In August 1891 M. R. James (1862-1936), the scholar and author of ghost stories, wrote to Augustus Jessopp, honorary canon of Norwich, about an exciting acquisition recently made by the Cambridge University Library. The manuscript contained three lives of saints and a tract on the Mass. The first--copied over 77 folios of parchment opened with a caption in red letters: In@itprologus de vita et passione Sancti Willelmi Martyris Norwicensis ('Here begins the prologue to the life and passion of Saint William the Martyr of Norwich'). James recognised the significance of the find, for this was the long-lost account of the life of a 12-year-old boy whose alleged martyrdom in 1144 had been claimed by his family and whose cult had developed soon after in and around Norwich Cathedral Priory. Jessopp wrote excitedly in return:
The chances are that the discovery of this manuscript will throw some light upon the whole cycle of stories about Jews crucifying or otherwise slaying Christian boys in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Composed at least six years after the discovery of the boy's body, the Life and Passion was the product of the determined effort of one man, Thomas of Monmouth, monk of the Norwich Cathedral Priory, to provide a definitive account of William's death as a martyr at the hands of the Jews of Norwich. Such a claim had no precedent in mid-12th century England and Thomas attempted to support it with irrefutable evidence of William's merit through the miracles worked at his tomb. Thomas's complaint resounded: William was a martyr killed by the Jews and had been grievously ignored by the people of Norwich; Thomas was a man with a mission to put this iniquity right and to see justice done.
In his attempt to develop the cult of William of Norwich, Thomas of Monmouth invented a fiction about a Jewish plot to kill a Christian boy that was to injure Jews for generations. The accusation of ritual murder is an English contribution to the stock of anti-Jewish narratives told in Europe since the 12th century, yet knowledge of it has all but faded from English consciousness. Embellished in the decades that followed, the ritual murder accusation gained a powerful hold in the culture of Christian Europe and remained part of Catholic lore even after it had all but disappeared from Protestant countries. With the spread of Christian culture to other continents, the myth that Jews ritually sacrificed children took root in versions of antisemitism across the world. It still resounds in neo-Nazi and some anti-semitic Arabic publications.
The Jews in Norwich
Situated on the river Wensum, Norwich was conveniently placed for commerce with north-west Europe. By the mid- 12th century, with a flourishing export trade of manufactured metal and pottery goods and strong links with Rouen in Normandy, the city's population had reached nearly 10,000.
The arrival of the Jews in Norwich just a few years before the death of the boy William, reflected the city's growing prosperity. At the time of his death the Jews were one of several groups that made up the complex social web of the city. They were associated with the French-speaking quarter to the west and south of the market place where people of Norman extraction had settled. They lent money to rural landowners and to religious houses and interacted with artisans, probably including young workers like William, in a variety of ways. They paid their taxes and tallages to the sheriff and maintained lively contact with Jews of other English cities and those on the Continent.
By the time Thomas of Monmouth moved to Norwich around 1150 a story was already in circulation, spread by William's family, of the boy's cruel death at the hands of the Jews. A sufficient amount of interest in William had been generated for his body to be removed from its first burial site in woodland to a more prominent location in the monks' cemetery on the east side of the Cathedral Priory cloister. …