On May 26, 1171, the Jewish community of Blois, France, was massacred after it was accused of the ritual murder of a Christian child. The first known example of a blood libel in continental Europe, it came just a few decades after the Jews of Norwich, England were accused of crucifying a Christian boy in 1144 before the charges were dropped.
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Under any circumstances, the mass execution in Blois would have been shocking. But it is especially horrifying in light of the fact that there was no proof that a crime had been committed and no reports of a missing Christian child.
Ready to believe the worst
The episode began on March 25, 1171, three days before Easter Sunday, when a Christian servant happened upon a Jewish man, Isaac ben Eliezer, on the bank of the Loire River near Blois, a small town in north-central France. Isaac was carrying tanned hides he had bought in Blois. One of them fell into the water, spooking the servant’s horse and apparently its rider as well, who returned home and told his employer he had seen a Jew throwing the body of a child into the river.
The accusation fell on ears that were ready to believe the worst of “the Jews.”
For one, the events in Norwich, England, which were followed by other blood-libel charges, were known to the people of the Loire Valley. Additionally, the local ruler, Count Theobald, was known to fancy a Blois Jewish woman named Pulcinella. Both Theobald’s wife, Alice, and the town’s Christian nobles resented her hold on the count — and were apparently unaware that his ardor for the woman had cooled.
Theobald ordered all of Blois’s Jews arrested but, understanding that some sort of proof was needed, ordered the witness tested in a trial by ordeal. He was placed in the river, in a boat that was then filled with water. When the boat didn’t sink, it was taken as a sign that he was telling the truth.
Negotiations fell through
Attempts were made to redeem the Jews with the payment of ransom, but the negotiations did not go well, and on May 26, 1171, Blois’ 31 Jews (or possibly as many as 33) were locked inside a house that was then set on fire and burned to the ground.
Several children were spared on condition they convert to Christianity, and a few adults were given prison sentences instead. As they burned to death, the Jews were heard to sing the “Aleinu” prayer.
The Jewish community’s awakening
In a fascinating article published in the Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research in 1968, historian Robert Chazan provides a concise survey of the large amount of contemporary testimony about the Blois incident and its aftermath. He points to it as an early and impressive example of intercommunal Jewish cooperation.
True, efforts to prevent the execution were not successful. But in its wake, other Jewish communities in northern France coordinated efforts to recover the victims’ bodies for burial and to pay for the release of the small number of Jews who had been imprisoned.
Beyond that, the communities’ joint efforts included appeals to authorities who could prevent another such atrocity. These included a meeting with King Louis VII and another with the Count of Champagne, who also happened to be the brother of Count Theobald.
Both the king and the count declared that they did not believe the stories about Jews sacrificing Christian children. King Louis also gave instructions for the protection of his Jewish subjects from such abuses in the future.
The diplomatic efforts, which also included the distribution of letters to Jewish communities throughout northern Europe, were in large part overseen by Rabbi Jacob Tam of Troyes. Tam died soon after, but before his death he declared the 20th of Sivan, the Hebrew date of the massacre took place, be observed as a fast day, in addition to other commemorative rituals. It is still observed in some communities, especially in Europe.