I’m originally from Poughkeepsie, a small city in Upstate New York. By American standards Poughkeepsie is a fairly old city, having its origins as a settlement back in the 17th century. That being said, most of the buildings and homes in Poughkeepsie are from the 20th century.
Since 2010 I’ve lived in Norwich, a city in the East of England. Upon moving here I was immediately struck by its visible age. You are confronted with history everywhere you look. Norwich Cathedral was already under construction by 1096 AD. Homes, walls, and streets that are still in use pre-date the first American settlements by hundreds of years.
This week I decided to walk around Norwich and actually read the historical plaques that are dotted around the city. I was very interested to discover that an area known as the Castle Fee (in the area around Timber Hill and the Market) was home to a small Jewish community brought to Norwich after the Norman conquest. I returned home and started Googling and found an article on the BBC website from 2011 about a well that was excavated during the construction of the Chapelfield Mall. In the well were the remains of 17 men, women, and children. DNA tests revealed that these bodies were mostly likely that of a local Jewish family who were victims of persecution in the 12th Century.
After a little more reading, I found out that in the 12th century a Benedictine monk named Thomas of Monmouth came to Norwich and began “investigating” the case of William, a 12 year old Tanner’s apprentice who had been murdered 6 years earlier. William was born to Anglo-Saxon parents in 1132, and on the 2nd of March 1144 William was tortured and murdered. His body was found in Mousehold Heath, a forested area outside of Norwich. The murder was unsolved, but the Christian population of Norwich were openly suspicious of the small French-speaking Jewish community and accused them of ritualistic child sacrifice.
These events and rumours that began in Norwich eventually evolved into a much wider form of anti-semitism that spread across much of medieval Europe. Jews were ostracised and falsely accused of child-murder hundreds of times in the coming centuries. There were massacres in London and York. In 1190 (some 46 years after William's murder) local revolts in Norwich led to the murder of many local Jews, and quite possibly the family in the well. By 1290 the Jews living in England were expelled to the continent and were not readmitted for nearly 400 years.
The world we live in today is very different to the world of the 12th century, but it doesn't seem that people are any different -- we are still scared and very ready to blame the stranger. If we look at the news we see a very similar sort of scapegoating and hostility being directed at the "strangers" of ours societies.
Thomas of Monmouth wrote an account of the murder as he imagined it - a heavily fictionalised version of events where nuns followed burning ladders from the sky and young William performed miracles on locals. This small set of photos were taken in a single day as I walked to the site of a medieval tannery, then past the old leper hospital turned library on Gilman Road where the nun who discovered William's body had lived. I followed the trail leading into Mousehold Heath and picked blackberries with my daughter. I didn't find the ruins of Williams chapel, but will return on a later date.