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  • Writer's pictureMicah Goodrich

Medieval Body: Blood

A monk and an abbess sit at the feet of a bloodied Christ
Vision of Saint Bernard, Cologne, Museum Schnütgen, Inv. No. M 340

In this chilling image from a fourteenth-century manuscript of The Vision of Saint Bernard, a bloodied Christ hangs and drips as he is suspended from the cross. His followers sit at his feet, seemingly undisturbed by the effluvia, in reverence of his flowing sacrifice. In the Middle Ages, blood was many things. It's association as a vital force (the "life blood") was often overshadowed by its Christological symbology as a purifying material. As students read for this week, however, blood was a powerful image that sometimes carried with it a discourse of "purity" and "purification."

Students read the twelfth-century hagiography by Thomas of Monmouth, The Life and Passion of William of Norwich, one of the the first literary exercises that centered the anti-semitic myth of the blood libel. It recounts the story of Christian child-martyr William who was purportedly murdered by the Jewish community in Norwich in 1144. The "blood libel" is an anti-semitic allegation that Jews murder non-Jews (especially Christians) for blood ritual ("ritual murder"). Christian hagiography popularized the myth of the blood libel in the Middle Ages, and Thomas of Monmouth's account of William of Norwich became an example of the literary trope. This genre heavily relied on cults of children-martyrs, predominately William of Norwich c. 1144, Hugh of Lincoln c. 1200, and Simon of Trent c. 1470.

The pernicious blood libel myth in England circulated against the backdrop of anti-semitic legislation between the eleventh-century up through the seventeenth (and, to be clear, anti-semitic sentiment still circulates in forums both official and popular into our current moment). In the decades after Thomas of Monmouth's Life of William, there were several chronicled accounts of Jewish massacres. On September 3rd, 1189 at the coronation ceremony of Richard I, Jewish individuals were expelled from the coronation and attacked outside of Westminster Cathedral. News had spread that Richard I had ordered a massacre of the Jews (apparently he had not), and many hateful Christians set fire to homes in the Old Jewry in London (this is in Roger Howden's Chronicle). Another Jewish massacre occurred on March 16/17th, 1190 in York, certainly in reference to the anti-Jewish sentiment surrounding the political climate of crusading under Richard I. During the uprising in York, Josce, leader of the Jewish community in the city, asked that the Jews be given safety in Clifford’s Tower, set up on a small hill. But once inside the tower, the Jews were besieged and told to convert. It should be noted that many Christians stood by their Jewish neighbors and all chose death over conversion.

The text reads "On the night of Friday 16 March 1190 some 150 Jews and Jewesses of York having sought protection in the Royal Castle on this site from a mob incited by Richard Malebisse and others chose to die at each others hands rather than renounce their faith"
Memorial at the base of Clifford's Tower in York, England

There were various responses to the surge in anti-semitic violence in England. Several ordinances were passed in subsequent years, which placed rigorous legal oversight on the Jewish communities throughout England. You can read a bit about the Ordinance of 1194, published under Richard I, or the Charter of King John to the Jews of 1201 , or the Statute of the Jewry of 1253 under Henry III. These provisions outlined that Jews must provide service to the crown upon birth or else be exiled from England, that Jews must pay a weighty tax called a tallage, that Jews must wear a badge to distinguish themselves as Jewish. For instance, in the updated Statute of the Jewry of 1275 under Edward I, it reads:

Each Jew, after he is seven years old, shall wear a distinguishing mark on his outer garment, that is to say, in the form of two Tables joined, of yellow felt of the length of six inches and of the breadth of three inches.
Jewish Expulsion c. 1182
Jewish Expulsion c. 1182; note the badge as a yellow circle

By 1290 the English crown expelled all Jewish people from the island, creating a massive diaspora of displaced families across continental Europe and northern Africa. (Note: Jewish communities would not be allowed back in England until the seventeenth century under Oliver Cromwell). The document is known as the Edict of Expulsion of 1290, decreed under Edward I, and created for Jewish communities across England an impossible choice of removal or violence. These ordinances and statutes attest to the control over Jewish populations by the English crown and exercised by their Christian neighbors. At the highest 'official' channel, several popes issued papal bulls known as the Sicut Judaeis (or Constitutio pro Judæis) in an attempt to protect Jewish people from the seemingly inextinguishable rise of anti-semitic hate. Over eighteen popes from 1120 through 1447 reissued the bull, which signals that its contents of religious tolerance were inconsistent with the popular beliefs on the ground.

The following century would feature a continuation of literary anti-semitism such as Geoffrey Chaucer's Prioress's Tale and the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, both of which took seeming pleasure in the blood libel myth. There is, however, extant poetry from Anglo-Jewish authors that give us a glimpse into Jewish perspectives. One such author is Meir ben Elijah, who lived in the late thirteenth-century against the backdrop of Jewish expulsion. He says he is from "Norgitz, in the isles called Angleterre," the same city, Norwich, that Thomas of Monmouth's child-martyr William was supposedly subject to Jewish "ritual murder." Meir ben Elijah left over twenty piyyutim (poems of lament) in Hebrew. Here is an excerpt from one of his laments, which we might also read as a poem of protest against the injustices of the Jewish people in England:

Put a curse on my enemy, for every man supplants his brother.

When will You [God] say to the house of Jacob, come let us walk in the light?

You are mighty and full of light, You turn the darkness into light.

Tear out their hearts – they who brought harm to those who come in Your Name,

When I hoped for good, evil arrived, yet I will wait for the light.

You are mighty and full of light, You turn the darkness into light.

The words of the seer are garbled, for the foe has mocked Your children

Until they don't know which path is the one that gives off light.

You are mighty and full of light, You turn the darkness into light.

The land exhausts us by demanding payments, and the people’s disgust is heard

While we are silent and wait for the light. [1]

This first section of Meir ben Elijah's poem asks us to consider how is this poem useful in giving us perspective on a minoritized group's circumstance in medieval England? While papal bulls like the Sicut Judaeis give us a sense that not every single Christian harbored anti-semitic feelings, literature like "Put a Curse on my Enemy" (the modern title given to Meir ben Elijah's unnamed lament) shows the realities of anti-semitic violence in medieval Norwich - realities that continue today with the resurgence of discourse like "replacement theory". We might also ask who the "enemy" is that he references in the first line. Do you think Meir ben Elijah is calling in his Christian neighbors, asking for their advocacy and aid? Who do you think Meir ben Elijah is writing for?

The week on "blood" was tough. Thomas of Monmouth's Life and Passion of William of Norwich is not an easy read. It is replete with extreme images of violence alongside its unapologetic hate for Jewish people. It serves as a chilling reminder, however, of how a minoritized group of people can be demonized in popular literature, as well as how literature - the words we use, the stories we tell - can so strongly influence ideologies at levels both official and popular.

[1] Susan Einbinder, "Meir b. Elijah of Norwich: Poetry and Persecution Amongst English Jews’" Journal of Medieval History 26:2 (2000): 145-162.

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