Book Review: The Murder of William of Norwich – Emily M. Rose

B-Lines and Felines: William of Norwich
About The Murder of William of Norwich

In 1144, the mutilated body of William of Norwich, a young apprentice leatherworker, was found abandoned outside The Murder of William of Norwichthe city’s walls. The boy bore disturbing signs of torture, and a story soon spread that it was a ritual murder, performed by Jews in imitation of the Crucifixion as a mockery of Christianity. The outline of William’s tale swiftly gained currency far beyond Norwich, and the idea that Jews engaged in ritual murder became firmly rooted in the European imagination.

Emily Rose’s engaging book delves into the story of William’s murder and the notorious trial that followed to uncover the origin of the ritual murder accusation–known as the “blood libel”–in western Europe in the Middle Ages. Focusing on the specific historical context-the 12th–century reform of the Church, the position of Jews in England, and the Second Crusade–and suspensefully unraveling the facts of the case, Rose makes a powerful argument for why the Norwich Jews (and particularly one Jewish banker) were accused of killing the youth, and how the malevolent blood libel accusation managed to take hold. She also considers four “copycat” cases, in which Jews were similarly blamed for the death of young Christians, and traces the adaptations of the story over time.

In the centuries after its appearance, the ritual murder accusation provoked instances of torture, death and expulsion of thousands of Jews and the extermination of hundreds of communities. Although no charge of ritual murder has withstood historical scrutiny, the concept of the blood libel is so emotionally charged and deeply rooted in cultural memory that it endures even today. Rose’s groundbreaking work, driven by fascinating characters, a gripping narrative, and impressive scholarship, provides clear answers as to why the blood libel emerged when it did and how it was able to gain such widespread acceptance, laying the foundations for enduring anti-Semitic myths that continue to the present.

Amazon US Amazon UK Goodreads

Review: The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe

When William of Norwich was murdered in 1144 it could easily have been just another unsolved crime that passed into the pages of history. What followed forms the focal point of Emily M. Rose’s well-executed book that explores William’s story in detail and how it led to the blood libel – a supposed religious tradition involving the murder of Christian children by Jews, akin to the crucifixion of Jesus, and how the Christian community responded.

Rose’s book is set in a fascinating period of European history when the Crusades to the Holy Land had begun and in England the death of Henry I had led to the Anarchy (1135-54) where Henry’s daughter, Matilda, and her cousin, Stephen, fought a vicious civil war over control of England. Religion was a keystone of people’s lives at this time with the Christians at war against Muslims and also Jews.

The significance of William of Norwich is that his death was believed to have been at the hands of the Jewish community in Norwich. This wasn’t a simple killing though, it was believed to be a religious ritual, one that would see William elevated as a saint and the persecution of Jews becoming commonplace following a trial, not against individual Jews, but against all Jews in Norwich. The truth of William’s death will never be known but its aftermath provides a fascinating insight into how pivotal religion was to people and how it could dictate their behaviour in society.

Rose explores later murders in England such as Harold of Gloucester (1168) and Robert of Bury (1181) where the response of the Christian communities is similar to that of Norwich. Ultimately, the blood libel wasn’t confined to England and Rose also give us an account of how the persecution of the Jews continued in France when their community was accused of yet another murder. The violence would soon extend throughout Europe.

While the Crusades were embraced by men, women and later even children as the opportunity to devote one’s self to their faith at this time, The Murder of William of Norwich is a testament to the power of religion at home. With the majority of people illiterate and reliant on religious spokesmen for guidance, the blood libel became another example of Medieval corruption with modern historians of the opinion it was a work of fiction. Fiction or not, the murder of an innocent boy became the perfect foil for a war, one as violent as the Crusades, but fought much closer to home.

Verdict: 4/5

Source: Netgalley

Follow Dave

Dave Brown

I was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England and have always been a bookworm and enjoyed creative writing at school. In 1999 I created the Elencheran Chronicles and have been writing ever since. My first novel, Fezariu's Epiphany, was published in May 2011. When not writing I'm a lover of films, games, books and blogging. I live in Barnsley, with my wife, Donna, and our six cats - Kain, Razz, Buggles, Charlie, Bilbo and Frodo.
Follow Dave
Pin It

Leave a Comment