In 1149 the followers of a down-at-heel knight named Simon de Novers relieved him of a substantial debt by murdering the man to whom he owed it, Eleazer, a leading member of Norwich’s small and recently arrived community of Jews. Faced with the impossible task of defending him in the royal court, Simon’s lord, Bishop William Turbe, contrived a diversion by arguing that another charge – that some five years earlier Eleazer had led a conspiracy among the Jews to murder a twelve-year-old skinner’s apprentice, also called William – should be heard first. King Stephen prudently postponed the matter and both charges remained unresolved, but they made William of Norwich the prototype of the child ritually murdered by Jews, which became one of the ugliest fables in the repertoire of European anti-Semitism. (A different claim, that Jews drank children’s blood or used it for ritual purposes, first surfaced at Fulda in Germany in 1236.) Such tales were repeated in every subsequent century and in every part of Europe, and probably still are.
William owes his fame to Thomas of Monmouth, a monk of Norwich Cathedral Priory, whose The Life and Passion of William of Norwich has recently been translated for Penguin Classics by Miri Rubin. Combining for the first time classic elements of the anti-Semitism that was the 12th