Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder

Commenting on “Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder” Gavin I. Langmuir wrote “Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder,” which was published in Speculum’s October 1984 issue. In this article Langmuir discusses Thomas of Monmouth’s investigation of St. William of Norwich’s death, and accusations of ritual murder brought against Jews. Langmuir starts the article with some background information on “The Life and Passion of Saint William the Martyr of Norwich,” written by Thomas of Monmouth.
He then makes his thesis statement: “Williams’s death had occasioned the first of the connected series of accusations from the twelfth to twentieth century that Jews committed ritual murder. ” (Langmuir, Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder, 821) Langmuir’s argument is that Thomas of Monmouth’s book is the modern inception of the myth that Jews commit ritual murder to reenact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Since the accusation of ritual murder was also present in antiquity, Langmuir attempts to prove disconnect between Norwich and those prior myths.
He also goes into detail about William’s murder, then Monmouth’s investigation and writings. He convincingly argues that Monmouth had allot to gain both in this world and the next by reporting William’s killing as a ritual murder preformed by Jews. Simply stated, Monmouth saw what he wanted to while investigating the crime. Langmuir uses a broad range of sources in his attempt to prove that the accusation at Norwich was not connected to the two accusations in antiquity. In this attempt he most frequently cites two works by Heinz Schreckenberg. He also cites over ten other authors while bringing this point home.

On the other hand Langmuir’s argument of Monmouth’s motivation for creating the myth burrows deeply into a limited body of material, mostly Monmouth’s book itself. He also uses two other sources when discussing Theobald, and only cites Miracles and Pilgrims by Finucane other than that. In the middle ages people saw Satan as an active force in the world. St. Gregory of Nyssa said when speaking of the Jews, that they were “confederates of the devil. ” (Perry & Schweitzer, Antisemitism, 75) Chrysostom called Jews “inveterate murders, destroyers, men possessed by the devil. (Perry & Schweitzer, Antisemitism, 75) John (8:44) states in regard to Jews “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. ” (Perry & Schweitzer, Antisemitism, 75)
Not only were the people of the middle ages on the lookout for the devil, but their church was telling them that Jews were acting as his agents. This set up Jews as an easy scapegoat, and allowed for the creation of the ritual murder myth. In the case of William, Monmouth who was a monk had been predisposed to the notion that Jews were evil. In the gospels rendition as interpreted for centuries, the Jews are perceived as ‘the Christ killers,’ a people condemned forever to suffer exile and degradation. This arch crime of ‘decide,’ of murdering God, turned the Jews into the embodiment of evil, a ‘criminal people. ’” (Perry & Schweitzer, Antisemitism, 18)With this view it only makes sense that Monmouth would look to blame Jews for the boy’s murder, when murdering a boy is exactly something an evil criminal would do. It also makes sense that at the first sign of anything even resembling a crucifixion he would point to Jews, because according to the gospels they had done it before.
In 1095 Pope Urban II began the first crusade when he called for “a religious military crusade to liberate the holiest places in Christendom. ” (Laquer, The Changing Face of Antisemitism, 52) Many Jews were slaughtered during this crusade for various reasons. One reason was that the crusaders were told “anyone who killed a single Jew would have all his sins absolved. ” (Laquer, The Changing Face of Antisemitism, 52) Authority figures were telling people that Jews are so evil that not only is murdering them OK, but it will even make up for anything wrong they had ever done.
This was only fifty years before the incident at Norwich. With that mentality is only serves to reason that when the ordinary unnamed people were presented with Jews as ritual murders, it would be believable to them. In the Article on the top of page 822 Langmuir asks “who first accused Jews of crucifying a Christian child out of religious hatred? ” Langmuir argues that there is not enough evidence to prove who killed William, or why. He does think there is enough evidence to establish that the enduring accusation of ritual murder began with William’s death. We know for certain that Monmouth accused Jews of ritual murder.
Langmuir then works backwards from that point to prove that it was the first modern accusation of its kind. Langmuir starts with the first known accusation of ritual murder in recorded history. He discusses how in ancient Greece a story circulated that said “every seven years the Jews captured a Greek, fattened him up, killed him, and ate parts of him. ” (Langmuir, Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder, 823) He goes on to say that while the story did appear in “Against Apion,” the book was rare. He details why the book was rare, and does his best to prove a complete discontinuity between this accusation and Monmouth’s.
Langmuir then writes about “The second and only other relevant accusation against Jews in antiquity. ” (Langmuir, Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder, 825) He tells the story of how in approximately the year 415, in the city of Imestar, Jews were accused of taking a Christian boy, tying him to a cross, and beating him until he died. Langmuir argues that while the story did appear in “Historia Tripartita” only two copies were available in England, and that those copies date from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, after the incident at Norwich.
He also argues that “those who borrowed from ‘Historia Tripartia’ did so sparingly and most selectively, and the Imestar incident did not interest them. ” Again Langmuir proves disconnect between the two incidents. Assuming that these are the only two accusations ever made prior to Norwich, then yes Langmuir answers the Question from the top of page 822. In this article Langmuir’s argument is persuasively supported, but he does not discuss the possibility of ritual murder stories being passed down orally. He also did not look at the possibility of books containing ritual murder accusations that may have been lost to history.
For all we know Monmouth may have had a book that no longer exists detailing the accusations from antiquity or accusations we don’t even know about. He is probably right in his conclusion that the incident at Norwich is the first modern accusation brought against Jews, but we cannot be sure. At times Langmuir calls into question other historians work, and makes convincing arguments as to why he thinks there wrong. He wrote referring to M. R. James belief that Monmouth’s book was written in 1172 or 1173 “there are several indications that the work was not all written at one time. (Langmuir, Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder, 838) Langmuir did address other historians work on the subject, but sense he was the first person to propose that this was the first modern accusation of ritual murder, there were no other competing theories. I found this article to be very well organized, it laid out information in way that made it easy to understand. I really thought it was a good read, and enjoyed reading it. Langmuir was both interesting and informative. I would recommend this article to anyone interested in this period in history.

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