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On the eve of Passover, 1144, the mutilated body of William, a child of twelve years, was found in Thorpe’s Wood, on the edge of Norwich, England. No witness came forward to cast light on the savage crime. The child's uncle, a cleric by the name of Godwin Sturt, publicly accused the Jews of the crime in a diocesan synod held a few weeks after the discovery of the body. The body of the victim of Thorpe Wood, where it had been initially buried, was taken to the cemetery of the monks shortly afterwards, near the cathedral, and became the source of miracles.

A few years later, between 1150 and 1155, Thomas of Monmouth, prior of the cathedral of Norwich, reconstituted, with plentiful details and testimonies, the various phases of the crime, [allegedly] perpetrated by local Jews, and prepared a detailed and broad hagiographic report of the event. [1]

These were the origins of what is considered by many to have been first documented case of ritual murder in the Middle Ages, while, for others, it is the source of the myth of the "blood libel" accusation. The latter consider Thomas to have been the inventor and propagator of the stereotype of ritual crucifixion, soon to be rapidly disseminated, not only in England, but in France and the German territories as well, fed by in the information relating to the now famous tale of the martyrdom of William of Norwich by the Jews in the days of Passover. [2]

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Ritual crucifixion of a child, William of Norwich

William was an apprentice tanner in Norwich and came from an adjacent village. Among the shop's clients were a few local Jews, who are thought to have chosen him as the victim of a ritual sacrifice to be performed during the days of the Christian Easter. On the Monday following Palm Sunday, 1144, during the reign of King Stephen, a man claiming to be the cook for the arch deacon of Norwich presented himself in the village of William, asking his mother Elviva for permission to take William with him to work as an apprentice. The woman’s suspicions and hesitation were soon won over thanks to a considerable sum of money.

The following day, little William was already traveling the streets of Norwich in the company of the self-proclaimed cook, directly to the dwelling of his aunt Leviva, Godwin Sturt’ s wife, who became informed of the apprenticeship undertaken by the child and his new patron. But the latter individual awakened numerous suspicions in the aunt, Leviva, who asked a young girl to follow them and determine their destination. The shadowing, as discreet as it was effective, took the child to the threshold of the dwelling of Eleazar, one of the heads of the community of Norwich, where the cook had little William enter the house with the necessary prudence and circumspection.

At this point, Thomas of Monmouth allowed another key witness to speak, one who had been strategically placed inside the Jew's house.

This was Eleazar's Christian servant, who, the following morning, had by chance, witnessed, with horror -- through the crack of a door left inadvertently open -- the cruel ceremony of the child’s crucifixion and atrocious martyrdom, with the participation, carried out with religious zeal, of local Jews, "in contempt of the passion of our Lord". Thomas kept the date of the crucial event clearly in mind. It was Palm Sunday, Wednesday 22 March of the year 1144.

To throw off suspicion, the Jews decided to transport the body from the opposite side of the city to Thorpe's Wood, which extended to within a short distance from the last house. During the trip on horseback with the cumbersome sack, however, despite their efforts at caution, they crossed the path of a respected and wealthy merchant of the locality on his way to church, accompanied by a servant; the merchant had no difficulty realizing the significance of what was taking place before his eyes. He is said to have remembered, years later, on his death bed, and to have confessed to a priest, who then became one of the diligent and indefatigable Thomas’s valued sources of information. Young William’s body was finally hidden by the Jews among the bushes of Thorpe.

The scene now became the inevitable scene of miraculous happenings. Beams of celestial light illuminated the boys’ resting place late at night, causing townspeople to discover the body, which was then buried where it was discovered. A few days afterwards, the cleric, Godwin Sturt, who, informed of the murder, requested, and was granted, permission to have the body exhumed.

He then recognized his nephew William as the tragic victim. A short time afterwards, during a diocesan synod, Godwin got up to accuse the Jews of the crime. Thomas of Monmouth agreed with him and accused them of the horrible ritual of crucifixion of a Christian boy as the principal event of a Passover ceremony intended to mock the passion of Jesus Christ, a sort of crude and bloody Passover counter-ritual.

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The accused Jews obtain the protection of the King and his agents

The conclusion of the matter turned out to be anything but a foregone conclusion, particularly in comparison with the numerous similar cases occurring over the following years, in which the Jews, considered responsible for the horrible wickedness, met a cruel fate. In this case, the Jews of Norwich, invited to present themselves before the archbishop to respond to the accusations, requested and obtained the protection of the King and his agents.

Protected by the walls of the sheriff's castle, in which they found refuge, they waited for the storm to pass, as in fact it did. In the meantime, little William’s body was taken from the ditch in Thorpe's Wood to a magnificent tomb usually reserved for monks, in a sheltered spot behind the Cathedral, and began, as anticipated, to work miracles, as only a martyr worthy of being proclaimed a saint possibly could. [3]

The Jews believed that, to bring redemption closer, and with it, their return to the Promised Land, they sacrificed a Christian child every year

The most disturbing of the testimonies gathered by Thomas of Monmouth for his file on the murder of little William was that of a converted Jew, Theobald of Cambridge, who had become a monk hearing the story of the miracles reported at the tomb of the victim of Norwich. The convert revealed that the Jews believed that, to bring redemption closer, and with it, their return to the Promised Land, they sacrificed a Christian child every year "in contempt of Christ".

To carry out this providential plan, the representatives of the Jewish communities, headed by their local rabbis, were said to meet every year in council in Narbonne, in the south of France, to draw lots as to the name of locality where the ritual crucifixion was to occur from time to time. In 1144, the choice fell by lot to the city of Norwich, and the entire Jewish community was said to have adhered to that choice. [4]

Theobald’s confession has been considered by some to constitute the origin of the ritual murder accusation of Norwich, which was then collated, accompanied by suitable documentation, by Thomas of Monmouth. [5]

The ex-Jewish monk was probably alluding to the carnival of Purim, also known as the "carnival of the lots", which, in the Jewish calendar precedes Pesach, Passover, by one month, since the macabre lottery was said to have taken place every year on Purim. [6]

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The reason for drawing lots to select the Jewish community to be entrusted with the duty of carrying out the annual sacrifice of a Christian child appeared later, in the confessions of the defendants of a ritual murder committed at Valréas in 1247, and, with reference to another case at Pforzheim in Baden in 1261, gathered and disseminated by the friar Thomas of Cantimpré in his Bonum universale de apibus (Douay, 1627). [7]

On that occasion, the Jews of the small village of the Vaucluse were accused of killing a two-year old girl, Meilla, "in a sort of sacrifice" for the purpose of collecting her blood, and then dumping the body in a ditch. [8]

The testimonies, extorted by the inquisitors under torture, were said to have shown that

"it is a custom of the Jews, above all, wherever they live in large numbers, to carry out this practice every year, particularly in the regions of Spain, because there are a lot of Jews in these places". [9]

It should be noted that Narbonne, mentioned by the converted Jew, Theobald of Cambridge, as the meeting place of the representatives of the Jewish communities for the annual Passover lottery held to select the location of the next ritual homicide, was in France, but belonged to the Mark of Spain.

But was the case of William of Norwich truly the first ritual murder of a Christian reported during the Middle Ages? Was Thomas of Monmouth really the creator of the stereotype which became widespread, first in England and later in France and the German territories in the years after 1150, when Thomas is supposed to have composed his hagiographic account? [10]

It is permissible to wonder. It appears in fact to have been demonstrated that the story of William and his sacrifice by the Jews had already become widespread in Germany in the years prior to the composition of Thomas of Monmouth’s hagiographic account. The first documents relation to William’s veneration as a saint are to have originated, not in England, but in Bavaria, dating back to 1147. [11]

Christian child killed as confirmed by rabbi Efraim of Bonn

Latin chroniclers report that, in the same year, a Christian was reportedly killed by the Jews at Würzburg, where the martyr ’s body is said to have worked miracles. [12]

Twenty one local Jews accused of committing the crime during the feast of Purim and Passover were said to have been put to death.

Rabbi Efraim of Bonn confirmed this report, stating that "On 22 August (1147) wicked men revolted against the Jewish community of Würzburg [...] making it the object of insinuations and calumnies, for the purpose of attacking them [the Jews]. Their accusation claims:

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"We found the body of a Christian in the river, and it was you who killed him and then dumped him there. Now he is a saint and is working miracles’. Under this pretext, those wicked men, and people of the poorer classes, without any real motive, assail (the Jews...) killing twenty one of them". [13]

It is rather probable that the Hebrew and Latin reports were alluding to a crime with ritual connotations, considering the time of year in which these crimes were said to have been committed, the collective guilt attributed to Jews, the consequent massacre of many of them, and finally, the miracles which were said to have flowed forth from the victim’s body. It is therefore possible that the stereotype of homicide for ritual purposes was disseminated in Germany before it gained an inch of ground in England. [14]

Thomas of Monmouth’s hagiographic report would appear to vindicate those who have maintained that the first ritual homicides in England, France and Germany for almost a century, starting with the Norwich murder in 1144, conformed to the stereotype of the crucifixion of Christians, without providing for the utilization of the victims’ blood for ritual purposes. In other words, ritual crucifixion is said to have proceeded the so-called "ritual cannibalism" accusation in the origin, development and final fixation of the type of ritual child sacrifice [allegedly] perpetrated by Jews. [15]

As early as the during the reign of Paul IV, the jurist Marquardo Susanni in his treatise De Judaeis and aliis infidelibus (Venice 1558), referred to William’s murder and the second presumed ritual homicide at Norwich in 1235, alluding to ritual crucifixion, without any mention of the ritual use of the victim’s blood. [16]

But, if we examine the matter more closely, a careful reading of Thomas of Monmouth’s text might point to other possible conclusions.

The Jew Eleazar of Norwich’s Christian servant, the only eyewitness of the presumed ritual homicide of little William, claimed, in her deposition, that, while the Jews proceeded with the cruel crucifixion, they asked her to bring a pot full of boiling water "to staunch the flow of the victim’s blood". [17]

It seems obvious to us that, contrary to the maid servant’s interpretation, the boiling water must, on the contrary, have been used for the opposite purpose, i.e., to increase the flow of blood. It therefore remains to be proven that blood was a secondary element in the so-called "sacrifice of the child at Norwich". The fact that the written traditions which have come down to us do not inform us of the manner in which they intended to utilize the blood of the crucified child in this case constitutes no proof in either direction.

p. 116]

Be that as it may, the accusation of ritual murder or the crucifixion of Christian boys spread from Norwich throughout England: from Gloucester in 1169, to Bury St. Edmunds in 1183, to Winchester in 1192, from Norwich – again -- in 1235, to London in 1244, and, finally, to Lincoln in 1255, where the martyr was sainted. [18]

As we shall see, there are reports of an anomalous case of plural ritual murder again at Bristol at the end of the 13th century.

The Gloucester case occurred almost a quarter of a century after the child murder of little William at Norwich. Yet, in this case as well, the sources are not sufficiently clear as to the date of the murder of little Harold. John Brompton’s Chronicle speaks generally of an anonymous boy crucified by Jews near Gloucester in 1160, while the Peterborough Chronicle, although confirming the crucifixion, places the crime during the days of Passover of the following year. [19]

The author of the history of Saint Peter’s monastery at Gloucester, seems more precise and better-informed, reporting the killing of a child, named Harold, referring to him as a "glorious martyr in Christ", and stating that the crime was committed in 1168 by Jews, who were said to have thrown the body into the Severn river. [20]

The body of an eight-year old child, Hugh, in the bottom of a well owned by Copino, a local Jew, at Lincoln in the summer of 1255. The judge, John of Lexington, hastened to establish precise analogies with the Norwich murder a century before. The victim had been abducted by Jews, tortured and crucified, exactly as in little William’s case.

In those days, the great affluence of foreign Jews into the city of Norwich, of modest size, seemed to confirm that something big was in the works, and that the link with Hugh’s disappearance and killing was something more than a mere working hypothesis. The marriage of Rabbi Benedict (Berechyah)’s daughter, held there at the time, did not appear to deserve serious consideration by anyone wishing to demonstrate any other theory. But it was necessary to give the role to the principal defendant, Copino, who, rather than respond to the accusations, was to confirm them.

Ritual murder of a child, Hugh, in the city of Lincoln

The Jew, under torture, "sang" quickly, according to the pre-established script, confessing that the Jews of the Kingdom were accustomed to crucify cruelly a Christian child in contempt of the passion of Christ every year.

p. 117]

This year, it was the city of Lincoln’s turn to be selected as the theatre of the sacred and macabre ceremony, and the child Hugh was simply the victim of bad luck in becoming the innocent martyr of Jewish depravity. Popular devotion thus acquired another saint. [21]

Of the more than one hundred persons involved in the religious crime, about twenty were executed after summary trial. All the others were imprisoned in the Tower of London. All had their property confiscated, which in some cases amounted to huge fortunes, forfeit to the treasury of King Henry III.

At the end of the 14th century, Chaucer, in his Canterbury Tales, was able to draw inspiration from the crime at Lincoln, describing the re-emergence, from a well, of another child, who, like Hugh the Saint, had been sacrificed by the infamous followers of the Jewish sect. [22]

The Jew Samuel - a ritual serial killer

The case of Adam, considered the victim of a ritual homicide occurring at Bristol at the end of the 13th century, provides us with a true and proper serial killer, the Jew Samuel, who, "in the days of King Henry, father of the other King Henry", is said to have killed three Christian children in one year.

Thereafter, with the collaboration of his wife and son, he is said to have gone on to kidnap another child, named Adam, who, tortured, mutilated (perhaps subjected to circumcision) and crucified, is said finally to have been skewered on a spit like a lamb and roasted over a flame.

Samuel’s wife and son are said to have repented, expressing the intention to bathe in the baptismal waters, but at this point the perfidious and criminal Jew is said to have killed them both as well. [23]

As we see, sometimes the popular psychosis of ritual murder caused persons caught up in irrational fears to mistake one thing for another. And this regardless of the fact that perhaps these fears could have a some correspondence to actual crimes committed by individuals deranged by phobias and psychoses of a religious nature, transferred to the plane of action.

"Child crucifixions" in France

A few years after the crimes at Norwich and Gloucester, ritual murders made their appearance in grand style in France as well. These crimes, at least in the cases we know about, involved so-called "child crucifixions", which, once discovered and made public, led to the massacre of entire Jewish communities.

It thus happened during the reign of Louis VII, it is said that the Jews of Joinville and Pentoise crucified a child named Richard in 1179, who then became the object of popular devotion and was buried in Paris. [24]

When Philippe II, future King of France, was a child, around 1170, he is said to have listened in terror to contemporary tales told within the palace describing the Jews of Paris intent upon sacrificing a Christian child every year, in contempt of the Christian religion, butchering him in the slums of the city. [25]

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The most famous, and most frequently studied, ritual homicide of which Jews in French territory were accused during this period is certainly that reported in 1171 in Blois, a central location on the main rout from Tours to Orleans, on the banks of the Loire. Here, the Jews of that community, suspected of killing a Christian child and then dumping the body in the waters of the Loire, were condemned to death, and thirty two of them met death at the stake after a summary trial. [26]

In his memoirs, the rabbi Efraim of Bonn reconstituted that which, according to him, had been the tragic mix-up leading to the accusation of ritual murder brought against the Jews of Blois:

"Towards evening a Jew (who was hurrying along the street), bearing a bundle of hides to the tanner, without noticing that one of the hides had become separated from the others and could be seen protruding from the bundle. The groom’s horse (which was being led to drink from the river), seeing the whitened skins in the darkness, began to paw the ground and then reared up, refusing to be led to the water. The terrified Christian servant immediately returned to his lord’s palace and reported:

"Know ye that I stumbled upon a Jew, as he was about to dump the body of a little Christian into the waters of the river’". [27]

It seems obvious that waterways and tanners are recurrent elements in many supposed ritual child murder stories, and probably for good reason; this may be seen in many of the episodes we have already dealt with, from Norwich and Blois to Trent. The waters of rivers furrowing the regions of England and France and the German territories were considered silent accomplices, suggestive of cruel infanticides for religious purposes.

In 1199, the upper waterways of the Rhine, near Cologne, were the scene of a presumed ritual murder, which was immediately punished with the usual massacre of all those considered responsible. Some Christians, traveling on a boat going upstream, discovered the lifeless body of a girl lying on the bank in the mists of Buppard. The perpetrators of the crime were soon identified.

A short time later, as it happened, a group of Jews were observed on board a barge moving slowly in the same direction, while their other companions controlled its movements by means of ropes fixed to the bank. Their fate was sealed. Captured without hesitation, they were hurled into the turbid waters of the Rhine, where they drowned miserably. [28]

On a previous occasion, in 1187, the Jews of Magonza were accused of a ritual homicide and forced to swear that "they were not accustomed to sacrifice a Christian on the eve of Pesach ", the Jewish Passover. [29]

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A few years later, in 1195, it was the turn of the Jews of Spira to be accused of killing a young Christian girl. Justice was soon done. The Jewish district was sacked by an infuriated mob, while the rabbi of the community, Isaac ben Asher, was lynched, together with eight other Jews, and their houses and the synagogue burnt down. As if according to script, once again, the tragedy concluded on the river banks. The Torah rolls and other Hebraic books, removed from the place of worship, were thrown in the Rhine and disappeared beneath the waves. [30]

Two years afterward, as Jewish chronicles report,

"God’s rage struck His people when a Jewish madman killed a Christian girl in the city of Neuss, cutting her throat in front of everyone". [31]

Popular vengeance was immediate, and did not limit itself to targeting the supposed madman. Another five Jews were in fact accused of complicity in the murder, which was obviously not dismissed as the mere result of the insanity of an individual.

Jews cruelly kill the five sons of a miller in Fulda

"Particular importance has been attributed to the ritual murder of which the Jews of Fulda were accused in Franconia at Christmas 1235.

Based on the report contained in the Annals of Erfurt:

"In this year, on 28 December, 34 Jews of both sexes were killed by the Crusaders because two of them, on the Holy Day of Christmas, had cruelly killed the five sons of a miller who lived outside the city walls. (The Jews) gathered the blood of the victims in waxed bags, and left the area after setting fire to the house. When the truth came to light, and after the Jews themselves had confessed to their guilt, they received the punishment they deserved". [32]

The Annals of Marbach, referring to the same events, explained that the Jews had committed the horrendous crime "to use the blood to cure themselves". [33]

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"Ritual cannibalism"

Based on this unusual annotation, some people have identified the crime at Fulda as involving the birth of a new motive, intended to explain and characterize these religious child murders: so-called "ritual cannibalism".

If, previous to this time, the Jews had been accused of crucifying Christians, at least during the Passover period, "in contempt of the passion of Christ", without the blood of the victims being attributed any particular significance, starting in Fulda in 1235, the blood presumably consumed by the Jews for ritual, magical or curative purposes, are said to have assumed a decisive and almost exclusive significance.

The myth of the crucifixion of the Christian children is said to have arisen from the fertile imagination of Thomas of Monmouth, as a result of the murder of little William of Norwich in 1144. The myth of ritual cannibalism on the other hand, is said to have originated in the Fulda murder in 1235, tendentiously interpreted in this direction by clerical bodies headed by Conrad of Marburg, abbey of the imperial monastery of Fulda. [34]

In support of this interpretation, broadly accepted today, people stress that hardly one year afterwards, Kaiser Friedrich II created a commission of inquiry to verify whether or not the Jews had really nourished themselves on the blood of Christian children. [35]

To this theory a few objections may be raised, which appear of little importance. Precisely in the motivation adopted upon the creation of the Annals of Marbach, it is stated that its members were called upon to investigate "whether the Jews considered the consumption of blood to be necessary during the Passover period". We now know that the presumed ritual murder at Fulda was committed during the Christmas period and not at Easter, a sign that the German Emperor, although unaware of these recent facts, was thinking of the supposed ritual murders committed in the localities of Germany around on Passover eve, when the ritual use of the blood was presumed, even if unverified.

Secondarily, the allegation that the Jews of Fulda collected their victim’s blood "to cure themselves" (ad suum remedium) does not necessarily indicate oral ingestion, and, therefore, a form of ritual cannibalism. We have in fact seen that, according to the prosecutors, and sometimes even according to the defendants themselves, the Jews used blood, reduced to powder, to heal wounds, such as the circumcision wound, to staunch hemorrhages of various kinds, and to spread upon the body and face for purposes of exorcism.

If these considerations are of any value, then the specific relevance of Fulda as the birthplace of supposed ritual cannibalism should certainly be revised, without prejudice to the fact that the ingestion of blood in the Passover celebrations was thereafter to become an increasingly recurrent and explicit motif in the accusations and trials.

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The Jews were the heirs of the curse falling upon their ancestors, guilty of crucifying the Redeemer

It was Thomas de Cantimpré (1201-1272), who supplied his theological interpretation of the significance of attributing the value placed upon Christian blood by the Jews as the result of some prodigious and infallible medication. According to the friar of the monastery of Cantimpré, in the outskirts of Cambray, the Jews were the heirs of the curse falling upon their ancestors, guilty of crucifying the Redeemer.

Jewish blood was irremediably polluted and an inextinguishable source of physical and moral suffering. The only infallible therapy for such horrors and painful infirmities lay in Christian blood, which was transfused into their bodies in order to cleanse them. [36]

The torments suffered by the Jews in body and soul could find certain remedy only through to the beneficial ingestion of Christian blood

The confirmation of this unexceptionable truth, Thomas found, as might have been foreseen, in the zealous confessions of a learned Jew, recently purified by the sacred waters of baptism. This Jews is identified by some as the famous convert Nicholas Donin, responsible for the great bonfire of the Talmud in Paris in 1242, and perhaps linked to the anti-Jewish polemics following the ritual homicide at Fulda. [37]

Donin is supposed to have informed Thomas that a Jewish wise man, esteemed by all for his prophetical gifts, was said to have bared his soul on his deathbed to confirm that the torments suffered by the Jews in body and soul could find certain remedy only through to the beneficial ingestion of Christian blood. [38]

Whether in liquid form or powder, dried or in curdles, fresh or boiled -- blood, this magical fluid with the ambiguous and mysterious fascination, made its arrogant presence known through stories of child sacrifice, in the folds of which it lay concealed, perhaps less successfully than often supposed, until then.

Ritual murder accusations became more widespread: from Pforzheim in Baden in 1261, to Bacharach in 1283 and Magonza in the same year, to Troyes in France in 1288. These crimes generally involved child murders, in which the method was not emphasized; at times, they still involved crucifixions, as in the Northampton cases of 1279 (apud Northamptonam die Crucis adorate puer quidam a Judaeis crucifixus est) and Prague in 1305, and perhaps that of Chinon, in Thüringen, in 1317.

The sellers of Christian children to Jews to enable them to carry out their horrendous sacrifices were generally beggars, both men and women, who had few scruples when it came to earning a few coins; or unscrupulous nannies and wet nurses or unnatural parents. When the market supply was insufficient, the Jews were constrained to take direct action to abduct children for crucifixion, running not inconsiderable risks in such cases.

Inquiries and trials generally concluded with the confession and the pitiless condemnation of the defendants, who were at all times considered a priori to be guilty. Justice was often administered in a summary manner, in which case massacres and burnings at the stake were inflicted upon the entire Jewish community, such as Monaco in 1285, where two hundred Jews were burnt alive in the synagogue, accused by a stinking old woman of bribing her to abduct a boy for them. Another supposed ritual murder was recorded in that same Bavarian city in 1345. [39]

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The use of blood by Jews for ritual purposes was explicitly mentioned in many cases, but not always in connection with Passover. The Klosterchronik of Zwettl refers, in the year 1293, to a ritual murder accusation brought against the Jewish communities of southern Austria, on the banks of the Danube, and mentions blood as the motive for the crime. "The Jews of Krems had obtained a Christian (boy) from those of Brünn; they therefore killed him in the cruelest manner to obtain his blood". [40]

Thus, in the analogous case reported at Ueberlingen in Baden in 1332, the chronicler John of Winterthur revealed that the victim's parents had observed "signs of incisions in the internal organs and veins" of the body. [41]

The martyred body of a three-year-old girl named Orsa found

In the Passover period of 1442, a blood accusation struck the small Jewish community of Lienz in the val Pusteria, a city located on the confines between Kärnten and the Tyrol. The martyred body of a three-year-old girl named Orsa, a baker's daughter, was found in a canal.

Wounds and punctures observed on the body led people to believe that they had been inflicted to drain the victim’s blood. It was therefore foreseeable that popular rumor would immediately conclude that the crime was one of ritual child murder, committed by the enemies of Christ. The Jews, arrested without delay and interrogated with the usual coercive methods, admitted the crime, which is said to have taken place among the wine kegs in the cellar of Samuele’s house on Good Friday.

The child had been purchased by the Jews from a beggar, a certain Margarita Praitsschedlin, who was arrested and taken to jail; she quickly confessed. The trial was summary. Samuele, the principal defendant accused of ritual murder, was suspended from the wheel and burnt; Giuseppe "the Old Man", the probable spiritual head of the small Jewish community, was hanged; finally, the beggar woman, guilty of the abduction of little Orsa, was burnt on the wheel together with two former Jewesses, obviously considered accomplices in the crime.

These tragic events had however a happy and comforting conclusion; consisting of the baptism of five Jewish girls, four women and one male, to be exact. [42]

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The only problem, although of secondary importance, regarding the so-called "Martyrdom of Orsola Poch" is the fact that the report lacks any contemporary documentation. The first document relating to crime at Linz in Easter of 1442 consists of a posthumous report, drawn up in 1475 at the request of Giovanni Hinderbach, bishop of Trent. [43]

We shall therefore have to wait until the beginning of the 18th century to encounter the first hagiographic reports relating to Orsola and her tragic death. Moreover, the attentive reader will not fail to notice the analogies -- perhaps not accidental – relating to the involvement of Hinderbach, famous because of the Trent case.

The name of the principal defendant in both cases is Samuele; Mosé "the Old Man" of Trent corresponds to Giuseppe "the Old Man" of Lienz; women appear to play a major role in both cases. Finally, Hebraic ritual cannibalism during the Passover period – in this case, committed on the person of an innocent girl – is poorly suited to the stereotype, which insists that the child martyr must be a boy, upon whom circumcision may be practiced during the cruel and homicidal ceremony.

Two Christian brothers were mysteriously killed

A few years afterwards, in 1458, a murder accusation, probably for ritual purposes, was brought against the Jews of Chambéry in Savoy. On 3 April of that year, during the first night of Pesach, two Christian brothers, Leta, 12 years old, and Michel, aged five, were mysteriously killed, after having been seen traversing the Jewish quarter at nightfall.

The examination of the bodies indicated that the two children had been savagely beaten and then strangled. Suspicion once again fell on the Jews, who were arrested en masse and tried without any further delay the following May. Nevertheless, precise proofs not having been presented against them during the hearings, the accused were acquitted and released. [44]

In any case, it was clear that any child murder, especially if committed during the spring months, most particularly when the body was found near the Jewish quarter, would be automatically attributed to the Jews and linked to their secret Passover rites, drenched with blood.

Several Christian boys, sanctified in the popular devotion and who later became objects of veneration supposed victims of the Jews over that same period require a separate discussion. We are referring to "Good Werner" of Oberwesel in the Rhineland, Rudolf of Bern, Conrad of Weissensee and Ludwig of Ravensburg. [45]

Apart from the last, with regards to whom we know only that in 1429, at the age of 14, he is said to have fallen victim to the horrendous rites of the Jews on the banks of Lake Constance, in all the other cases the blood motif returns in an obsessive manner.

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At Oberwesel on the Rhine "Good Werner" had been hung by the feet, by Jews

At Oberwesel on the Rhine, a boy named Werner, also fourteen, like Ludwig of Ravensburg, is said to have tortured to death by the Jews for three days and then thrown in the waters of the river. His body is said to have floated miraculously upriver, against the current, and to have washed ashore at Bacharach, where it began to work miracles, curing the sick and suffering.

The tradition, gathered by later hagiographers, reports that "Good Werner" had been hung by the feet, by Jews, and intentionally made to vomit the Host which he had previously swallowed in church; his veins are then said to have been cruelly opened, so that his blood might flow and be collected. In short, the whole tale was an extraordinary, perhaps rather redundant, concentration of accusations, intended to exalt poor Werner’s halo of martyrdom, from crucifixion and ritual cannibalism to profanation of the Host. [46]

And yet, over the 16th century, "good Werner" became transformed, from a victim of the Jews into the rubicund patron saint of the wine growers of the region extending from the Rhineland to the Jura and Auvergne. [47]

The close kinship between blood and wine, constant over the centuries, permitted the holy martyr effectively to protect the Cabernets and Merlots of industrious and zealous French and German growers.

Saint Rudolf of Bern, killed in 1294, is said to have been tortured and decapitated in the basement of a palace owned by a rich Jew

Another saint, Rudolf of Bern, killed in 1294, is said to have been tortured and decapitated in the basement of a palace owned by a rich Jew in the Swiss city of Jöli during the Passover period of that year. [48]

The hagiographic reports of the early Eighteenth century state that this Christian victim was crucified and his blood drained off by Jews "intending to practice their damned superstitions". [49]

More specifically, the violent death of Conrad, a schoolboy from Weissensee in Thüringen, not far from Erfurth, occurred in 1303 and was attributed to the Jews, according to chroniclers, in relation to the celebration of the Jewish Passover. In observation of the Passover norms prescribed by the cult, the murder of young Conrad, who is said to have become a popular saint in the regions of central Germany, is alleged to have had his veins opened to collect the precious blood. [50]


[1] See the text in The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich by Thomas of Monmouth, Now First Edited from the Unique Manuscript, by A. Jessopp and R.M. James, Cambridge, 1896.

[2] It would be possible to compile an extremely long and extensive bibliography on this topic. See, in particular, the extremely curious monograph by M.D. Anderson, A Saint at Stake. The Strange Death of William of Norwich, 1144, London, 1964, and the important works by Langmuir and McCullogh, to which we will return later: G.L. Langmuir, Thomas of Monmouth, Detector of Ritual Murder, in "Speculum", LIX (1984), p. 820-846; Id., Toward a Definition of Anti-Semitism, Berkely-Los Angeles (Calif.) - Oxford, 1990, pp. 209-236; Id., Historiographic Crucifixion, in G. Dehan, Les Juifs en regard de l'histoire. Mélanges en honneur de Bernard Blumenkranz, Paris, 1985, pp. 109-127; J.M. McCullogh, Jewish Ritual Murder, William of Norwich, Thomas of Monmouth and the Early Dissemination of the Myth, in "Speculum", LXXII (1997), pp. 109-127. "We note that it was in England, the German regions and in those Alpine regions in which the devotion of the "child martyrs" was most widespread, always presented as victims of the Jews", (A Vauchez, La santità nel Medioevo, Bologna, 1989, p. 104).

[3] "In England [...] various images remain of the child martyr William of Norwich (d. 1144), who was never canonized" (Vauchez, La santità nel Medioevo, cit., p. 454).

[4] Theobald’s deposition, accompanied by other fragments from the written hagiography of Thomas of Monmouth, is recorded by J.R. Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World. A Source Book (315-1791), New York, 1974, pp. 121-126.

[5] Cfr. J. Jacobs, St. William of Norwich, in "The Jewish Quarterly Review", IX (1897), 748-755.

[6] In this regard, see G. Mentgen, The Origins of the Blood Libel, in "Zion", LIX (1994), pp. 341-349 (in Hebrew).

[7] Thomas de Cantimpré, Bonum universale de apibus, Douay, Baltarzar Belleri, 1627, pp. 303-306. For Thomas's statements relating to the drawing lots among the Jewish community [of] candidates for the annual ritual sacrifice of the child who was destined to renew the supply of Christian blood, see H.L. Strack, The Jew and Human Sacrifice. Human Blood and Jewish Ritual, 1909, pp. 174-175.

[8] Cfr. A. Molinier, Enquête sur un meurtre imputé aux Juifs de Valréas (1247), in "Le Cabinet Historique", n.s., II (1883), pp. 121-133; Strack, The Jew and Human Sacrifice, cit., pp. 179-182, 277-279; Langmuir, Towards a Definition of Antisemitism, cit., pp. 290-296.

[9] "Consuetudo est inter Judaeos et ubicunque maxima sit multitudo Judaeorum facere factum simile annuatorum et maxime in partibus Yspaniae, quia ibi est maxima multitudo Judaeorum".

[10] This is the argument set forth by Langmuir, who is often accepted and shared uncritically. "Ever since the of ritual murder accusation was first made against the Jews in the Middle Ages, that is, from 1150 at Norwich, to 1235, for almost a century, the Jews of England and northern France were accused of crucifying Christian children, but not of ritual cannibalism (i.e., the consumption of their blood for ritual purposes). Absolutely no accusation of ritual cannibalism was ever made in Germany until the Fulda case in 1235, and this accusation came to light it was a novelty. It is true that, between 1146 and 1235, the Jews of Germany were accused of killing children of different ages and as a consequence they were assaulted, but there is no evidence of the ritual cannibalism accusation before 1235 at Fulda" (cfr. Toward a Definition of Antisemitism, cit., pp. 266-267). On the recent arguments set forth by N. Roth, Medieval Jewish Civilization, New York-Lond, 2003, pp. 119-121, 566-570.

[11] Cfr. McCullogh, Jewish Ritual Murder, cit., p. 728.

[12] Annales Herbipolenses, in "Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Scriptores", XVI Hannover, 1859, p. 3.

[13] Cfr. A.M. Haberman, Sefer ghezerot Ashkenaz we-Zarft ("Book of Persucutions in Germany and France"), Jerusalem, 1971, p. 119; Id, Sefer zechirah. Selichot we-qinot le-Rabbi Efraim b. Ya'akov ("Book of Memory. Prayers and Elegies of the Rabbi Efraim di Bonn"), Jerusalem, 1970, pp. 22-23.

[14] This is the argument advanced by I.J. Yuval, "Two Nations in Your Womb", Perceptions of Jews and Christians, Tel Aviv, 2000, pp. 182- 184 (in Hebrew), partially accepted by John McCullogh.

[15] "We read nothing about Jewish blood ritual [...] till right into the thirteenth century. It is mentioned for the first time in 1236 on the occasion of the Fulda case, but then already being generally believed in Germany" (cfr. Strack, The Jew and Human Sacrifice, cit., p. 277). As we have seen, Strack's arguments are accepted and taken up by Langmuir (Toward a Definition of Anti-Semitism, cit., pp. 266-267) and more recently by R.C. Stacey, From Ritual Crucifixion to Host Desecration. Jews and the Body of Christ, in "Jewish History", XII (1998), pp. 11-28.

[16] Marquardo Susanni, Tractatus de Judaeis et aliis infidelibus, Venice, Comin da Trino, 1558, c. 25rv: "de illo Vuilelme puero in Anglia, qui fuit crucifixus a Judaeis in die Parasceves in Urbe Vormicho [...] quod Judaei degentes Nordovici quendam Christianum puerum furtim captum totum integrum annum enutriverunt, ut adventante Paschate cruci affigerent, qui tanti criminis convicti meritas dederunt poenas".

[17] Cfr. McCullogh, Jewish Ritual Murder, cit., pp. 702-703.

[18] Cfr. Strack, The Jew and Human Sacrifice, cit., p. 177; J. Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews, Philadelphia (Pa.), 1961, pp. 123-130, 143-144; Langmuir, Historiographic Crucifixion, cit., pp. 113-114; André Vauchez mentions the popular devotion for Herbert of Huntington, presumed victim of the Jews at about 1180 (cfr. Vauchez, La santità nel Medioevo, cit., p. 99). On ritual murders in England in general, see C. Holmes, The Ritual Murder Accusation in Britain, in "Ethnic and Ritual Studies", IV (1981), pp. 265-288.

[19] Johannes Brompton, Chronicon, in Historiae Anglicanae Scriptores, London, Jacob Flescher, 1652, vol. X, p. 1050; "anno 1160 [...] regisque Henrici Secundi quidam puer a Judaeis apud Gloverniam crucifixus est". Chronicon Petroburgense, by Th. Stapleton, London, 1894, p. 3: "anno 1161 [...] in hoc Pascha quidam puer crucifixus est apud Gloucestriam".

[20] Historia Monasterii S. Petri Gloucestriae, by W.H. Hart, London, 1863, in Rerum Medii Aevi Scriptores, vol. LIII, t. I, p. 20: "anno 1168 [...] Haraldum puerum [...] gloriosum Christo martirem sine crimine necatum [...] in amnem Sabrinem [Judaei] proiecerant".

[21] Cfr. G.L. Langmuir, The Knight's Tale of Young Hugh of Lincoln, in "Speculum", XLVII (1972), pp. 459-482; Vauchez, La santità nel Medioevo, cit., p. 99.

[22] Cfr. A.B. Friedmann, The Prioresss's Tale and Chaucer's Anti-Semitism, in "Chaucer Review", XIX (1974), pp. 46-54.

[23] Cfr. Stacey, From Ritual Crucifixion to Host Desecration, cit., pp. 11-28; C. Cluse, "Fabula ineptissima", Die Ritualmordlegende um Adam von Bristol, in "Ashkenas", 5 (1995), pp. 293-330.

[24] "Sanctus Richarus a Judaeis crocifixus fuit". Cfr. Vauchez, La santità nel Medioevo, cit., p. 99.

[25] The term used for the killing of the Christian boy by the Jews of Paris is jugulabant. Cfr. H.F. Delaborde, Oeuvres de Rigord et Guillaume le Breton, Paris, 1882, vol. V, p. 15.

[26] For an extensive bibliography on the ritual murder of Blois, see, among others, Sh. Spiegel, "In monte Dominus videbitur". The Martyrs of Blois and the Early Accusation of Ritual Murder, in Mordecai K. Kaplan Jubilee Volume, by M. Davis, New York, 1953, pp. 267-287 (in Hebrew]; Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World, cit., pp. 127-130; R. Chazan, The Blois Incident of 1171. A Study in Jewish Intercommunal Organization, in "Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research", XXXVI (1968), in "Jewish History", XII (1998), pp. 29-46; and, lastly, Sh. Shwarzfuchs, A History of the Jews in Medieval France, Tel Aviv, 2001, pp. 117-123 (in Hebrew).

[27] Cfr. Haberman, Sefer ghezerot Ashkenaz we-Zarfat, cit., pp. 120-124.

[28] Cfr. ibidem, p. 126. On the massacre at Boppard, see Yuval, "Two Nations in Your Womb", cit., p. 192; Roth, Medieval Jewish Civilization, cit., p. 568.

[29] Cfr. Haberman, Sefer ghezerot Ashkenaz we-Zarfat, cit., p. 161. See also Yuval, "Two Nations in Your Womb", cit., p. 185.

[30] Cfr. Haberman, Sefer Zechirah, cit., pp. 42-43; Id. (same author), Sefer ghezerot Ashkenaz we-Zarfat, cit., pp. 231-232. On the facts of Spira, see also Yuval, "Two Nations in Your Womb", cit., pp. 185, 192, and in particular, Roth, Medieval Jewish Civilization, cit., pp. 568- 569.

[31] Cfr. Haberman, Sefer Zechirah, cit., p. 40.

[32] Annales Erpherfurtenses, in "Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Scriptores", XVI, Hannover, 1859, p. 31.

[33] Annales Marbacenses, ibidem, p. 178 ("ut ex eis sanguinem ad suum remedium elicerent ".

[34] Hermann L. Strack was the first author to note that the first to notice that the belief in the ritual use of blood by the Jews, although widespread in Germany even beforehand, was mentioned explicitly for the first time in 1255, on the occasion of the Fulda case (cfr. Strack, The Jew and Human Sacrifice, cit., pp. 178, 277). Based on this consideration, Langmuir (Toward a Definition of AntiSemitism, cit., pp. 263- 281) maintains that the origin of the motive of that which is called "ritual cannibalism" in connection with the facts of Fulda. Before that time, in all the cases reported, the crimes were said to have involved "ritual crucifixion", without any mention of the blood motif. This thesis seems today generally accepted (see, among others, Mentgen, The Origins of the Blood Libel, cit., pp. 341-349; Roth, Jewish Medieval Civilization, cit., pp. 119-120).

[35] "Utrum, sicut fama communis habet, Judaei christianum sanguinem in parasceve necessarium habeant". In this regard, see Strack, The Jew and Human Sacrifice, cit., pp. 178, 277, and, recently, Sh Simonsohn, The Apostolic See and the Jews. History, Documents: 1464-1521, Toronto, 1990, pp. 48-52.

[36] "Quod ex maledictione parentum currat adhuc in filios venam facinoris per maculam sanguinis, importune fluidam proles impia inexpiabiliter crucietur, quosque se ream sanguinis Christi recognoscat poenitens et sanetur" (Tommaso da Cantimpré, Bonum universale de apibus, cit., pp. 304-305). See also Roth's arguments, Jewish Medieval Culture, cit., pp. 120-121.

[37] For the identification of Donin with the converted Jew mentioned in Thomas de Cantimpré, see Strack, The Jew and Human Sacrifice, cit., p. 175. For a convincing examination of the Hebrew texts placing the French apostate in relation with the anti-Jewish accusations made after the Fulda case, see, in particular, S. Grayzel, The Church and the Jews in the XIIIth century, Philadelphia (Pa.), 1933, pp. 339-340, and more recently, J. Schatzmiller, Did Nicholas Donin Promulgate the Blood Libel? in Studies on the History of the People and the Land of Israel Presented in Azriel Shochet, 1987, vol., pp. 175-182 (in Hebrew).

[38] "Certissime vos scitote nullo modo sanari vos posse ab illo, quo punimini verecundissimo cruciatu nisi solo sanguine Christiano" (Thomas da Cantimpré, Bonum unverisale de apibus, cit., p. 306).

[39] Cfr. Strack, The Jew and Human Sacrifice, cit., pp. 169-191; Roth, Medieval Jewish Civilization, cit., pp. 568-569.

[40] "Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Scriptores", IX, Hannover, 1848, p. 658.

[41] Johannes Vitodurani Chronicon, by G. von Wyss, Zurich, 1856, pp. 106-108.

[42] "Circiter anno quadregesimo secundo, vel tertio proxime elapso, hic in dicto oppido Leontio aliqui Hebraei, in duabus aedibus habitationem habuerint [...] cum illi Judaei dictae puellae (Ursulae) ut ex sequenti eorum inquisitione patet compotes facti, eandem dicto anno, die Parasceves martyrio affecerunt et occiderunt, et postea hic in aqua proiecerunt, ut tam enormem caedem et facinus occultarent [...] quod sanguis eius ex eodem corpusculo elicitus ac effusa fuerit [...] et ita Judaeos omnes sanguis eius ex eodem corpusculo elicitus ac effusus fuerit [...] et ita Judaeos omnes unanimiter fuisse confessos et effatos, quomodo dictam infantem die Parsceves anno praefato enecassent et martyrio affecissent (in cella vinaria)".

[43] See note above. On this document and the 18th century reports of ritual murder of Lienz, see [Benedetto Bonelli], Dissertazione apologetica sul martirio del beato Simone da Trento nell'anno MCCCCLXXV dagli ebrei ucciso, Trent, Gianbattista Parone, 1747, pp. 242- 246; F. Rohrbacher, Usula von Lienz: Ein von Juden gemartertes Christenkind, Brixen, 1905.

[44] Cfr. R. Segre, The Jews in Piedmont, Jerusalem, 1986, vol. I, p. 286.

[45] Cfr. Vauchez, La santità nel Medioevo, cit., pp. 99-100. In this regard, see, most recently, K.R.Stow's stimulating study, Jewish Dogs. An Image and Its Interpreters, Stanford (Calif.), 2006.

[46] Cfr. F.S. Hattler, Katholischer Kindergarten oder Legende fur Kinder, Freiburg, 1806. See also Strack's argument, The Jew and Human Sacrifice, cit., pp. 184-185; F. Pauly, Zur Vita des Werner von Oberwesel. Legende und Wirklichtkeit, in "Archiv" für Mittelrheinische Kirchengeschichte", XVI (1964), pp. 94-109; Roth, Medieval Jewish Civilization, cit., p. 569.

[47] Cfr. H. de Grèzes, Saint Vernier (Verny, Werner, Garnier) patron des vignerons en Auvergne, en Bourgogne et en Franche-Comptè, Clermont-Ferrand, 1889; A. Vauchez, Antisemitism e canonizzazione populare: San Werner o Vernier (1287), bambino martire e patrono dei vignaioli, in S. Boesch Gajano and L. Sebastiani, Culto dei santi, istituzioni e classi sociali in età preindustriale, L'Aquila-Roma, 1984, pp. 489-508.

[48] Berner-Chronik, by G. Studer, Bern, 1871, p. 29. For the more older sources relating to this ritual murder, cfr. Strack, The Jew and Human Sacrifice, cit., pp. 186-188.

[49] Cfr. Johann Rudolf von Waldkirch, Gründliche Einleitung zu der Eydgenössischen Bunds- und Staats-Historie, Basel, Thurneysen, 1721, vol. I, p. 135; J. Lauffer, Beschreibung helvetischer Geschichte, Zurich, Conrad Orell, 1706, vol. III. P. 108.

[50] Cfr. "Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Scriptores", XXV, Hannover, 1896, p. 717; XLII, Hannover, 1921, p. 29.


Revised by the original translators, Feb. 2011

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