Sunday, January 25, 2004

William of Norwich and My Shameful Lapse into Non-Objectivity

I am a scholar. I study medieval anti-Judaism from a neutral and unemotional position. I am supposed to study medieval anti-Judaism from a neutral and unemotional position.

Why, then, do I have the urge to find the grave of one Thomas of Monmouth (no, not Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas of Monmouth), and stamp on it?

Stamping on his grave is far too good for this man, actually. In some two hundred pages of hagiography of William of Norwich, Thomas repeatedly expresses logic thus:

1. The body of little William (age 12) shows wounds in the hands and side, as well as a crown of thorns and some random torture devices.

2. Only Jews could possibly torture a child in this way.

3. Obviously, Jews tortured William of Norwich to death.

While the holes in the logical structure are large enough to push an oliphaunt through (sorry, been watching the extended edition of The Two Towers lately), I didn't really get angry enough to start beating on eight-hundred-year-old archaeologically interesting tombstones until I got to the part where Thomas announces that anyone who disagrees with him is the type of person who is "sad" when "there is a lack of material for slander," and that Thomas is "a second David" fighting "the abusive Philistines" with "certain spiritual weapons of reasoning, as it were, stones." Hmm. The stones David threw were small and puny. Thomas's logic is small and puny. Therefore... QED.

The Life of St William of Norwich does bring up an issue of the day, though, that being Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ. Jews are nervous about the rhetoric the movie will bring up because of the ways in which this rhetoric has been used over the last twenty centuries. Thomas describes William's martyrdom as mirroring Christ's passion; the crown of thorns, the nails, the crucifixion, and even the wound in the side repeat the wounds of Christ, and Thomas repeatedly announces that the murder took place on the Wednesday of Holy Week, during the Jewish Passover. Thus, in Thomas's narrative, the Jews who kill William of Norwich are repeating the actions of the Jews who killed Christ - and therefore deserve to be, in Thomas's word, "exterminated." Bringing back the slander that Jews killed Christ, which slander the Catholic Church repudiated in 1965 in the document Nostra Aetate, might bring back associated slanders, blood libels, and horrors I, for one, would be quite pleased to leave in the Middle Ages.

One last thought: Thank goodness, I am not the only person ever to be utterly horrified by the Life of William. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on William of Norwich has a note, after the name of the man who transcribed the article for the Web: "Dedicated to all who are falsely accused."


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