A Message from Father Nick 27

A point to ponder…

Fascinating as we might find the events of our past, we must never forget that not everything in the Church’s story can be applauded or justified. Among its darker pages, the treatment of the Jewish people leaves an especially shameful mark. It is easy – and true – to point out that the Holocaust was perpetrated in the name of a godless ideology: Nazism. But the Holocaust was made possible by centuries of Christian anti-Semitism.

This could mean:

Expulsion from countries (notably from Spain in 1492, and England under Edward I); restriction of trades (thus ensuring the stereotype of a money-obsessed people); confinement in ghettoes (the first was at Venice); compulsion to dress in a distinctive way (ordained by papal decree): ritual humiliation (in one tradition, each Good Friday a representative Jew would be required to present himself to the Catholic community to be kicked); subjection to massacre and murder (outbreaks could occur at any time with whole communities being killed. The worst example came as the first Crusaders set off for Palestine. Before leaving, they slaughtered thousands of their Jewish neighbours along the Rhine. This was not Church policy but the release of hateful forces too unwisely conjured into being).

In some form or other, these features passed into the kind of casual anti-Semitism we still observe today. But the Middle Ages had their own kind of trolling too – something after all was needed to fan so much hatred and fear. Most notorious was the so-called “Blood Libel”, a horrid fiction that Jews kidnapped and killed Christian children to use their blood in the making of Passover bread. A story was produced with the victim honoured as a saint (different versions gave the “saint” different names. One version is even included in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales).

Historian Eamon Duffy traces the Blood Libel to an original case in Norwich in 1144, where the “victim” was named William.  William’s story was regarded with some scepticism by the local clergy but vigorously promoted by a new arrival on the scene. This man made it his special cause. He framed the narrative and gave the story its telling details. It became the “Passion of William of Norwich”. His work proved so influential that we would do well to remember his name. It reminds us of our own constant closeness to such currents. He was called Thomas of Monmouth.

As Eamon Duffy says, “’The Passion of William of Norwich’ never circulated in large numbers, and was forgotten for centuries. But too many details from it… surface again and again in later examples of the blood libel for the links to be merely coincidental. By whatever means, the story it told passed like poison into the bloodstream of Christendom. Few books of piety can have unleashed so much horror.” That is truly something to make us ponder.