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The Murder of William of NorwichThe Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe$

E.M Rose

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780190219628

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190219628.001.0001

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(p.241) Appendices

(p.241) Appendices

The Murder of William of Norwich
Oxford University Press

A Note on Terminology

Some scholars distinguish between “anti-semitism” and “anti- Judaism,” seeing the latter as “rational” and having originated early in the history of Christianity, and the former as “irrational” and dating from the twelfth century.1 The cult of William of Norwich is taken as the significant turning point. Although thought-provoking, this distinction has not found widespread acceptance. Other scholars, in contrast, consider it anachronistic to use the term “anti-semitism,” which was coined in the late nineteenth century to characterize pre-modern religious sentiment, preferring to reserve it for racial hatred of the modern era. The appropriate uses of the terms “anti-semitism,” “anti-Judaism,” “Judeophobia” (and such alternatives as “Jew-hatred,” “anti-Jewish sentiment,” etc.), are still disputed.2 While acknowledging a debt to those scholars who have raised the issues of terminology, in the present study I do not use any of these terms to characterize the behavior and thoughts of the monk, the knight, the bishop, and the other medieval protagonists I discuss. The word “anti-semitism” does not appear elsewhere in these chapters.

Some scholars also differentiate the “blood libel” from the accusation of “ritual murder,” and maintain that the two accusations originated in different times and places. “Ritual murder” is described as a uniquely English creation, centered on the accusation of a ritual crucifixion modeled on the death of Christ on the cross, an innovation for which Thomas of Monmouth is given credit.3 According to this view, the “blood libel” first appeared on the Continent in (p.242) the thirteenth century, when Jews were accused of using the blood of children for medicinal and magical purposes, and it sometimes included the charge of “ritual cannibalism” as well.

Malevolent child murder laid at the feet of the Jews during the Middle Ages was always understood as a type of or a referent to the killing of Christ, irrespective of whether it was said to have taken the form of a crucifixion or not. The purported use of blood was interpreted sometimes in practical terms and at other times in allegorical ones. Both charges can be related to an interpretative tradition that viewed the death of the Holy Innocents recounted in the New Testament as a foreshadowing of the death of Christ on the Cross, and Jews as continuing perpetrators of deicide. Many scholars debate the relationship of one charge to the other, or conclude that one was a subset of the other. But it remains to be demonstrated conclusively that the two medieval accusations were separate and distinct. In this study, I use the terms “blood libel” and “ritual murder accusation” almost interchangeably.4

One might take issue with the use of the term “banker” to characterize the Jewish lender. Although perhaps considered anachronistic, the term “banker” is not loaded with the conceptual freight and pejorative connotations of “medieval moneylender,” and I employ it here for that reason. In the mid-twelfth century, Jews were not the only moneylenders, nor even the major lenders. Absolute prohibitions on Christian lending at interest developed in canon law only in the late twelfth century. Medieval Jewish businessmen, such as Jurnet of Norwich in the later twelfth century, performed the activities of bankers, collecting capital on behalf of others, making loans, exchanging foreign currencies, investing their capital in other debt, developing real estate, and dealing in commodities, specie, pawnbroking, and mortgages.

To avoid confusion, Anglo-Norman names are given here in the familiar English form (Henry, Stephen, William, Theobold) and continental names in French form (Henri, Étienne, Guillaume, Thibaut), even though they appear identical in Latin records. (p.243) Likewise the forms Alix, Alice, Adèle, and Adela are used to differentiate individuals who shared the same name in contemporary documents. Although Simon was a knight, he was not referred to with the honorific “Sir” (dominus), a practice that came into effect in the fourteenth century. Also for clarity, the bishop of Norwich is sometimes referred to here as Turbe, although he is correctly called Bishop William. In contemporary documents, “William of Norwich” more often referred to the sheriff William de Chesney or to the bishop than to the murdered young apprentice whose cult the bishop championed. In some cases, geographic designations became proper family names, as with Chesney, Novers, and Warenne, so I occasionally use them that way; in most other cases, they did not. Thus, for example, Earl William de Warenne is occasionally referred to simply as Warenne and the “de” is not used.

A Note on Chronology

The present account of the cult of William of Norwich departs from the conventional chronology, which dates it to 1144, the year of his death, and links it to the beginning of the Second Crusade. Moreover, most scholars place the death of Deulesalt the Jewish banker (previously identified as “Eleazar the moneylender”) in 1146, and the trial of Simon de Novers for his murder in 1148.5 I argue that the banker’s death and Simon’s trial occurred in late 1149 or soon after, possibly on Simon’s return from the Second Crusade, and that they immediately preceded and played a role in the development of the cult of William, which began to take form only after 1150.

There is some disparity in the estimates of when important events occurred. Jessopp and James, Life and Miracles, Chronology, xc, suggest (with question marks) that the death of Deulesalt/Eleazar took place in 1146 and the trial in 1148. Cronne, Stephen, 262–263, states these dates confidently, followed by King in The Anarchy of Stephen’s Reign, 131. Harper-Bill, “Bishop Turbe,” 143 n., maintains that the murder and trial took place sometime between 1146 and (p.244) 1150. Further down, on page 143, he implies that the trial was over by 1148 because he considers that Turbe’s eloquence at the trial influenced his appointment to represent English bishops at the Council of Rheims. Langmuir assumes that the indebted knight Simon de Novers murdered Deulesalt/Eleazar before Thomas of Monmouth arrived in Norwich, around the year 1146, the year Turbe became bishop (Toward a Definition, 230). He notes parenthetically that Deulesalt/Eleazar “was safely dead by 1149” (Toward a Definition, 222); two pages later, he adds that Deulesalt/Eleazar had died about 1146. McCulloh, “Early Dissemination,” 39, does not mention Deulesalt/Eleazar’s death and simply notes that after William’s death, “several years later,” the bishop told the king that William’s uncle Godwin was still prepared to bring his case, but the king postponed the hearing indefinitely. Yarrow, Saints and Their Communities, 129, says that Simon de Novers was brought before the royal court in 1146.

Anderson, A Saint at Stake, 137–144, devotes an entire chapter to “The Trial of Simon de Novers.” She asserts that Deulesalt/Eleazar was killed in the supposed uprisings that immediately followed Turbe’s election as bishop of Norwich (1146/1147). To support this assertion she offers no date for the trial, but implies it took place some time after the murder, 139. She concludes, on page 143, however, by considering that Turbe may have defended Simon de Novers in order to prosecute his quarrel with John de Chesney, who had opposed his election. As John de Chesney died ca. 1147, shortly after Bishop Turbe’s election, this would place the murder and trial very close together in time, about 1147.

Other historians do not address these questions.


(1) This is the argument of Langmuir, History, Religion and Antisemitism, challenged by Robert Stacey, “History, Religion and Antisemitism: A Response to Gavin Langmuir,” Religious Studies Review 20, no. 2 (1994), 95–101 at 100.

(2) See, for example, Peter Schäfer, Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998) and David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013). James Parkes, Antisemitism (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1963), Edward H. Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Antisemitism (New York: Paulist Press, 2004), and Leon Poliakov, The History of Anti-Semitism, 2 vols. (London: Elek, 1974) are early classics on the topic.

(3) Gavin Langmuir differentiated between the two in his influential works. See Langmuir, Toward a Definition, 236, for the crucifixion accusation and 268ff for the accusation of ritual cannibalization first made at Fulda in 1235. In this usage he is followed by Robert Stacey, “From Ritual Crucifixion to Host Desecration: Jews and (p.341) the Body of Christ,” Jewish History 12, no. 1 (1998), 11–28 at 23, and Norman Roth, Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia (London: Routledge, 2003), s.v. “Ritual Murder.” Darren O’Brien, The Pinnacle of Hatred: the Blood Libel and the Jews (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2011), adopts the distinction in his database, which classifies accusations as “blood libel,” “mutilation murder,” “crucifixion murder,” or “plain murder.” Others, however, are not persuaded by such distinctions. See, for example, David Berger, From Crusades to Blood Libels to Expulsions: Some New Approaches to Medieval Antisemitism (New York: Touro College Graduate School of Jewish Studies, 1997), and Israel Yuval, “ ‘They Tell Lies: You Ate the Man’: Jewish Reactions to Ritual Murder Accusations,” in Religious Violence Between Christians and Jews: Medieval Roots, Modern Perspectives, ed. Anna Sapir Abulafia (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 86–106 at 90.

(4) The Encyclopedia Judaica and Jewish Encyclopedia likewise treat the terms as similar or overlapping. In a paper delivered at the annual conference, Association for Jewish Studies, Washington, DC, December 21, 2008, “Distinctions without Much Difference? Ritual Murder, Blood Libel and the Need to Classify,” I have argued that the notion that the “ritual murder” and the “blood libel” accusations are distinct is a product of European scholars who wrote in the shadow of the Holocaust, and who were eager to identify differences between Continental (especially German) and English attitudes toward Jews.

(5) See most recently Raphael Langham, “William of Norwich,” paper presented to The Jewish Historical Society of England (2005) and posted online in 2008 at http://www.jhse.org/node/44.