Seventeen Jewish bodies found in medieval well in England

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A grim reminder of the pogroms that accompanied the crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries in Europe has been the gruesome discovery in England of seventeen skeletons in a medieval well.  The skeletons, jumbled together, have been subjected to DNA testing and according to a BBC report – at least five were members of the same family.

One of the medical team had experience of autopsies in the Balkans in recent years where ethnic cleansing was all too common.  It was noted that the bodies in this well showed no signs of disease and the adults had sustained impact injuries after being thrown in.  The children’s skeletons did not have fractures suggesting they had landed on top of the adults.  It’s a terrible thought that they more than likely were sealed up and left to die of hunger.

The date of this massacre is believed to have been the early 1200s – under Richard the Lionheart or King John.  The well was in the East Anglian town of Norwich and that in itself is interesting.  Because in that city, just over fifty years before, a child’s body was found in Thorpe Wood and it had been subjected to a mock crucifixion.  The accusation was leveled against the Jewish community in Norwich that it had engaged in a ‘blood libel’.

This was absurd and false but the Jewish community – which had thrived since the Norman Conquest in 1066 – now found itself scapegoated for any number of problems and its wealth coveted by gentile neighbours.  The Sheriff of Norwich attempted to protect the Jews, who were important as money lenders in the service of the crown, but the church weighed in against them.  The Catholic Encyclopaedia details what happened:

…a boy’s corpse showing signs of a violent death was found in Thorpe Wood near Norwich. It was not touched until Easter Monday, where it was buried without any ceremony where it lay. In the meantime a number of young men and boys had visited the spot and the Jews were suspected of the murder on account of the nature of the wounds … The body was recognized as that of William, a tanner’s apprentice, who with his master had been in the habit of frequenting the houses of certain Jews. The grave was opened by William’s uncle, the priest Godwin Stuart, the body recognized, the burial Office read, and the grave recovered. A few days later the diocesan synod met under the presidence of Bishop Eborard, and Stuart accused the Jews of the murder, and offered to prove his accusation by ordeal. But the Jews of the Norwich Jewry were the king’s men and under the protection of the sheriff, who pointed out that the bishop had no jurisdiction in the case. The failure to secure a condemnation against the Jews seems to have been largely due to the presence of this strong official who held the castle of Norwich. The only result of Stuart’s action at this time was to secure the translation of the body from Thorpe Wood to the monks’ cemetery on 24 April.

William of Norwich was declared a saint by the local clergy as was another boy killed in an alleged blood libel, Hugh of Lincoln.  These folk saints were very popular and inflamed resentment at the Jewish population.  This eventually boiled over in Norwich in to a wholesale slaughter of the Jews in 1190.  There are similar tales in the Holy Roman Empire of Jews being rounded up and murdered – many committing suicide first.

Chaucer wrote about blood libel in The Prioress’ Tale.  In it, a boy is murdered by the Jews who are forced to confess their crime under torture.  But the Virgin Mary puts a grain of wheat on the boy’s tongue which, even though his throat has been cut, allows him to sing even though he his dead.  And he sings all the way through his own funeral – bizarre!  Only when a kindly cleric removes the grain, does the boy finally expire.  I have to say that turning a boy in to a zombie seems an unusual act by the Virgin Mary, but then she’s a unique kind of woman.  Here is a stanza from The Prioress’ Tale.

“My throte is kut unto my nekke boon,”
Seyde this child, “and as by wey of kynde
I sholde have dyed, ye, longe tyme agon.
But Jesu Crist, as ye in bookes fynde,
Wil that his glorie laste and be in mynde,
And for the worship of his Mooder deere
Yet may I synge O Alma loude and cleere.

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