The Jewish blood libel in history

The Murder of William of Norwich: The Original Blood Libel in Medieval Europe

by E. M. Rose

(Oxford University Press, £16.99)

Seventy years ago, in the summer of 1945, as the armies of the Allied nations swept towards Berlin from east and west, the first news of the death camps of National Socialist Germany began to emerge. 

Strange to say, from our modern perspective, there were many people at first who could not believe what was being reported by such people as the Irish doctor Robert Collis (one of the first into Bergen Belsen).

At that time my father knew the Austrian journalist Willie Frischauer, who wrote for the Daily Herald, the man who had shackled Hitler with the supposed ‘real name’ of Schicklgruber, holding him up to the amused contempt of the world. 

Frischcauer showed my father some of the first unpublished photographs to emerge from the US army of the camps. On his return to Dublin my father related all this to family and friends. Yet a relative said she could not believe all that: “It was all British propaganda”. Others in Ireland thought likewise. Such people were in a way the first of the holocaust deniers.  

Of course, lies and propaganda play their part in war and politics. But the revelations of Belsen, Auschwitz, Dachau and the others posed a moral problem to Catholic Europe. 

What was the root of this evil in Europe, supposedly the most civilised continent in the world, with an excess of art and philosophy, yet which could not save its people from the awful scourge of genocide?

In his classic book, Warrant for Genocide (1967; Serif, £14.99) the historian Norman Cohn traced part of this anti-Semitism of the Nazis and Europe in general through the myth of the Jewish conspiracy to control the world and The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a crass forgery by the Tsarist secret service which served to stoke an increased distrust of the Jews in many countries in the first half of the 20th Century. 

Ireland was not free of this. In the 1940s the GAA sponsored the publication of a pamphlet that spoke of the threat to Ireland from “secret societies” – not the IRA, of course, but the Freemasons and from “aliens”, code for Jews. Anti-Semitism was the casual cant of the day in among Catholic writers everywhere, including Hilaire Belloc.


In her important new book, American historian E. M. Rose goes right back to the 12th Century to examine in absorbing detail a vital aspect of European anti-Semitism: the belief that Jewish communities would murder Christian children and drink their blood.  

Previous historians had agreed that the charge was absurd. But what she addresses is the role of the ‘big lie’ in history – something to which we Irish should give very serious attention. 

The story begins with the finding in March 1144 of the body a young apprentice named William in a wood just outside Norwich city. He may well have killed himself; certainly no charge of murder was made at the time. 

Five years later, a local monk made his death, now claimed to be murder, the centre of a literary work (hardly a true history according to Dr Rose), which accused the Jews of his killing and provided accounts of the miracles wrought in his name.

This created the model for later accusations across England and Europe of ritual murders. But, she explains, often these were merely pretexts for extracting money from the Jewish community either by fine or confiscation. For example the walls of Paris were built with money extracted from the Jewish community.

Of Irish interest is the fact that the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169 by William de Clare and his henchmen was funded by monies extracted under pain of punishment from the Jewish community of Gloucester, after another supposed murder. Strongbow and his associates are presented as little more than mercenary crooks; but it is alarming to learn that the first victims of the colonisation of Ireland were in fact Jewish.

Dr Rose carries her research beyond England to deal with later events of a similar nature in Paris and in Blois. What happened in Blois was crucial for it was here that Jews were burned at the stake as heretics. This represented, Rose says, a new and sinister departure. 

In earlier centuries the Jews were regarded as imperfect children of God, who had received the revelation of the Bible and would be converted on or before the Last Day. This view drew upon the writings of St Augustine.

After Blois, the Jews were seen as heretics, enemies of religion who had rejected God. With Blois, she suggests, begins the long and harrowing pilgrimage of Israel through European history down to the Holocaust and to the remnant prejudices of our time. 

Catholic attitudes (which is not quite the same as the attitude of the Church) and later rabid nationalism played a strong part in the rise and continuance of anti-Semitism. One would hope that after all this bloody history tolerance would be the aim of all, Christians and Jews. 

Yet in Israel, Benzi Gopstein, leader of the far right Lehava party, has called for the destruction of all churches in Israel and the expulsion of Christians. “We don’t have a place for churches here,” he is recorded as saying. “It’s Jewish law. This is what God told us.” 

His call is not for individuals to act but for the government of Israel to do so. But it seems some settlers are intent on overthrowing the democratic state of Israel and replacing it with an authoritarian “religious kingdom” based on Halakha, Jewish law, which would provide a final solution to the repugnant Christian presence.

We cannot remake the horrors of the past; but can surely strive to create a future free from prejudices of all kinds.