Blood Libel – little Hugh’s false well

libelOne hundred years ago, an enterprising   Englishman hit on the idea of liquidizing his   cash flow by capitalizing on an ancient myth   that had been floating around for centuries.

Little Hugh  
The story began over eight centuries   ago in Lincoln, at that time the third largest   city in England and boasting a small, but   prominent Jewish community. Dark clouds   loomed over the small group of Jews on July   31st, 1255, when nine-year-old little Hugh   decided to play with some friends at the bottom   of Steep Hill, nowadays the location of   two famous landmarks, Jews Court, where   the Jews once had a communal building,   possibly a shul, and Jews House, which has   the distinction of being the oldest dwelling   house in Europe. At day’s end, Hugh never   returned home. Although his mother, Beatrice,   thought he might be up to some prank,   as days turned into weeks it became obvious   that he would never return.

Some weeks later, Hugh entered the annals   of history when his body turned up in a   well associated with a Jew named Koppin.   A local priest, John of Lexington, lost no   time in persuading Koppin (perhaps to the   accompaniment of physical coercion) that it   might be worth his while to confess to the   charge of ritual murder in exchange for his   life.

At that time, both Jews and the blood libel   myth were newcomers to England. Jews   first arrived in England two centuries earlier   when William the Conqueror of France   seized control of England in 1066 (which   explains their close connection with the   Baalei Tosfos of France).

The ritual murder accusation too was   relatively new. Although leveled against the   Jews centuries earlier by the anti-Semitic   Greek-Egyptian author, Apion, and raised   by the Romans against early Christians, the   first time the Christians leveled it against   the Jews was in the case of twelve-year-old   William of Norwich that occurred a century   earlier in 1144. This was followed by a rash   of libel cases in Gloucester (1168), Bury St.   Edmunds (1181), Bristol (about 1183), and   Winchester (1192). Now, 63 years later since   the last libel, the specter rose once more   over Merry England, despite a recent 1247   Bull of Pope Innocent IV, which insisted no   such thing existed.

“Although the Holy Scriptures enjoin the   Jews, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ and forbid them   to touch any dead body at Passover,” the   Bull enjoined, “they are wrongly accused of   partaking of the heart of a murdered child   at the Passover, with the charge that this is   prescribed by their laws, since the truth is   completely the opposite. Whenever a corpse   is found somewhere, it is to the Jews that   the murder is wickedly imputed. They are   persecuted on the pretext of such fables or   of others quite similar, and contrary to the   privileges that have been granted to them   by the Holy See, they are deprived of trial   and of regular judgment. In mockery of all   justice, they are stripped of their belongings,   starved, imprisoned and tortured, so that   their fate is perhaps worse than that of their   fathers in Egypt…”

It is worth noting that such Papal notices   were somewhat downplayed by the   Church’s canonization of a number of blood   libel “victims” into sainthood.   As a result of Koppin’s confession, some   ninety Jews were arrested and dragged to   trial in London. They included not only   Lincoln Jews, but also a number of visiting   Jews who had come to attend a wedding –   a classic case of being in the wrong place   at the wrong time. There was little chance   of total reprieve, for historians surmise that   the reigning monarch, King Henry III, had a   financial interest in finding at least some of   the Jews guilty. Although the English Jews   were servi camerae (chattels of the king)   and he had the right to squeeze them mercilessly,   Henry was desperate for money as   so many English kings were, and had sold   his rights in the Jews to his brother, Richard,   Earl of Cornwall. Now, the only way to get   his “property” back was to have them convicted   of murder, since the law surfeited the   property of all executed people to the king.   Eighteen Jews refused to cooperate with   the king’s court, knowing too well what sort   of justice would prevail, and were executed   forthwith – the first time the English government   ever issued a death sentence for blood   libel – while the others were spared thanks   to the intervention of the king’s brother.   Perhaps he realized that by their execution   he would be losing even a huger slice of income   to his brother.

As a matter of course, a number of miraculous   myths developed around Hugh’s   corpse, such as one blind woman claiming   she regained her sight after touching it, and   the local cathedral authorities, always on the   lookout to create more attractions for their   gullible flock, buried the body in the cathedral   and constructed an elaborate shrine   around the grave. Although the supposed   martyr was revered as Saint Little Hugh,   he was never listed in the official roster of   Catholic saints whose numbers have long   passed the ten thousand mark.

Big Hugh  
The prefix of “Little” was added to   Hugh’s name to increase people’s pathos,   and to differentiate it from the nearby grave   of another Hugh who had died when he   was very much an adult. This was Bishop   Hugh of Lincoln who had striven to protect   the Jews of Lincoln and other locales when   they suffered massacres at the beginning of   King Richard I’s reign fifty years before.   When Jews came bearing gifts for the new   king at his coronation, he had them stripped,   flogged, and thrown out of court, which instigated   a rumor that he had ordered all Jews   to be killed. Of course, his loyal subjects   were only too happy to comply, including   among their victims the Baal Tosafos Rav   Yaakov of Orleans, talmid of Rabeinu Tam,   who had left France for England in 1171.

Bishop Hugh’s 1140 funeral was one of the   rare occasions when Jews wept over a prelate’s   demise.

The Fake Well  
Mercifully, little Hugh’s fame began to   lessen. The process began four centuries   after his death when King Henry VIII instated   himself as head of the English Church   (partially due to the Pope’s refusal to allow   him to divorce his wife) and mounted   a campaign to uproot Catholicism’s more   primitive practices. This included the destruction   of most shrines dedicated to saints   that peppered England in those days, and   the removal of their jewels and gold to his   own coffers. Of Little Hugh’s impressive   edifice little remained but a hole in the wall,   a plaque perpetuating the false tale of his demise   to prosperity, and a number of French,   Scottish, and English ballads.

Tradition had long associated the disappearance   of Hugh to Jews’ House and since   about 1852 visitors were told that the building   contained the well where his body was   allegedly concealed. In fact, historians think   that the actual well involved, if any well was   involved, was probably in a different location   in town, even though there is evidence   that there was once a natural spring in the   building, which may have been used as a   mikvah.  

In 1910, a Mr. Dodgson bought the Jews   Court and thought of raking in a few pennies   on the side by digging up physical evidence   of the place’s connection with the ancient   blood legend. Failing to find the ancient   well spoken of in the traditional poems and   ballads, he hired Harry Staples to excavate   a three foot deep hole which, periodically   replenished by bucket, seemed authentic   enough to dredge three penny fees out of unsuspecting   tourists.

In 1928 Dodgson’s story was blown when   the city council, as city councils do, was considering   demolishing the historically priceless   Jews Court, but preserving the precious   well – in the course of their deliberations, the   man who had dug the well confessed his part   in the crime to the Lincolnshire Echo. Jews   Court was spared and remains one of Lincoln’s   priceless landmarks, while the fake   well is now behind drapes and no longer   on public display. Another blow to Hugh’s   publicity came in 1959 when a dean of the   Cathedral ordered his defamatory plaque to   be replaced by a modest framed notice that   delivers the following more accurate version   of events:

“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.”

This was by no means the end of the blood accusation cult. Until the 1990s a church   in Rinn (near Innsbruck, Austria) displayed illustrated panels depicting Jews allegedly   collecting blood from three-year-old Anderl von Rinn in the fifteenth century – whose   tale is faithfully recorded in the famous Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Although officially outlawed   in 1994, traditional Austrians preserve the cult and persist in making an annual   pilgrimage to Anderl’s grave.

As for Little Hugh, his “martyrdom” is still perpetuated in a number of old ballads   including the old, immortal classic of Chaucer’s Tales written a century later, which   concludes an anti-Semitic tale by mentioning “yonge Hugh of Lyncoln, slayn also   with… Jewes, as it is notable [known], for it is but a litel while ago [sic].”

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