Making of a Martyr: William of Norwich and the Jews

The murder of a 12-year-old boy in Norwich in 1144 inspired Thomas of Monmouth, a monk from the city's cathedral, to create an anti-semitic account of the incident. His influential work reveals much about life and belief in medieval England, argues Miri Rubin.

In August 1891 M. R. James (1862-1936), the scholar and author of ghost stories, wrote to Augustus Jessopp, honorary canon of Norwich, about an exciting acquisition recently made by the Cambridge University Library. The manuscript contained three lives of saints and a tract on the Mass. The first - copied over 77 folios of parchment - opened with a caption in red letters: incipit prologus de vita et passione Sancti Willehm Martyris Norwkensis ('Here begins the prologue to the life and passion of Saint William the Martyr of Norwich'). James recognised the significance of the find, for this was the longlost account of the life of a 12-year-old boy whose alleged martyrdom in 1144 had been claimed by his family and whose cult had developed soon after in and around Norwich Cathedral Priory. Jessopp wrote excitedly in return:

The chances are that the discovery of this, manuscript will throw some light upon the whole cycle of stories about Jews crucifying or otherwise slaying Christian boys in the 12th and 13th centuries.

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