Nicholas Cranfield reviewed ‘The Art of Faith’, an exhibition about art and belief at Norwich Castle Museum, in the Church Times.  On display is a panel which depicts a boy with three nails driven into his head, holding a hammer and nail.  This is William of Norwich, who became the object of a cult after his body was discovered in a wood in 1144.  The Jews were accused of ritually murdering him.

I researched this story as an undergraduate, and came to the conclusion that the cult took hold because of hyper-hostility to any non-Christians during the Crusades plus financial pressures at the Cathedral which a popular shrine might relieve.  It was the beginning of one of the uglier episodes of English and indeed European history, when libels were used to incite violence against a minority.  In 2005, there was a similar accusation against the Jews in Russia.

According to William of Norwich is apparently commemorated in the Chapel of the Holy Innocents in Norwich Cathedral, where Cranfield reports that visitors are invited to remember ‘all the innocent victims of war, civil strife, injustice and persecution, particularly the young William of Norwich’. 

I guess I’m just worried about the way our language can fudge the issues.  Earlier in the review, William is referred to as ‘the saint’.  And here, it is assumed that his unexplained death was in fact the result of foul play.  But he was not a saint (even if depicted as such), nor do we know that he was murdered.  We must be absolutely scrupulous in how we speak of such things – even in a description of an artwork or the wording of a memorial.  Suspicion, rumour, gossip, libel  – and the consequent persecution of others – grow from subliminal messages and verbal slant.

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3 Responses to Scapegoats

  1. Kate says:

    There is of course ‘Little St Hugh of Lincoln’ also. Apparently in 1955 the Church put a plaque at the site of the former shrine , which reads:

    By the remains of the shrine of “Little St. Hugh”.
    Trumped up stories of “ritual murders” of Christian boys by Jewish communities were common throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and even much later. These fictions cost many innocent Jews their lives. Lincoln had its own legend and the alleged victim was buried in the Cathedral in the year 1255.
    Such stories do not redound to the credit of Christendom, and so we pray:
    Lord, forgive what we have been,
    amend what we are,
    and direct what we shall be.

    However, visiting it as a child about the age of the so -called martyr, I was fascinated by the sensational story and filtered out the more mature perspective. I wonder if others have done the same? Would it be better simply forgotten or does that deny a shameful part of history? This legend seems to have been part of a folk-tale embodied in a ballad – it makes me aware of the potency of what we sing as well as say.

  2. alisonpeden says:

    And also the power of the image: I remember protesting at the logo of St Hugh’s College, Oxford many years ago, which conflated St Hugh the bishop with ‘Little St Hugh’, showing the well that the latter was supposedly drowned in. My vivid childhood image was of WW1 German soldiers bayonetting Belgian babies (I can’t remember the source for this) – and I don’t think I learned what propaganda was for some time. But should we wipe out the propaganda from the past ? Maybe just confine it to history lessons? And have only generic commemorations of abused children in any chapel of the Holy Innocents.

  3. Ann Lees says:

    These legends and their lingering after-effects do make it difficult at times to promote the idea of the benefit of church-going (as opposed to personal practice of faith). I think there is some sly reference to the cults of dubious saints in the Pillars of the Earth (currently being televised), and also in the Cadfael stories of Ellis Peters. The image in the public mind is of sharp practice against the poor credulous populace – ouch!

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