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Local prof authors book on first blood libel
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Local prof authors book on first blood libel

Questions for E.M. Rose

The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe (Oxford University Press, 2015) 
The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe (Oxford University Press, 2015) 

An academic with a master’s degree and doctorate in medieval history from Princeton University, E.M. Rose has explored history’s first recorded case of blood libel — the accusation that Jews murder Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals — in The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe, to be published July 1 by Oxford University Press. 

Rose, who lives in Princeton with her husband, James Marrow, and their four children, is a member of Har Sinai Temple in Pennington. She has taught as a visiting or adjunct professor at Princeton, Rutgers, Villanova, and Johns Hopkins universities and at Baruch College. 

One of Rose’s primary sources is a “saint’s life,” written by a monk. The purported saint, William, was a young Christian boy whose mutilated body was found outside the city walls of Norwich, England, in about 1144. The monk focuses on a knight who, six years later, is accused of killing a Jewish banker. The knight’s defense is that William was killed by a Jew in mockery of Jesus’s crucifixion; hence, the entire Jewish community was responsible for young William’s death.

NJJN: Why did you decide to write about this topic?

Rose: I’ve been interested in the question of the blood libel since I was a kid because I didn’t understand it: Why and how would anyone accuse the Jews [of blood libel] and why do they keep accusing them over and over? Any nut can do a crazy thing, and anyone can accuse someone else of something outrageous. What interested me is why it persisted and why it was believed by authorities — what purposes did it serve?

NJJN: When does blood libel turn up historically?

Rose: It doesn’t go back to time immemorial…. It is not an accusation that every group has made against other groups that they don’t like. It is much more specific: in time and in place and in target. It is utterly a product of the High Middle Ages. 

NJJN: Why focus specifically on William of Norwich?

Rose: When I started…I thought so much had been written on it — I was going to do background reading and go on to later cases. I was surprised I found so much was new in this case. It is the first half of the book, and the rest are copycats — why people keep the story going even if they are not totally convinced that William of Norwich was killed for his religion. It ends with the first national expulsion of Jews from any country; they were expelled from France 1182. 

NJJN: How are your conclusions about the case of William of Norwich different from previous academic views.

Rose: The recent traditional view is that one monk investigated his death and pushed for his veneration…, that a monk adopted William as his patron saint and projected his fears and doubts [about the monk’s religious beliefs about the Eucharist] into…the mouths of Jews.

What I show is that there was an institutional backing for it. Young monks don’t have doubts; if they do, you don’t hear about them unless their superiors want you to hear about them. It is in the interest of the bishop and cathedral priory where the monk lives that this is recorded. 

NJJN: Why is this so?

Rose: Right after the disaster of the Second Crusade [a major failure, involving a defeat at war], a knight shows up in Norwich deeply in debt and kills his [Jewish] banker and goes on trial for murder. Even in the 12th century, you can’t go around killing your banker. His lawyer [the bishop of Norwich] goes to the royal court, a secular court, to defend his knight. 

He defends the knight by blaming the victim and says not that the knight didn’t do it: The bishop says you can’t try the knight for killing the banker until you try the banker and his community — saying, in effect, “Remember that kid [William of Norwich] who died a few years ago, who was killed for his religion, killed by the Jewish community?” He doesn’t need to prosecute the Jews. All he needs to do is produce reasonable doubt. His purpose is not originally to attack Jews; his purpose is to get his knight off the hook.

NJJN: How do you tie the information in the saint’s life with other contemporary sources?

Rose: People mentioned in the saint’s life also appear in other documents. 

Simon de Novers [the knight going on trial] witnesses charters for the bishop. We know he is there in Norwich and is close to the bishop. We know other people signing are his colleagues, and he is closely connected in this network of people. 

It is [also] possible that we have found the banker mentioned in a royal document 15 years earlier, in 1130. I analyze who the banker is. He is not some local yokel. The knight who killed him is not his major debtor; he has significant loans out to lots of people. He is of more than local importance.

NJJN: You include in the book four copycat cases that occurred after a gap of 20 to 30 years, but in the same generation. Why is there a gap? 

Rose: Because nobody believed [the accusation of blood libel]. But if enough people repeat the story, eventually you do believe it. In each case in the 12th century people took the story and exploited it for different purposes — until it culminated in using it as a justification to expel the Jews from France, and once you expel a whole community from a country, everyone has heard the story. Then it goes viral.

NJJN: What do you think is the major importance of this book?

Rose: I wanted to really focus on how blood libel got started. Until we understand how it got started, it is very hard to debunk. This month the Washington Institute [cited an article that] that the blood libel has gone mainstream in Iran.

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