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.