lust for reprisal and piercing him deeply on the left side, they extinguished his mortal body and poured boiling water over him to wash away the blood. And, as the perfect Christian crescendo, dear William was crowned with dazzling martyrdom and ushered into the kingdom of glory on high where he would live forever in the grace of God.
While this rhetoric has been astutely called “one of the most notable and disastrous lies of history,” many medieval Christians believed the Jews were meant to wander the earth, without the ability to find freedom or return to their holy land. While no such assertion exists in any Jewish text, the idea was popular in its ability to explain why Christians must be sacrificed by Jews every year— to demonstrate their contempt for Christ and avenge their sufferings on Him. Remembering their history, the Romans conquered Israel in 64 BCE and turned it into a Roman province, allowing the Jews to stay. But this turned sour after Christ’s death in the 1st century, and the Romans expelled most of the Jews from the area and established the realm of Palaestina, thus beginning the Jewish diaspora. The Jews had rejected Jesus and as a result, they were punished and exiled from Palestine forever. Apparently, they had been “crucifying” Christians ever since as a way to soothe their anger and resentment. This sentiment was further solidified through the effort of the Crusades, which was raging in the Holy Land at the time.
This robustly theatrical language should not be underestimated in the mind of a medieval citizen. It not only set their souls ablaze with the need for retribution, but it fueled their deepest religious anxieties and gave them a repository for evil. At last, the Christians could see and touch the devil himself, alive and well in the Jewish heart. Just as God had told them, this villain would come for them in their sleep and steal away their most precious virtues, namely their innocent children. In this vein, Godwin Sturt demanded the Jews be held accountable for William’s death and subjected to “trial by ordeal.”
To understand the magnitude of this process, it’s important to remember the current legal system of facts and evidence was then non-existent. Instead, there were a disquieting number of “ordeals” one could be forced to overcome in order to prove their innocence, such as an ordeal by combat, fire, water, ingestion, cross, poison, turf, or boiling oil. Mere survival or recovery from a serious injury would be the only way to prove one’s innocence, as it meant God cared enough to provide a miracle on their behalf. The ordeal would test the strength, endurance, and resolve of the accused, push them to the breaking point, and reveal their true character. In a trial by ordeal, a defendant may have been bound in the fetal position and thrown in a lake; forced to carry a burning iron for a certain amount of time; or laid upon a wooden plank for days without food and water. In other countries around the world, this “ordeal” would often involve unusual things like eating unsafe foods like tree bark, facing snakes, or walking unimaginable distances. Up until the 16th century, trial by ordeal was considered an effective and logical way to determine a judicial verdict.
Would the Jews be forced to walk over hot coals or soaked in water for a week? Perhaps some facial mutilation would do the trick? The Jews quickly decided they would suffer none of those things and sought the protection of the local sheriff, John de Chesney, who reminded them that, because they were not Christians, the ecclesiastical court had no jurisdiction over them. He helped them lay low until the commotion was quelled, but the peace did not last long because just two years later, the death of a prominent Jew named Eleazar instantly reignited the toxic rhetoric. According to Thomas’s account, the house of a local Jewish man named Eleazar had been examined and showed physical signs of being the murder location. Under the order of a local knight named Sir Simon de Novers (who also conveniently owed Eleazar a great deal of money), a group of ruffians lured the man into the forest and fell upon him, leaving his bloody remains to be picked apart by Ravens and wild dogs.
Upon news of his death, the Jews became irate and demanded King Stephen listen to their plight. Of course, this only resurrected the unresolved dispute of William’s murder, creating a hot mess for the king to sort out. But it seemed he was not in the mood to embroil himself in such tangles, deciding instead to “defer the case to another season.” Of course, Thomas and his followers instantly assumed the Jews had bribed the king for his favor, while the Jews were just happy to live one more day in relative peace.
But Thomas was not happy. He was intent, truly hellbent, to attain martyrdom status for poor William of Norwich. But Bishop Elias was not particularly receptive to the idea, often finding Thomas’s actions to be intrusive, thereby blocking him at every turn. Until one day, the old Bishop Elias dropped dead, and luck shined on Thomas by installing the devout and zealous Bishop Turbe. The new man wholeheartedly agreed with Thomas’s efforts and helped him lead a successful campaign to honor William’s remains by moving them (now ten years later) to a worthier spot in the Cathedral, all of which was vigorously celebrated through a great burst of visions and miracles.
And the cultus for William’s sainthood grew to epic proportions as “Norfolk gentry began to vie with one another in offering their homage at the new shrine.” The furore around the boy saint was intoxicating and it wasn’t long until the community officially adopted him into their ranks as St. William. Despite their apparent grief at the death of such an innocent, Brother Thomas and the old Bishop Godwin did not fear the idea of profiting from the event. Not only was Godwin the first to accuse the Jews of blood libel, but he had removed the wooden teasel from the dead boy’s mouth and continued to merchandise it for years as a way to push his religious agenda and extort money from the simple congregants. Even more shocking, it seemed Thomas had actually removed William’s teeth from his skull and used them to entice donations from saint-loving observers.
Aside from the mere absurdity of it, this moment in the story of William illustrates something fascinating about the medieval ability to believe just about anything. Scratch that—anything. In this age of boundless credulity, doubt was often seen as nothing more than anti-faith and associated with the machinations of evil. Even good and decent men of the time could be persuaded to accept certain notions without hesitation, especially from those in a position of authority. There have always been—and always will be—these kinds of people, easily deceived and desperate to find some level of truth they can internalize and take comfort in. Thomas’s account does little more than illuminate, in all of its dark fascination, the astoundingly superstitious habits and opinions of people in the 12th century. But it also provides some understanding of how mere suspicion and unchecked resentment can sometimes erupt into a fiction so deeply rooted, it flows through the veins of history for centuries, creating the phenomenon like blood libel.
Although it seemed the Jews of Norwich had narrowly escaped conviction for William’s death, the nasty premise set down during that time paved the way for future conflicts and led to the burning and murder of many, many thousands of Jews and their children. But despite all reason, this archaic accusation did not disappear with the Middle Ages. In 1840, thirteen reputable Jews in Damascus were charged with killing a Christian monk and using his blood for ritual purposes. The accused were then imprisoned and tortured by Ottoman authorities, while the citizens pillaged and destroyed a local synagogue. And, of course—just over 100 years ago—a courtroom in Kiev almost convicted Mendel Beilis, a Jewish father of five, of killing a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy and using his blood for baking. These shocking cases, along with many others, led to outrage in certain circles, especially the U.S. where Beilis’s case became the inspiration for increased partnership between Jews and others in the community.
As is the case with any prejudice, the rampant metaphor of Jews as economic bloodsuckers has a real, tangible and historical back story, worthy of our appreciation and understanding. Because once we take the time to really look at the origin of blood libel or any bigotry for that matter, we often find there is no grave injustice or horrific demonstration of evil—there is just a story, a shared fiction, with the strength to divide and influence people. These fictive tales can be based in the factual or, like many other religious legends, sprout entirely from the power of myth. It doesn’t matter—they are the great guide of our spirit and the teacher of eternal lessons. And, hopefully, by looking back and unraveling these original stories of history, we can seize the chance once again to learn from them and alter the course of what we do, what we think. Because even though the story never changes, we must.
And the rest is history.