Reviews: November/December 2015

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The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe
E. M. Rose ’81
Oxford, $27.95
Reviewed by Mark Oppenheimer ’96, ’03PhD

Mark Oppenheimer ’96, ’03PhD, writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times.

The “blood libel,” the preposterous legend that Jews slaughter Christian children for use in secret rituals, can seem timeless, a lie without end and without beginning. Bogus charges that a Jew had murdered a Gentile child were used to justify pogroms as far back as the Middle Ages. As recently as 1913, the world watched as Mendel Beilis, a Russian Jew, was prosecuted for the 1911 murder of a Christian boy; he was acquitted, but many Russians, believers in the blood libel, were convinced of his guilt.

The libel assumed its archetypal form after 1144, when the corpse of William, a young leatherworker from Norwich, in East Anglia, was found mutilated in the woods. An unfounded rumor spread that he had died at the hands of a Jew, and six years later a Benedictine monk fixed that notion in a fantastical book—The Life and Passion of William of Norwich, the urtext for later accusations of Jewish ritual murder across Europe.

Rose’s book will, with its zippy narrative and clear prose, engage the reader coming to this gruesome topic for the first time. The book’s inspection of four cases of the blood libel in Britain and France reiterates arguments familiar to scholars—such as that the libel proved useful in extorting money from Jews who would pay ransom for a fellow Jew arrested on trumped-up charges.

But Rose also shows how its growth was fueled by European political intrigues. Time and again, clergy and nobility could consolidate power by publicizing a blood libel case, rallying fellow Christians against a common, nefarious enemy. The book moves the blood libel out of Jewish history and into European history, a grand tale in which the Jew plays a relatively smaller, much abused role.

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