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.
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].”