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William of Norwich
William of Norwich (1132? - March 1144) was an English boy who was supposedly ritually murdered by Jews. He was popularly venerated as a martyr immediately after his death and was soon regarded as a local saint in Norwich after miracles were attributed to him.
With the events that followed William's death in 1144, England achieved the dubious distinction of the earliest known false accusation that the Jews were guilty of the ritual killing of a Christian boy and of attempting to punish them for the trumped-up charge. This type of accusation falls into the general category of "blood libel."
The accusations against the Jews were a manifestation of the widespread urban anti-Semitism present in England after the Norman Conquest. The event occurred during The Anarchy (a civil war between the Empress Maud and King Stephen). The few Jewish residents of England were a minority on multiple levels. They spoke French, the language of the rulers. They were urban and mercantile in a country where at least three-quarters of the inhabitants were rural and agrarian. They lacked family connections in the countryside while almost all the other urban dwellers had rural connections. Above all, they were of a different religion and did not share local history. They may have seemed to obstruct the 12th century trend towards greater freedom from serfdom and greater independence for members of the lowest levels of English society.
Perhaps in response to the pervasive unrest and the perception of Jews as foreigners on the wrong side of various conflicts, anti-Jewish sentiment came to a boil in 1144, with William's death in Norwich. Although analysis suggests that the child had in fact died of some sort of fit, the local people, with leadership of the clergy, accused the Jews of torturing and murdering him. Only the intervention of the local sheriff, representing the king, saved the Jews from the mob. A long aftermath of accusations continued, reinforcing anti-Jewish stereotypes.
The motive of the clergy who were behind the accusation was startlingly self-interested: “Before anything had been ‘proved’ as to how the boy met his death, the Prior tried to get the body for Lewes Priory , for he realized that it might become an object ‘of conspicuous veneration and worship.’” In other words, he thought that he could attract the valuable pilgrim trade by putting a martyr on display in his church. (James Parkes, The Jew in the Medieval Community: A study of his political and economic situation. Second Edition. New York: Hermon Press, 1976. p. 125)
This article is based upon text (used with permission) from Aaron of Lincoln 1125-1186: the life and times of a Medieval Jew by Mae E. Sander.
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