Con­ver­sion, Cir­cum­ci­sion, and Rit­u­al Mur­der in Medieval Europe

Pao­la Tartakoff

  • Review
By – April 19, 2021

The blood libel endures as one of the more egre­gious lega­cies of medieval Europe. Fal­lac­i­es of Jews mur­der­ing Chris­t­ian chil­dren to obtain blood for bak­ing mat­zo swept through the con­ti­nent for cen­turies, find­ing fresh audi­ences in the Ottoman Empire in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry and per­sist­ing today in a cloud of con­spir­a­to­r­i­al envi­ron­ments. In its ori­gins, the blood libel entailed vicious incite­ment, reli­gious anx­i­ety, polit­i­cal the­ater, and social inequity, while its endurance today indi­cates that lit­er­a­cy and access to infor­ma­tion do not nec­es­sar­i­ly make a thought­ful or intel­li­gent human being.

Pao­la Tartakoff’s Con­ver­sion, Cir­cum­ci­sion, and Rit­u­al Mur­der in Medieval Europe cuts to the heart of this his­to­ry of blood libels and the larg­er con­text of Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian reli­gious inter­ac­tion. The book inves­ti­gates an enig­mat­ic case from 1144, in which local Jews in Nor­wich, Eng­land, were charged with seiz­ing and cir­cum­cis­ing a five-year-old Chris­t­ian boy named William in order to make him a Jew.” Though not a typ­i­cal charge of rit­u­al mur­der, Tar­takoff shows its direct cor­re­la­tion to Jew­ish vil­i­fi­ca­tion in Chris­ten­dom. The unusu­al accu­sa­tion led to show tri­als, result­ing in the con­fis­ca­tion of Jew­ish prop­er­ty and the hang­ings of at least three Jews. Using a wide vari­ety of sources with dizzy­ing eru­di­tion, Tar­takoff explores Chris­t­ian vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, links between cir­cum­ci­sion and rit­u­al mur­der accu­sa­tions, and a myr­i­ad of issues relat­ed to reli­gious conversion.

The core of the book focus­es on con­ver­sions to and from Judaism dur­ing the medieval peri­od. As Jews and Chris­tians lived in close prox­im­i­ty to each oth­er, con­ver­sion from one reli­gion to the oth­er occurred with some reg­u­lar­i­ty, though most promi­nent­ly in the direc­tion of the dom­i­nant soci­ety. Eccle­si­as­ti­cal con­cern about reli­gious deviance, in what Tar­takoff calls the insta­bil­i­ty of Chris­t­ian iden­ti­ty,” made con­ver­sion to Judaism par­tic­u­lar­ly egre­gious. Eman­ci­pat­ed slaves, com­mon­ers, women, and learned church­men joined Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties for any num­ber of social or the­o­log­i­cal rea­sons. Chris­t­ian attempts to pre­vent such spir­i­tu­al trans­for­ma­tion coin­cid­ed with the ambiva­lence of Jews wary of harsh penal­ties imposed upon con­verts and their enablers. Tartakoff’s jux­ta­po­si­tion of con­trast­ing per­cep­tions is espe­cial­ly pow­er­ful in her dis­cus­sion of

Jew­ish con­verts to Chris­tian­i­ty who revert­ed to Judaism. Jews regard­ed apos­tates as Jews deserv­ing of efforts to bring them back into the fold, while Chris­tians con­demned such inci­dents as errant con­ver­sions like any other.

This dis­cus­sion of con­ver­sion and rever­sion to Judaism is the key by which Tar­takoff unlocks the per­plex­ing Nor­wich cir­cum­ci­sion accu­sa­tion. Assess­ing pri­ma­ry sources for what they both con­tain and omit, Tar­takoff argues con­vinc­ing­ly that young William was the son of a Chris­t­ian man and a Jew­ish woman, raised by Chris­tians but the sub­ject of a Jew­ish retrieval effort. She accepts a basic premise of the case — that Jews sought to cir­cum­cise the boy — but presents William as hav­ing been a con­test­ed” child, with Jews and Chris­tians each claim­ing him as theirs. In doing so, she sheds light on the deep ambi­gu­i­ty that per­me­at­ed medieval Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian rela­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the move­ment between reli­gions and con­cep­tions of identity.

Tartakoff’s por­tray­al of Chris­t­ian vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and Jew­ish anx­i­ety is vivid, sound, and enlight­en­ing. It under­mines sim­plis­tic read­ings of medieval Europe and points to the sig­nif­i­cance of relat­ing micro-his­tor­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion to broad­er his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal themes. Con­ver­sion, Cir­cum­ci­sion, and Rit­u­al Mur­der in Medieval Europe is well writ­ten and thought pro­vok­ing, and despite its sober sub­ject mat­ter, it should appeal to a wide read­er­ship inter­est­ed in Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian rela­tions, the vagaries of reli­gious iden­ti­ty, and medieval Europe more broadly.

David Sclar stud­ies Jew­ish his­to­ry and cul­ture in the ear­ly mod­ern peri­od. He earned his doc­tor­ate at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, and has held fel­low­ships at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, New York Uni­ver­si­ty, and the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry. He worked for sev­er­al years in the Spe­cial Col­lec­tions of the Library of the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, and present­ly teach­es his­to­ry at the Frisch School.

Discussion Questions