Invent­ing William of Nor­wich: Thomas of Mon­mouth, Anti­semitism, and Lit­er­ary Cul­ture, 1150 – 1200

  • Review
By – November 28, 2022

William of Nor­wich was a twelve-year-old tanner’s appren­tice in East Anglia in Eng­land, whose 1144 dis­ap­pear­ance and appar­ent mur­der is the first record­ed case in medieval times of rit­u­al mur­der com­mit­ted by Jews on Chris­t­ian chil­dren. As such, it has a pri­ma­ry place in the his­to­ry of Euro­pean anti­semitism — some­thing that we must acknowl­edge is still with us, and still haunts us.

The sto­ry was first recount­ed by Thomas of Mon­mouth, a Bene­dic­tine monk at Nor­wich Cathe­dral, in sev­er­al vol­umes start­ing only a few years after William’s death. Already cit­ing the mir­a­clesattrib­uted to William’s name — in par­tic­u­lar the cur­ing of a sick child, Agnes of Crombe — Thomas of Mon­mouth writes that, accord­ing to Theobald of Cam­bridge, a monk and for­mer Jew,” the mur­der was a year­ly sac­ri­fice ordered by a rene­gade Jew­ish mes­si­ah from Nar­bone in France, and dic­tat­ed by the ancient writ­ings of his fathers.” From this account grew an increas­ing­ly elab­o­rate con­coc­tion of con­spir­a­cies, cabals, and blood libels.

Blur­ton notes that because most of the pre­vi­ous his­tor­i­cal research around the inci­dent has focused on the sociopo­lit­i­cal con­text, she is wont to look more close­ly at the text itself, exam­in­ing the devel­op­ing lit­er­ary con­ven­tions that shaped the very nature and artic­u­la­tion of medieval anti­semitism. She places Thomas of Monmouth’s account at an inter­sec­tion, what she terms a set of inter­texts, of an emer­gence of Anglo-Latin hagiogra­phies, his­to­ry writ­ing, devo­tion­al texts, and fic­tion­al­i­ty as artic­u­lat­ed in medieval rhetor­i­cal trea­tis­es and exem­pli­fied in ver­nac­u­lar romance.” This the­sis is reflect­ed in the lit­er­ary works of the late – twelfth cen­tu­ry, such as Ger­ald of Wales’s On the Edu­ca­tion of a Prince,” Aelred of Rieveaulx’s On the Soul” and The Life of Edward the Con­fes­sor,” the anony­mous­ly writ­ten Nibelun­gen­lied,” and the romances of Chre­tien de Troyes.

Blurton’s analy­sis is influ­enced by Michel de Certeau and Roland Barthes, in that she sees writ­ing itself as an exer­cise in hege­mo­ny — the vic­tors real­ly do write the his­to­ries. But she adds that, while these texts pur­port to be straight­for­ward accounts, the genre itself does not aspire to his­tor­i­cal accuracy.

Although it may at first seem that Blurton’s research is in an obscure cor­ner of lit­er­ary his­to­ry, of inter­est only to a few like-mind­ed schol­ars, the author shows us that the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of events deserves our atten­tion — espe­cial­ly in a time of intol­er­ance, divi­sion, calum­ny, and alter­na­tive facts. We, too, must con­sid­er the his­to­ry of anti­semitism and … the pow­er of lit­er­ary cul­tures in shap­ing our lived reality.”

Discussion Questions