Thursday, March 26, 2009

Medieval Ritual Murder and Antisemitism

St. William of Norwich (f.d. March 26)
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When the mutilated body of a 12 year old boy was found in a wood outside Norwich in mid-10th century England, it was alleged that the boy had been a victim of ritual murder by the perfidious Jews, as the Liturgy of Good Friday once referred to them. There was no real evidence to support the theory, except the outrage of peasants, which soon developed into a local cultus of veneration for the youthful martyr, as well as the persecution of local Jews. Historians have referred to the incident as being one of history's most heinous lies. Such ridiculous stories became popular and widespread throughout Europe, and endure to this day amongst a few very traditionalist Catholics and Eastern Europeans. Nazi propaganda sprang (in part) from such legends, evoking ancient fears amongst the sanctimonious, as well as ordinary under educated believers.
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Another child martyr is known as Little St. Hugh of Lincoln (1255). His mutilated body was found in a well, resulting in the torture and death of several Jews accused of crucifying the child during Passover.
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Moving south to Trent in northern Italy: It was there, in the year 1475 that the precociously pious infant Simon (f.d. 24 March), only two and half years old, was said to have been murdered by a Jewish physician and accomplices. It was told the child, left unattended outside his home, was kidnapped and tortured at midnight on Holy Thursday in mockery of Christ's passion. Testimony claimed, "The Hebrews killed the little boy Simon, in order to obey a rabbinical religious law; their motive being to serve a most wicked piety and devotion by obtaining Christian blood for the celebration of Passover." His body was later found in the river. (To my knowledge, there never was, nor is there any such rabbinical law demanding human sacrifice.)
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The cult of St Simon was suppressed in 1965.
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Perchance a Jewish man killed one of these saints. However, if it was true, the offender would have been acting contrary to Jewish Law and the Commandments, and he and his followers would have acted on their own. Their Jewishness would have been incidental. That children were killed, there is no doubt, but the real perpetrators likely were never brought to justice. Just so today, we hear of children that have been abducted, most always sexually molested, and very often killed - after mutilation and torture - only to be cast into a river, or buried in a wood. It is a horrible crime. Nevertheless, in our day it is popular to accuse Satanic cults, yet more commonly law enforcement identifies the perpetrators as homosexual or heterosexual pedophiles, and/or pathological serial killers. I'm quite sure that was most likely the case in medieval times as well.
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Are the kids saints and martyrs? The ancient cults were supported by miracles, so I expect they are. Common sense suggests their legend is probably grossly exaggerated if not inaccurate, and I would insist one simply may not claim that Jewish people as a group were responsible for such murders, much less claim such horrible crimes are part of Jewish religious cult. (Although, as stated, some traditionalists believe otherwise. Unfortunately irrational antisemitism lives on.)
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Art: St William, from a rood screen of the medieval church of St. James, now at St. Mary Magdalen's in Norwich.
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7 comments:

  1. Good post, Terry. As you say "...if it was true, the offender would have been acting contrary to Jewish Law and the Commandments, and he and his followers would have acted on their own."
    Unfortunately bigotry and prejudice have always been with us in one form or another.

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  2. Thanks Melody - unfortunately I know people who should know better yet stick by these claims.

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  3. Well, sadly, I have read of stories like this happening in Spain in the fifteenth century. There was an infamous incident during the reign of Queen Isabella which precipitated anti-Jewish riots. How factual the story is, I do not know, but at the time it was believed and led to the persecution of many innocent Jewish people. There have always been perverts and psychopaths; there were irreligious Jews just as there were irreligious Christians. The problem was, in those times, when the perpetrators happened to be of Jewish descent, it ignited a firestorm of public rage against the entire Jewish community.

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  4. Elena - yes in Spain there were many such tales, and as you say, in those days it ignited such passions against the Jews as a whole.

    I have never read it anywhere, but I wonder if Jewish children were likewise molested in similar fashion, and perhaps Jewish retribution amounted to killing a Christian child out of revenge? It is just a thought considering how this eye for an eye thing continues in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

    As you say, every group, and every religion has people of all stripes.

    These stories demonstrate for me how children have always been victimized and abused, it isn't just a phenomenon of our times. These little saints are surely good intercessors for abused and exploited children.

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  5. Thank you. I had read about Little Nellie of Holy God, and found a reference to an infant saint (St. Pius X was explaining why Nellie was too young to be a saint even though there was a younger saint who qualified only through martrydom). I had no idea where to start with the infant and now don't have to.

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  6. Terry, from what I have read, if any Jewish people did in fact kidnap and murder a Christian child, it was seen as a retribution for many injustices that the Jews endured in Christian lands.

    In Spain, before Isabella, there was great liberty for Jewish people, and many were very wealthy, had high positions in the government and the Church. Unfortunately, some Jewish people did not always behave with justice towards the Christians. There were over the years incidents on both sides, and what with the war with the Moors, Isabella could not tolerate any interior instability. This is why she insisted that all the Jews either seek conversion or leave the country. Many feigned conversions took place and so they introduced the Inquisition. The process of the Inquisition was often abused, as we know. Many Catholic Jewish people fled to Rome and complained to the Pope and the Pope himself reprimanded Isabella.

    I have always found this history fascinating since I am descended from the chief rabbi of Spain who, with all of his family, became a Catholic.

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  7. Elena - thanks very much for adding that bit of history.

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