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William of Norwich, Saint

B. 1132; d. March 22, 1144

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.


William of Norwich, Saint, b. 1132; d. March 22, 1144. On Holy Saturday, March 25, 1144, a boy's corpse showing signs of a violent death was found in Thorpe Wood near Norwich. It was not touched until Easter Monday, when it was buried without any ceremony where it lay. In the meantime a number of young men and boys had visited the spot and the Jews were suspected of the murder on account of the nature of the wounds ["Ex ipso penarum modo" (Thomas of Monmouth, op. cit. below, p. 35); "non nisi judeos eo maxime tempore talia gessisse asseritur" (op. cit., p. 36)]. The body was recognized as that of William, a tanner's apprentice, who with his master had been in the habit of frequenting the houses of certain Jews. The grave was opened by William's uncle, the priest Godwin Sturt, the body recognized, the burial Office read, and the grave recovered. A few days later the diocesan synod met under the presidence of Bishop Eborard, and Sturt accused the Jews of the murder, and offered to prove his accusation by ordeal. But the Jews of the Norwich Jewry were the king's men and under the protection of the sheriff, who pointed out that the bishop had no jurisdiction in the case. The failure to secure a condemnation against the Jews seems to have been largely due to the presence of this strong official who held the castle of Norwich. The only result of Sturt's action at this time was to secure the translation of the body from Thorpe Wood to the monks' cemetery on April 24. But the cultus of St. William did not become popular, and though one or two miracles are reported during this period (1144 49) it is quite possible that the story of the murder by the Jews might have been forgotten but for the murder of the Jew Eleazer by the followers of Sir Simon de Novers in 1149. The Jews demanded the murderer's punishment, and Bishop Turbe, acting for the accused, who was his own mesne tenant, brought up the murder of the boy William five years earlier as a counter-charge. The case was tried before the king at Norwich, but postponed owing, according to Thomas of Monmouth, to the payment by the Jews of much money to the king and his councillors. For the whole story of William of Norwich our only authority is Thomas of Mon-mouth, a monk of the cathedral priory of Norwich, and it is only at this point, i.e. at the end of the second book of his "Vita et Passio", that he himself came upon the scene in person. He gives the story of the events related in his first two books on hearsay as it was current in the monastery. He seems to have been a man of unlimited credulity even beyond his contemporaries, but probably more deceived, though perhaps by himself, than a deceiver. The ultimate popularity of the cultus which dates from this time seems to have been due to three persons, Bishop Turbe, who succeeded to the See of Norwich in 1146, Richard de Ferrariis, who became prior in 1150 after the translation to the chapter-house, and Thomas of Monmouth himself, the saint's sacrist. These men were all anxious for reasons of their own to establish the new cultus. In Lent, 1150, Thomas had three visions in which Herbert of Losinga (d. 1119), the founder of the cathedral, appeared and ordered the translation of the body from the monks' cemetery to the chapter-house. At this point the prior Elias died and was succeeded by Richard de Ferrariis, "a staunch supporter of the bishop and of Thomas". The body was translated from the chapter-house to the cathedral in July, 1151, and again moved on April 5, 1154, to the apsidal chapel of the Holy Martyrs to the north of the high altar, now known as the Jesus Chapel. The real spread of the cultus dates from the translation to the cathedral when there was a great burst of enthusiasm accompanied by visions and miracles.

We may now consider the story of the martyrdom as given by Thomas and the evidence adduced by him. William had been in the habit of frequenting the houses of the Jews and was forbidden by his friends to have anything to do with them. On the Monday in Holy Week, 1144, he was decoyed away from his mother by the offer of a place in the archdeacon's kitchen. Next day the messenger and William were seen to enter a Jew's house and from that time William was never again seen alive. On the Wednesday, after a service in the synagogue, the Jews lacerated his head with thorns, crucified him, and pierced his side. For this last scene Thomas produces the evidence of a Christian serving-woman, who, with one eye only, caught sight through a crack in a door of a boy fastened to a post, as she was bringing some hot water at her master's order, presumably to cleanse the body. She afterwards found a boy's belt in the room and in after years pointed out to Thomas the marks of the martyrdom in the room. When, a month after the martyrdom, the body was washed in the cathedral, thorn points were found in the head and traces of martyrdom in the hands, feet, and sides. The servant's evidence was apparently not produced till Thomas was preparing to write his book. On Thursday the Jews take counsel about the disposal of the body, a fact which suggests that, if there is any truth in the story at all, the death of the boy was due to accident, perhaps some rough pranks, as at Inmestar (see below), for if it had been premeditated they would have made all necessary preparations. On Good Friday the Jew Eleazar and another carried the corpse in a sack to Thorpe Wood and were met by a certain Aelward Ded, who discovered the contents of the sack. The Jews bribed the sheriff (always a bete noire to Thomas) to extract an oath of secrecy from. Elward and it is only five years later, three years after the formidable sheriff's death, when on his own deathbed, that Aelward tells his tale. In addition to all this Thomas tells us that when the Jews were being charged with the murder they sought to bribe William's brother to hush up the charge and that they tried to bribe Bishop Turbe to drop his counter-charge in the matter of Eleazar's murder. These attempts at bribery, if true, might well be the natural and guiltless acts of frightened men. But the most telling piece of evidence and the most disastrous in its consequences was that of Theobald, a converted Jew and a monk probably of Norwich Priory. This man told Thomas that "in the ancient writings of his Fathers it was written that the Jews, without the shedding of human blood, could neither obtain their freedom, nor could they ever return to their fatherland. Hence it was laid down by them in ancient times that every year they must sacrifice a Christian in some part of the world" (Vita, II, 2), and that in 1144 it had been the lot of the Jews of Norwich.

This has been well named "one of the most notable and disastrous lies of history". The story is the foundation of the blood accusation or accusation of ritual murder against the Jews, which has found currency and gained popular credence from that date to the present day. In the "Jewish Encyclopaedia", III, 266, may be found a list of the cases of this ritual murder, beginning with William of Norwich. There are 5 other cases given for the twelfth century, 15 for the thirteenth, 10 for the fourteenth, 16 for the fifteenth, 13 for the sixteenth, 8 for the seventeenth, 15 for the eighteenth, and 39 for the nineteenth, going right up to the year 1900. There have been more recent cases still in Eastern Europe. Ritual murder as a Jewish institution has been learnedly and conclusively disproved, e.g. by Strack, op. cit. below, and in the case of St. William the evidence is totally insufficient. It seems, however, quite possible that in some cases at least the deaths of these victims were due to rough usage or even deliberate murder on the part of Jews and that some may actually have been slain in odium fidei. In this connection we may notice the first case of all, and the only one before St. William, in which Jews are known to have been accused of murdering a Christian child. In 415 at Inmestar in Syria some Jews in a drunken frolic killed a Christian child in mockery of the death of Christ (Socrates, VII, xvi). Many popes have either directly or indirectly condemned the blood accusation, and no pope has ever sanctioned it (Strack, op. cit., 177 and v).

RAYMUND WEBSTER


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