The Flow of Blood in Norwich

  • Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


A few decades after Geoffrey of Monmouth completed his History of the Kings of Britain, another cleric who likewise christened himself Mone-mutensis produced a text similarly obsessed with collective identity, blood, history, community, and monsters. Thomas of Monmouth composed the Vita et passio sancti Willelmi martyris Norwicensis (known in English as the Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich) while attached to the Benedictine priory supporting Norwich cathedral. Whereas Geoffrey dedicated his History to powerful nobles of international renown, Thomas addresses the vita to William Turbe, the bishop of Norwich who had previously been a member of the cathedral’s monastery.1 Whereas Geoffrey’s epochal narrative was preoccupied with nations and empires, Thomas aimed his saint’s life at a local community. The text has been the subject of much penetrating scholarship over the years, most of it attempting to determine whether Thomas was the inventor of the blood libel, the myth that Jews murder Christians for ritualistic purposes.2 Thomas was recording a mythology blossoming around a Norwich boy supposedly sacrificed at Jewish hands, a mythology so potent that it could be deployed a few years after William’s death in northern France and the Rhineland (places intimately connected to Norwich through trade routes) in support of violence against Jews. Anti-Jewish sentiment was certainly an international phenomenon in the Middle Ages. Yet these stories told about the murdered William were also disseminated to achieve more circumscribed ambitions.


Collective Identity Twelfth Century Ritual Murder Parish Church Parish Priest 
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© Jeffrey Jerome Cohen 2006

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  • Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

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