Author's Note: In case I do not make this abundantly clear in the essay below, let me take a moment to make clear that there is NO historical evidence whatsoever to support the many false legends of blood libel & ritual murder. It is blatant anti-Semitic propaganda that, to this day, is wrongly perpetuated by an ill-informed and ignorant minority.
Medieval Europe was no friend to those of the Jewish faith, and France was no exception. In May 1171, the Jews of Blois, France were accused of ritual murder. According to a Christian soldier-servant in a report to his master, the Jews of Blois had crucified a Christian child as part of their Passover ritual, then dumped the body in the Loire River. The servant claimed to bear witness to this horror when he was at the river watering his horse and saw a Jewish villager dispose of said corpse. This event, chronicled by Ephraim ben Jacob, provides modern historians with a rare primary source account of Jewish life during the Second Crusade. This particular description of the events at Blois highlights several important factors, which indicate that this so-called ritual murder was in fact a fictitious story created as a result of anti-Semitism. According to ben Jacob’s account, the servant was eager to report this fallacy to his master, who harbored ill feelings toward a Jewess named Pulcelina. The master immediately told Count Theobald V. Despite Theobald’s fond feelings toward Pulcelina, he was persuaded by his wife Alix, King Louis VII’s daughter, to hold the Jews accountable. First, though, he needed to be certain that the servant was telling the truth as there was no other evidence (Marcus). The next phase of the story brings to light an interesting occurrence.
A Catholic priest came forward to help determine whether or not the servant was telling the truth about what happened at the river. It was determined that the servant would be placed in a tank of holy water. If he floated, it meant he was telling the truth, but if he sank, it meant he was lying. This is terribly fascinating because typically, it worked the opposite way so that a guilty party would float and an innocent party would sink (Marcus). This strongly suggests that the priest, who added a certain “legitimacy” to the legal process, was keen on working with Theobald V and the other Christian anti-Semites to find guilt with the Jews.
With the finding of the “truth,” the Jews were implicated in the ritual murder, and sentenced to death. However, as was customary, they were offered a way out by means of conversion. Ben Jacob claims none converted, while Marcus notes that a Christian historian of the time claims some did convert. Regardless, approximately 32 innocent Jewish men, women, and children were sacrificed by fire. Perhaps most significant is the fact that this was, indeed, the first accusation of ritual murder involving blood libel in continental Europe, not to mention the first death sentence as a result. Although blood libel accusations had existed in England, France was the first nation on the European mainland to formally take action on such a case. Although the first case of false ritual murder claims against the Jews, it would not be the last in France nor in continental Europe.
When Philip Augustus Capet (King Philip II of France) came to power in 1179 – a mere eight years after the ritual murder case in Blois - he needed to fill the royal coffers as well as secure his place on the throne. He did so by persecuting, and ultimately expelling, the Jews of France. A monk named Rigord, the self-proclaimed “Chronicler of the King of Franks,” described the events that took place leading up to the expulsion of the Jews (Hyams). Philip studied the ways of the Jews and concluded that they were evil and within the first year of his reign arrested and incarcerated the Jews of France and relieved them of their wealth. He did offer them a means out of jail by way of paying a steep ransom (Marcus).
In 1181, Philip further burdened the Jews of France by making null and void all loans that Jewish bankers had granted to Christians. This was devastating to Jewish bankers as it wreaked havoc on their livelihood, yet things were only going to get worse. In 1182, Philip II not only confiscated all Jewish lands, but issued a decree of expulsion of all Jews from France. Philip II did, however, offer Jews another option. Rigord wrote,
“When the faithless Jews heard this edict some of them were born again of water and the Holy Spirit and converted to the Lord, remaining steadfast in the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. To them the King, out of regard for the Christian religion, restored all their possessions in their entirety, and gave them perpetual liberty.” (Marcus)
By 1198, Philip II readmitted Jews back to France, presumably for the economy’s sake, but tightly regulated their banking to ensure that the State was financially compensated. In fact, Marcus notes that some of this wealth acquired from the Jews may have been used to build the Louvre. As the Middle Ages progressed into the thirteenth century, the plight of the French Jew continued to decline.
The Lateran Council of 1215 forced the Jews of Europe, including France, into ghettos and restricted which trades they were allowed to enter, forcing them to predominately rely upon money lending. During 1240, Pope Gregory IX ordered that the Talmud be examined for blasphemes. The pious French King Louis IX (Saint Louis) eagerly followed the orders of the Pope and in 1242 the Talmud and other Jewish holy books were condemned and burned in large quantities (Marcus, 163-8). Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, various Kings of France intermittently expelled from and recalled to France its Jewish population. The Jews were repeatedly accused of various crimes targeting Christians, such as poisoning wells in conjunction with the spread of the Black Death. In short, the Jews of Medieval France were “victims of popular as well as royal wrath” (Jones, 90).
The first expulsion of the Jews from France is particularly significant because it set a trend that England would follow in 1290 and, most infamously, Spain would follow in 1492. Once the French kings flexed their political muscle and found they could easily bully the Jewish minority out of, and subsequently back into, France at their whim, other nations followed suit. Kings of France continued to find legal means to control Jewish livelihoods and confiscate Jewish wealth. The kings did this all with popular support, not to mention the encouragement, or at least the blind eye, of the Roman Catholic Church. By engaging in such hateful behaviors against the Jews, the French State set a dangerous precedent that would haunt France, Europe, and the Jews for centuries to come.
Hyams, Paul R. “Rigord and His ‘Deeds of Philip Augustus.’“ (1998).
Jones, Colin. Paris: The Biography of a City. (New York: Penguin Group, 2005). 90
Marcus, Jacob. The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook 315-1791. “The Expulsion of the Jews From France, 1182 CE.” (New York: JPS, 1938). 24-27.
Marcus, Jacob. The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791. “Ephraim ben Jacob: The Ritual Murder Accusation at Blois, May 1171.” (New York: JPS, 1938). 127-130.
Marcus, Jacob. The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook 315-1791. “The Burning of the Talmud, Paris 1239-1248.” (New York: JPS, 1938). 163-68.