The ritual-child-murder accusation: its dissemination and Harold of Gloucester*

By:
Articles Image

The boundaries that have traditionally divided ‘maiority’ from ‘minority’ history have begun to break down . . . we need to begin to think more broadly, to tie our understanding of Anglo-Jewish history to what we know about the general medieval history of England and France.1

Most fearful of all the charges levied against the European Jewry was that of ritual child murder. Such charges antedate Christianity; they were made by Hellenistic Greeks in 167 BC and Josephus regarded them as serious enough to merit rebuttal in Agoz'nstApion. In 415 CE drunken Jews at Imestar, Syria, were accused of tying a young Christian to a cross during Purim, the festival commemorating the defeat of Haman the Agagite by Mordecai and Esther, and mocking him in such a way that he died.2 Then, for more than seven centuries, the records are, apparently, silent.

The first recorded medieval accusation was made at Norwich in 1144 when members of the Jewry were accused of murdering the 12-year-old William by crucifixion, at Eastertide, ‘in scorn of the Lord’s passion’. For almost a quarter of a century there was no further accusation. Then in 1 168 a second charge was made, at Gloucester. This alleged martyrdom of a boy called Harold, by Jews at Passiontide, is described in the History of the Monastery of St Peter’s, Gloucester.3 The Norwich incident has excited great interest and an extensive literature, the latter neither.4 Yet the events in Gloucester are of much more than local interest. They established a pattern quickly taken up elsewhere: within three years the first ritual murder charge was made in France. It was quickly followed by another. Thus was perpetuated the myth that for eight centuries has had a profound impact on Western attitudes towards Jews.

The Prototype: St William, Child Martyr of Norwich

How far were events in Gloucester a reflection of those in Norwich? It was there that the ground rules of the ritual-child-murder accusation were established. If the child was to be a martyr - and England and indeed Europe had precious few new martyrs in the 12th century as the extraordinary success of the cult of St Thomas of Canterbury shows - it had to be demonstrated that he had died for the faith.

How, it was asked, could martyrdom take place in a Christian country, except at the hand of the infidels, the Jews? In the Western world, all Jewish history, Blumenkranz has suggested, has been dominated by Christ’s passion and death, because all responsibility for the crucifixion has been imputed to the Jews and the Jews alone. Rare indeed are those who have charged the Roman officials or soldiers.5 Hence the crucial importance of the date, Eastertide, and of the manner of death, crucifixion, for it had to be cast as an act carried out in mockery of the passion and death of Christ.

The only source for the events of I I44 is The Life and Miracles ofSt William of Norwich, written by Thomas of Monmouth, a monk of the

Become a member to read the full article
Become a member today

£7

24 hour access to JHSE online resources

Instant access to over 700 articles View the original articles as a PDF
Learn More

£40

Annual JHSE Membership

Members are entitled to a free copy of the latest Jewish Historical Studies, free access to our online resources and associate membership of the UCL Library in London.  In addition, they receive the JHSE Newsletter, special offers on books for sale and pay less to attend our series of lectures and other public events.
Learn More

£20

Student Membership

The JHSE want to encourage students to engage with Jewish history.  Apply for a Student Membership with your university email account and once we have verified your status you will soon have all the benefits of being a full JHSE member.
Learn More

£80

Associate your Institution with the JHSE

Give your members access to JHSE online resources and special offers on book sales.  Use your institutional email account when applying, and once your status is verified we will explain the scheme.  Preferred payment is by credit or debit card.
Learn More
0

Your Cart