Ephraim ben Jacob:
The Ritual Murder Accusation at Blois, May, 1171
The Ritual Murder Accusation at Blois, May, 1171
[Marcus Introduction] In 1171 the Jews of Blois, France,
were accused of having crucified a Christian child during the
Passover holydays and of having thrown the corpse into the Loire.
This is the first time that the accusation of ritual murder was
made in continental Europe. It is difficult to account for its
occurrence just at this time unless it is a reverberation of the
William of Norwich tale of a generation before. The accusation
that Jews require Christian blood for their Passover ritual has
been made against the Jews from that time on down to the present
day in practically all lands and has cost the lives of hundreds
of innocent Jewish men, women, and children.
The following account of the burning of over thirty men and
women at Blois is taken from A Book of Historical Records,
a Hebrew historical work of Ephraim ben Jacob (1132-about 1200),
a German Jewish Talmudist and poet of note.
What shall we say before God? What shall we speak? How can we
justify ourselves? God must have found out our iniquity.
In the year 4931 , evil appeared in France, too, and great
destruction in the city of Blois, in which at that time there
lived about forty Jews. It happened on that evil day, Thursday,
toward evening, that the terror came upon us. A Jew [Isaac bar
Eleazar] rode up to water his horse; a common soldier-may he be
blotted out of the book of life-was also there watering the horse
of his master. The Jew bore on his chest an untanned hide, but
one of the corners had become loose and was sticking out of his
coat. When, in the gloom, the soldier's horse saw the white side
of the hide, it was frightened and sprang back, and it could not
be brought to water.
The Christian servant hastened back to his master and said "Hear,
my lord, what a certain Jew did. As I rode behind him toward the
river in order to give your horses a drink, I saw him throw a
little Christian child, whom the Jews have killed, into the water.
When I saw this, I was horrified and hastened back quickly for
fear he might kill me too. Even the horse under me was so frightened
by the splash of the water when he threw the child in that it
would not drink." The soldier knew that his master would
rejoice at the fall of the Jews, because he hated a certain Jewess
influential in the city. He as much as put the following words
into his master's mouth: "Now I can wreak my vengeance on
that person, on that woman Pulcelina."
The next morning the master rode to the ruler of the city, to
the cruel Theobald, son of Theobald-may his unrighteousness and
bitter, evil curses fall upon his head. He w as a ruler that listened
to falsehood, for his servants were wicked. [Theobald V was Count
of Blois, 11521191. He was called "the Good."]
When he heard this he became enraged and had all the Jews of Blois
seized and thrown into prison. But Dame Pulcelina encouraged them
all, for she trusted in the affection of the ruler who up to now
had been very attached to her. However, his cruel wife, a Jezebel,
swayed him, for she also hated Dame Pulcelina. [Theobald's wife
was Alix, the daughter of King Louis VII of France.] All the Jews
had been put into iron chains except Pulcelina, hut the servants
of the ruler who watched her would not allow her to speak to him
at all, for fear she might get him to change his mind.
The ruler was revolving in his mind all sorts of plans to condemn
the Jews, but he did not know how. He had no evidence against
them until a priest appeared-may he be destroyed and may his memory
be uprooted from the land of the living-who said to the ruler:
"Come, I'll advise you how you can condemn them. Command
that the servant who saw the Jew throw the child into the river
be brought here, and let him be tested by the ordeal in a tank
of water to discover if he has told the truth."
The ruler commanded and they brought him, took off his clothes,
and put him into a tank filled with holy water to see what would
happen. If he floated, his words were true; if he sank, he had
lied. Such are the laws of the Christians who judge by ordeals-bad
laws and customs by which one cannot live! The Christians arranged
it in accordance with their wish so that the servant floated,
and they took him out and thus they declared the wicked innocent
and the righteous guilty. [In this ordeal the normal procedure
appears to have been reversed. Generally the innocent sank and
the guilty floated.]
The ruler had started negotiations for a money settlement before
the coming of the priest who incited the ruler not to accept any
ransom for the dead child. [In the Middle Ages many crimes could
be expiated legally through a money payment.] He had sent a Jew
to the Jews of the other communities] and had asked how much they
would give him. The Jews consulted with their Christian friends
and also with the Jews in the dungeon, and these latter advised
offer only one hundred pounds and in addition their uncollected
debts amounting to the sum of one hundred eighty pounds. [The
Jews Objected to paying high ransoms lest the Christians should
find it profitable to imprison Jews.]
In the meantime the priest arrived on the scene, and from this
time on the ruler paid no attention to the Jews and did not listen
to them, but only to the instruction of the priest. In the day
of wrath money could not help them. At the wicked ruler's command
they were taken and put into a wooden house around which were
placed thornbushes and faggots. As they were led forth they were
told: "Save your lives. Leave your religion and turn to us."
They mistreated them, beat them, and tortured them, hoping that
they would exchange their glorious religion for something worthless,
but they refused. Rather did they encourage each other and say
to one another: "Persist in the religion of the Almighty!"
[A Christian historian of that time says that some did convert.]
At the command of the oppressor they then took the two [Jewish
] priests, the pious Rabbi Jehiel, the son of Rabbi David HaKohen,
and the just Rabbi Jekutiel HaKohen, the son of Rabbi Judah,
and tied them to a single stake in the house where they were to
be burned. They were both men of valor, disciples of Rabbi Samuel
and Rabbi Jacob [the grandsons of Rashi]. They also tied the hands
of Rabbi Judah, the son of Aaron, and then set fire to the faggots.
The fire spread to the cords on their hands so that they snapped,
and all three came out and spoke to the servants of the oppressor:
"The fire has no power over us. Why should we not go free?"
[Since these three had withstood the ordeal by fire, they asked
to be freed. ] The enemy answered: "By our lives! You shall
not get out." They kept on struggling to get out but they
were pushed back into the house. They came out again and seized
hold of a Christian to drag him along with them back onto the
pyre. When they were right at the fire the Christians pulled themselves
together, rescued the Christian from their hands, killed them
with their swords, and then three them into the fire. Nevertheless
they were not burnt, neither they nor all those thirtyone
persons. Only their souls were released by the fire; their bodies
remained intact. When the Christians saw It they were amazed and
said to one another: "Truly these are saints."
A certain Jew by the name of Rabbi Baruch, the son of David, a
priest, was there and saw all this at that time with his own eyes.
He lived in the territory of that ruler and had come there to
arrange terms for the Jews of Blois, but, because of our sins,
he had no success. However, a settlement was made by him for one
thousand pounds to save the other Jews of that accursed ruler.
He also saved the scrolls of the Torah and the rest of their books.
This happen in the year 4931 on Wednesday, the 20th of the month
of Siwan [May 26, 1171]. This day ought to be established as a
fast day like the Fast of Gedaliah. [The assassination of Gedaliah,
who was governor of Judah after the destruction of the Temple
in 586 BC] is still observed on the 3rd of Tishri.] All these
facts were written down by the Jews of Orleans-a city close by
that of the martyrs and made known to the teacher, our master
Rabbi Jacob [ben Rabbi Meir, Rashi's grandson, the greatest French
rabbi of his day. He died in the third week after the Blois burning
It was also reported in that letter that as the flames mounted
high, the martyrs began to sing in unison a melody that began
softly but ended with a full voice. The Christian people came
and asked us s "What kind of a song is this for we have never
heard such a sweet melody?" We knew it well for it was the
song: "It is incumbent upon us to praise the Lord of all."
[This prayer, the Alenu, or Adoration, now recited daily,
was then a New Year's prayer with a special] melody].
O daughters of Israel, weep for the thirtyone souls that
were burnt for the sanctification of the Name, and let your brothers,
the] entire house of Israel, bewail the burning.
Because of our sins these men were not even given a Jewish burial
but were left at the bottom of the hill on the very spot where
they had been burnt. It was only later the Jews came and buried
the s bones. There were about thirtytwo holy souls who offered
themselves as a sacrifice to their Creator; and God smelled the
sweet savor, for him whom He has chosen does He cause to come
night unto Him. [The number of those burnt varies in different
sources. One source lists a newborn babe. ]
Of their own free will all the communities of France, England,
and the Rhineland observed Wednesday, the 20th of Siwan, 4931,
as a day of mourning and fasting. This was also the command of
great teacher Jacob, the son of Rabbi Meir, who wrote letters
to them a informing them that it was proper to fix this day as
a fast for all t our people, and that it must be greater even
than the Fast of Gedaliah a ben Ahikam; it was to be like the
Day of Atonement [a twenty hour fast ].
SOURCE: Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World:
A Sourcebook, 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938), 127-130.
Later printings of this text (eg by Atheneum, 1969, 1972, 1978)
do not indicate that the copyright was renewed)
This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book.
The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted
texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.
Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the
document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying,
distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal
use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source.
No permission is granted for commercial use.
© Paul Halsall October 1997