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It’s a story with all the makings of a bestselling whodunit: a dead body, unreliable witnesses, a second dead body, a sensational trial and, of course, a sleuth. There’s just one problem. This is a story that has no end.

We still don’t know who killed an English boy named William more than 800 years ago. Nor do we know why the legend that sprang up after his death – the first blood libel accusation in Europe – refuses to die. What we do know is that it isn’t for lack of trying. Many historians, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have puzzled over both these mysteries, without conclusive success. Most recently, E.M. Rose has entered the fray with her book The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe (Oxford University Press).


Rose takes a micro look at Norwich society during the twelfth century, a time when it was England’s second largest city and home to England’s second largest Jewish community. It was the calm before the storm that led to the expulsion of the Jews from England in the next century.


A Body Is Found

One day in March 1144, an English peasant walking through the woods outside Norwich stumbled upon the mutilated body of a dead boy. He did what some people might do under similar circumstances: he pretended he hadn’t seen a thing and hurried on his way. A highborn nun also saw the corpse; she too neglected to notify the authorities.

But a few days later the matter was brought to the attention of the forester in charge of the wooded area. He launched an inquiry, which produced few results other than the boy’s identification: his name was William, son of Wenstan and Elvira; he was twelve years old, and an apprentice leatherworker.

William was buried shortly afterward, and that should have been the end of his story. Violent deaths weren’t unusual during this period, which Victorian historians later dubbed “the Anarchy.” After Henry I died in 1135, a battle for the throne broke out between Henry’s daughter, Matilda, and his nephew, Stephen of Blois. During the two-decade civil war, conflict wasn’t limited to armed combatants. Greedy knights and feudal lords openly extorted money from prosperous citizens and churches. If the money wasn’t handed over willingly, the people were thrown into prison and tortured, until they either died or had a change of heart.

Yet even during those chaotic times homicide on the king’s roads was a serious offense; the ability to protect travelers was considered a sign that the ruler was fit to rule. Therefore, if William’s family wanted to find the boy’s murderer, they could have brought their case to the secular authorities. Instead, William’s uncle addressed the local church synod, where he claimed that Norwich’s Jews had murdered his nephew.


England’s First Jews

It’s thought that Jews first arrived in England a few years after the Norman Conquest of 1066. William the Conqueror wanted to establish trade and credit links between his newly conquered lands and his kingdom back in France. He therefore invited a group of Jews from Normandy to settle in London.

As elsewhere in Europe, England’s Jews were considered wards of the king, which gave them certain privileges and protection. This privileged position wasn’t without its dangers. It would sometimes raise the ire of the non-Jewish populace, and it put the Jews at the mercy of their king, who could raise their taxes at will.

But during the early Norman period, the rulers generally preferred to let their Jews do business without too much interference and Norwich was a logical place to settle. It was located in the center of a prosperous region and it was a seat of royal power, complete with a castle and a sheriff to provide protection.


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