Jewish Blood Libel: Persecution & Greed in Medieval England

By , February 2, 2010 1:29 am

The English origins of the blood libel

“Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln” was a popular medieval saint, supposed to have been the victim of a ritual, Jewish murder in the 12th century.

The terrible medieval blood libel against Jews, which started a wave of persecution, torture, death, and exile, got off to a less than glorious start in Norman England.

In later times a blot on Russia and Eastern Europe, and in modern times, also shame on the Muslim World, this long-lasting accusation, born from anti-semitism, started in Norwich and Lincoln, in the mid 12th century.

What is the Jewish Blood Libel?

A 16th century French woodcut, showing a Jew calling the devil forth from a vat of Christian blood

A 16th century French woodcut, showing a Jew calling the devil forth from a vat of Christian blood

The exact details varied from case to case, but there were many elements common to all or most of the blood libel allegations.

They involved the ritual human sacrifice, and slaughter for religious Jewish practice of a Christian, in sadistic ceremonies.

In general, a child, usually a pre-adolescent boy, was said to have been abducted or seduced and  coxed into a Jew’s house.

He was then tortured, often circumcised, sometimes with a parody of cruxifiction, and had his blood drained for, use in ritual religious foods.

The accusations were often followed by an orgy of violence against Jews who lived anywhere near the town where the death occurred.

It was a rather handy way for Kings and local power-brokers to get their sticky fingers on Jewish money and assets – either by taking over the estates of the “criminals”, or by demanding what was, in effect, protection money.

The fact that Jews are particularly careful to avoid eating even animal blood – draining it from animals as they are killed, and soaking meat cuts to remove it – appears to have passed the blood libel mobs by.

After the first blood libels circulated in England, the practice spread all over Europe, and to Russia and the Muslim world.

The First Accusation in England – William of Norwich

A 15th century painting depicting William of Norwich

A 15th century painting depicting William of Norwich

William of Norwich was born in about 1132AD. He lived in the town for his whole life, and died at the age of about 12, in 1144.

William was an apprentice tanner, and had business dealings with Norwich’s Jewish population. Shortly before he vanished, he was seen visiting the house of a Jewish family with whom he was acquainted. He was murdered, and his body later found and buried in a local graveyard.

There followed accusations against Norwich’s Jews, and Thomas of Monmouth, a Benedictine monk in Norwich, wrote a book called The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich in 1174.

He was encouraged in this by the Bishop of Norwich, William De Turbeville, who seems to have seen great potential in establishing William’s tomb as a pilgrimage site. Places which became popular with pilgrims could rake in substantial amount of cash, and other valuables, left as offerings to the saints.

It doesn’t appear that William was ever actually made a saint by the Church, although he was referred to locally, in Norwich and Norfolk, as Saint William.

Blood Libel leading to Sainthood – Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln

Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln being enticed in Copin's house

Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln being enticed in Copin's house

This blood libel was a grander and far more damaging affair. Hugh of Lincoln was an 8 or 9 year old boy, the son of a local woman called Beatrice.

Hugh vanished at the end of July, 1255. His body was found roughly a month later, in or near the property of a Lincoln Jewish man, called Copin, Kopin, Joscefin,or Jopin.

A local priest called John of Lexington saw an opportunity, and under threat of torture, Copin “confessed” that he and a group of other Jews from both Lincoln and other towns had gathered together for the ritual torture and sacrifice of a Christian boy.

Copin was promised a pardon for his confessing and implicating other Jews, but King Henry III arrived in Lincoln in October, and ordered that Copin be dragged around the city tied to a horse, and then executed.

The Kings of England “owned” all English Jews, and could tax them freely and more heavily than non-Jewish, Christian subjects.

Earlier in 1255, King Henry III had sold the English Jews to his brother, Richard Earl of Cornwall. But he realised that, as King, he was still entitled to the proceeds of the estates of those Jews convicted of serious crimes.

About 100 of Lincoln’s Jews were dragged off to the Tower of London.  At least 20 of them were executed, and their property forfeited to the Crown, before the rest were pardoned and allowed home.

Lincoln Cathedral (West Front) This photo is in the public domain

Lincoln Cathedral (West Front) This photo is in the public domain

Unlike William of Norwich, it appears that Hugh of Lincoln did actually become a Catholic Saint. His feast day was on 27th July each year.

Not long after his death, his body was translated to Lincoln Cathedral. Above the stone tomb, a shrine was put up to Little Saint Hugh. Miracles were attributed to the intercession of Little St Hugh, and he was a popular saint.

The coffin was opened during restoration work in 1790, and found to contain a boy’s skeleton, approximately 3.5 feet long.

St Hugh of Lincoln was also a popular saint, but a different man. He was an adult when he died, and was Bishop of Lincoln.

Unless I’ve missed it, Lincoln Cathedral’s otherwise interesting website doesn’t mention the whole Little Saint Hugh thing at all, but there are lots of references to the (adult) St Hugh.

Little Saint Hugh’s legacy

The shrine above Little Saint Hugh's tomb, in a 17th century illustration

The shrine above Little Saint Hugh's tomb, in a 17th century illustration

The story was widely-known and repeated. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about Little St Hugh in The Prioress’ Tale, one of the Canterbury Tales. The passage reads:

O yonge Hugh of Lyncoln, slayn also

With cursed Jewes, as it is notable,

For it is but a litel while ago,

Preye eek for us, we synful folk unstable

A (rough) translation into modern English, by me and not to be relied upon as gospel:

Oh young Hugh of Lincoln, also slain

By accursed Jews, as is known well,

For it was but a little while ago

Pray also for us, we unstable, sinful folk

In 1955, the Lincoln Cathedral (since the Reformation, an Anglican foundation) put up a sign next to Little St Hugh’s tomb, which says:

Trumped up stories of “ritual murders” of Christian boys by Jewish communities were common throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and even much later. These fictions cost many innocent Jews their lives. Lincoln had its own legend and the alleged victim was buried in the Cathedral in the year 1255.

A medieval blood libel fresco in St Paul's Church in Sandomierz, Poland

A medieval blood libel fresco in St Paul's Church in Sandomierz, Poland

Such stories do not redound to the credit of Christendom, and so we pray:

Lord, forgive what we have been,
amend what we are,
and direct what we shall be.

Other Examples of Medieval English Blood Libels against the Jews

There were other, similar accusations in towns and cities across England:

  • Saint Harold of Gloucester – killed in a blood libel incident in Gloucester in 1168. His feast day was March 25th
  • Robert of Bury -the supposed victim of Jewish ritual sacrifice in Bury St. Edmunds, in 1181. On Palm Sunday in 1190, there was a mob attack on the town’s Jews. 57 were killed, and the rest banished from Bury.
  • Unknown boy – another blood libel accusation, in Devizes, Wiltshire, in 1892.

17 Responses to “Jewish Blood Libel: Persecution & Greed in Medieval England”

  1. Joanna says:

    This practice bears a striking similarity to witch hunts. After the execution of the accused, her money and lands became the property of the crown or lower-level authority. In both cases, sadly one only had to be “different” to become a target of bigotry and greed.

  2. Bearie says:

    Very interesting part of history and sad people have ever been prosecuted this way.

  3. hels says:

    The timing of these cases is interesting – all between 1144 and 1255.

    I might have thought that wiping out small Jewish communities but still taking the estates of those Jews who survived would have been a profitable business for the English monarchy. Ending Jewish presence in England, totally, would have seemed to be counter productive.

    Yet on his return to England in 1290, Richard I issued writs to the sheriffs of all the English counties ordering them to enforce a decree: all Jews had to leave England before All Saints’ Day 1290. Insanity.

  4. hels says:

    I have had lots of fun and learning reading your blog and would like to present an award. Please come to my blog to pick it up.

  5. A very interesting post. I had some knowledge of the persecution of Jews in England in Lincoln from my school history lessons (a few years ago now!). I didn’t know the full story but now I do.

    Various religions and sects have been persecuted at different periods in English history.

    I have just written a post on my blog about how the Marian Persecutions affected my part of England in the 1550′s.

    They Burned for Their Beliefs

    Best wishes,

  6. Lauren says:

    I can’t tell you, especially during the reformations, how much of these stories were being told about Christians as well. This time just reminds me of the holocaust or the witch trials. So many accusations, no real proof. Most people came forward in hopes of being granted leniency.

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  9. I was thinking the same thing as @Joanna. Very much like witch hunts. People like to get histerical about things, and there is always someone who has something to gain by egging them on.

  10. Bill Olsen says:

    this really brings me back to reading Norman Cohn’s work. He was a British historian who published I think in the late 1940s “Pursuit of the Millenium” which at the time was quite influential. In it, he traced alot of the apocryphal and apocolyptic beliefs of the Middle Ages to things like later witch hunts of the 17th and 18th centuries. What reminds me so much of his work in this post is his book “Warrant for Genocide” where he tied the so-called historical text “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (which he presents compelling evidence of as a fake) to the rise of the Nazis in Germany. This is some seriously spooky stuff, that has implications in any time and place where people attempt to use religious faith to gain power. Thank you for this article.

  11. Miguel Kluemper says:

    Useful information shared. I am very happy to have read this article, thanks for giving us nice info.

  12. Isa says:

    Now it takes the form of ant-Zionism!

  13. Steve says:

    Ah religion. What a great way to breed hate between neighbours. The sooner we all realise we’re better off without it, the better.

    • vesey says:

      It’s religions unwillingness to follow Bible principles that is the problem. If they did there would only be one religion instead of 1000′s. However, God has an answer for that problem in the near future………..

  14. Jacob Weiser says:

    For those who try to display Jews in a pitiful situation are precisely wrong. Both Christians (especially Catholic) and Jews have painted the history of mankind with blood all over centuries, time to time.. It’s varies to the periods which both sides are strong, Hebrews slaughtered Christians when Christianity was no big deal at all, and Christians slaugthered Jews, Muslims for many centuries since the power of Roman Empire rise and when they accepted Christianity as their main religion.
    And yes, there are numerous secret massacres and assassinations that has been made by some “Big Cheese” Jews too..

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