Wherein I Explain “Blood Libel” with a Song

While I know the expiration date on talking about Sarah Palin’s abhorrent comment after the Tucson Shooting has long since passed, I ran across what is probably the best didactic resource on the topic the other day and just had to share.

Quck recap for those living under a rock: Sarah Palin used the phrase “Blood Libel” a) in a context where it made no sense (go figure) and b) betrayed her ignorance of the topic entirely (again, big surprise).

So, what is “Blood Libel” anyway?  Let’s break it down.  Libel is when you start a malicious lie about someone, in the context of this phrase it was about the Jewish people.  The Blood part specifically refers to the blood of gentiles, and specifically gentile children.  Blood Libel refers to a medieval urban legend where it was believed that Jews would kidnap gentile children and sacrifice them to their bloodthirsty God. Never mind the fact that the God of the Christians and the God of the Jews is one and the same.  This legend persisted and spawned all kinds of pogroms against Jews repeatedly over the course of the middle ages and early modern period.

And as all things medieval and early modern is was also captured in song.

While I was researching the Child Ballads, a set of historical English balladry, and listening to Pandora stations of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span I ran across this song Little Sir Hugh.  At first I thought it was just another murder ballad about some horrible woman who kills a child, but no, this was explicitly a song about Blood Libel.  So, let me share the salient story line points and verses with some explanations so that we can all have a perfectly clear picture of what is entailed when someone uses this phrase.  The lyrics I will use here are the whitewashed version by Steeleye Span. Though the horrifying racist versions are all available on Wikisource.

The song opens up on a scene of boys playing kickball.  This is a common image of childhood innocence.  Little Sir Hugh joins in the fray and starts kicking the ball.

He kicked the ball very high
He kicked the ball so long
He kicked it over a castle wall
Where no one dared to go

The “castle wall” here is probably the common Shtetl wall you would find in medieval cities that separated the Jewish district from the rest of the city. Though that’s speculation on my part.

Out came a lady gay
She was dressed in green
“Come in, Come in Little Sir Hugh
Fetch your ball again.”

“I can’t come in, I won’t come in
Without my playmates all.
For if I should, I know you would
Cause my blood to flow.”

Again, because this is the publicly safe version to sing no mention is made of her ethnicity though in the Child Ballads she is sometimes explicitly referred to as the “Jew’s Daughter.”  More importantly here’s where we have to explain that “little sir Hugh” was one of those miraculous Christian children who supposedly had some kind of precognition. That or he’d heard the urban legend and was repeating it child-like back to her face.  But let’s get to the killing already.

She took him by the milk white hand
Led him through the hall
‘Til they came to a stone table
Where no one could hear him call

She sat him on a golden chair
She gave him sugar sweet
She laid him on a dressing board
And stabbed him like a sheep

He called it.  But again, there was something saintly about him.  He was stabbed like a sheep, the lamb of God.  Part of the thing about blood libel is that it has a sort of fucked up biblical origin.  Certain Christians have never gotten over the crucifixion.  Hell, look at Mel Gibson’s Passon of the Christ and you can see just how much he hates the Jews for killing Jesus.  Again, nevermind the fact that there’s supposedly a reason for the sacrifice of Christ, and that it was God’s plan all along.  The simple fact that the Jews turned  him over to be crucified and that they “screamed for his blood” means that Jews are supposedly this bloodthirsty vengeful people.  On a slight tangent I would also like to point out that there’s something in this line that reminds me of the White Witch of Narnia giving young Edward Turkish Delights, and the witch in the woods with her Gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel.  Onto the rest.

Out came the thick thick blood
Out came the thin
Out came the bonny heart’s blood
‘Til there was none within

She took him by the yellow hair
And also by the feet
She threw him in at the old North Well
Fifty fathoms deep

So she drained the child dry.  No explanation as to why, she just did.  Then she throws him in a well.  This is another one of those common medieval urban legends: the well poisoner.  Because well water was commonly shared among multiple households in medieval villages the threat of someone poisoning the water supply was very serious.  Any outbreak of sickness or plague often resulted in accusations of well poisoning and the brunt of those accusations fell on people who didn’t fit into the common village society, i.e., Jews, foreigners, “witches,” etc. Xenophobia leads to accusations and hate crimes.

Finally the chorus.

Mother, Mother, Make my bed
Make for me a winding sheet
Wrap me up in a cloak of gold
To see if I can sleep

Part of the rest of the story is that the spirit of Sir Hugh appears to his mother.  His ghost is in a little cherubic form (as cherubs are the spirits of dead children), and he explains to her that he is dead.  The cloak of gold is a burial shroud.  In some of the variant texts the ghost child actually leads the mother to the well and the body of the boy is retrieved.

It’s never really said what happened to the Jews in the song.  All we see are the actions.  I think it would be safe to assume that if this song was sung in a Christian town that it could lead to inciting anger and violence against Jewish people.  The fact that the Jews were driven out of England in about the same time as this song was originally written and that they weren’t allowed back into the country until the 17th century says something.

For more on blood libel check out The Prioresses Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.