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The Medieval Myth of Jewish Ritual Murder: Toward a History of Literary Reception

The Medieval Myth of Jewish Ritual Murder: Toward a History of Literary Reception

The Medieval Myth of Jewish Ritual Murder: Toward a History of Literary Reception

By Richard Utz

The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Vol.14 (1999)

Introduction: Matthew Paris’s Chronica Majora relates the following story for the year 1255: Around June 29, the Jews of the city of Lincoln abduct the eight-year old Hugh. They fatten him for ten days and send messengers to all Jewish communities in England to invite them to celebrate a ritual parody of Christ’s crucifixion. After the visitors’ arrival, one of the Lincoln Jews is selected to act as judge, a Pilate so to speak, and the Christian boy is sentenced to a variety of tortures. After being whipped, crowned with thorns, spat at, cut with knives and insulted, Hugh is finally crucified and his side is opened with a lance. Afterwards, his body is taken off the cross and his bowels are taken out for ritual examination. In the meantime, the boy’s mother has been searching for her son for days. Neighbors have told her that they saw the boy playing with Jewish children and entering a Jewish house. The mother then finds Hugh’s body in that same house. Her cries for help gather a crowd of people including John of Lexington, a member of the local clergy who explains that this is not the first such Jewish atrocity he has heard of. John threatens the Jewish owner of the house, Copin, that not even all the gold in England will free him from the consequences of his actions but promises him that he will not be put to death if he gives a truthful account of events.

Copin confesses: he is made to admit that the Jews crucified a Christian child every year; after they found that the innocent Hugh’s bowels were unfit for divination, they tried to bury the body, but the dead Hugh repeatedly came back from under the earth; finally, they threw the body in a well, but it had not sunk, which is why the mother had been able to find it. After Copin’s testimony, members of the Lincoln cathedral chapter ask for Hugh’s body and bury it within the cathedral with all the rites appertaining to a martyr. When the king learns of the promises made to Copin, he does not approve of the deal. Copin, realizing that he will be sentenced to death, offers a complete confession: He declares that all English Jews share the guilt for the killing, and almost all Jewish communities in England have sent representatives to assist in the ritual murder as it is the custom with Passover celebrations. After his confession, Copin is dragged to the gallows and hanged. Ninety-one additional Jews are transported to London to be imprisoned. The investigation carried out by royal judges proves that the murder was indeed a joint venture of the entire English Jewry. Consequently, eighteen more of the richest and most influential Jews of Lincoln are hanged. The remaining Jews escape punishment, as Matthew Paris explains, due to bribes or the intercession of Franciscan preachers.


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