Towards a Revaluation of the Legend of "Saint" William of Norwich and Its Place in the Blood Libel Legend

By Bennett, Gillian | Folklore, August 2005 | Go to article overview

Towards a Revaluation of the Legend of "Saint" William of Norwich and Its Place in the Blood Libel Legend


Bennett, Gillian, Folklore


Abstract

The legend of William of Norwich is extremely well known and often quoted in discussions of defamatory folklore. However, since I started working on it three or four years ago I have found that there are surprisingly few folkloric analyses. Leaving aside those who have attempted to believe the story and to use it as anti-Jewish propaganda, most of the respectable work has been done by historians and has tended to concentrate either on debunking the legend or on attempting to reconstruct events in Norwich during Easter 1144. My aim in this paper is to redress this balance and tackle a couple of the more folkloric questions.

Introduction

A perennial theme in accusations brought against persecuted minorities is that they indulge in disgusting secret rituals involving any or all of the following: orgiastic sex, incest, baby-sacrifice, consumption of human flesh or blood, and other breaches of bodily integrity such as the collection and use of stolen body-parts or body-fluids. The documented history of such accusations can be traced over the best part of 2,000 years. One strand of this larger tradition that has been frequently studied by folklorists is the anti-Semitic "blood libel legend," the scurrilous accusation that Jews "make use of the blood of Christians for purposes of ritual" (Strack 1909, vii). Although there were isolated instances of similar accusations in antiquity, scholars usually see the case of "Saint" [1] William of Norwich as leading to the establishment in Europe of the sort of continuing folklore that makes the blood libel a "legend" rather than a series of related rumours. This paper examines the legend of William, its context and its source, in order to address two questions: Is there any essential difference between the primary source and the legend we now know and, if so, what is its significance? And, is it really the case that this is the first recognisable instance of the blood libel legend? A third question--were this and similar accusations responsible for the persecution of Jews in England and their expulsion from the country at the end of the thirteenth century?--will be addressed more briefly in a subsequent note.

Let us begin by outlining the elements of the story that are generally accepted as factual. [2] There was indeed a boy called William, an apprentice in the leather industry aged twelve years, whose body was discovered in suspicious circumstances in a wood on the outskirts of Norwich on or around Easter 1144. His uncle, a priest, formally accused local Jews of murdering him. The Sheriff of Norfolk, John de Chesney, supported the Jews and they took refuge for a while in the castle. No charges were brought against them. Out of these events, or something like them, arose a legend about a ritual crucifixion by Jews of a Christian boy such as that first recorded in the final continuation of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle written by the monks of Peterborough in 1155:

   In [King Stephen's] time, the Jews of Norwich bought [3] a Christian
   child before Easter and tortured him with all the tortures that our
   Lord was tortured with, and on Good Friday hanged him on a cross on
   account of our Lord, and then buried him. They expected it would be
   concealed, but our Lord made it plain that he was a holy martyr,
   and the monks took him and buried him with ceremony in the
   monastery, and through our Lord he works wonderful and varied
   miracles, and he is called St William (Jacobs 1893, 19).

By the twentieth century the story had mutated to something much more familiar. Here it is, for example, as repeated by the historian Cecil Roth in 1935:

   On Easter Eve, 1144, the dead body of a young skinner's apprentice,
   named William, was found in Thorpe Wood near Norwich ... It was
   bruited about ... that in fact he was a victim of the Jews, who
   had enticed him away from his family and crucified him, after
   synagogue service on the second day of Passover, in mockery of
   the Passion of Jesus. … 

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