As autumn draws in and we head towards the various holidays of the harvest season, I have been reflecting on the reason why you wouldn’t be going to your weird uncle’s house for Thanksgiving even if it wasn’t for the on-going pandemic: Q-Anon. As you know from the back catalogue, here at the blog we are slightly obsessed with QAnon (in a chill way, between buds). So, in the interest of specificity, I have been thinking about how at its heart, QAnon is just a reheated version of medieval Antisemitic beliefs updated for people who have not taken the divorce well.
Of course, I have also written before on how Antisemitism is hardwired into medieval Europe. Part of this is down to the fact that it is codified into Christianity writ large. (Anyone who denies this should be immediately asked to explain how the conversion of the Jewish people at the Apocalypse is not, in fact, Antisemitic to you immediately.) Part of this is because that they were just kinda jerks, I guess. Having said that, the incidents of the twentieth century show that really if we want to talk about Antisemitism it is modern Europeans who really took it to the next level.
The QAnon gang seem to have wanted to pick up where the Nazis and medieval people left off, sadly. So, as a part of their little club they have grandfathered in several of the more Antisemitic beliefs at play in the medieval period. I am in no way the first person to have noticed and written on this. For example earlier this month, David Livingstone Smith wrote a short piece on this for Forward. Meanwhile over at the Daily Beast they noted that Mary Ann Mendoza, a QAnon enthusiast, was forced to pull out of speaking at the Republican National Convention after she retweeted an Antisemitic conspiracy theory. I am, however, the cutest person to write about this, so get ready for story time.
For a medievalist, the most obvious way in which QAnon and medieval Antisemitism overlap is all of the accusations of child torture and murder. For those blissfully unaware, the major QAnon thing is that there is a secret international society of elite pedophiles which traffic and rape children, but also torture them in order to extract something called Adrenochrome from them. (I say “major” because there is a lot going on in the QAnon conspiracy thing, and I in no way encourage you to look into it.)
Adrenochrome is a real chemical compound used as an Antihemorrhagic. It is synthesised through the oxidation of epinephrine. Of course, that is not what the QAnon people believe or care about. What they care about is my man Hunter S. Thompson’s in no way made up claim that, “There’s only one source for this stuff… the adrenaline glands from a living human body. It’s no good if you get it out of a corpse.” (Yes I know that technically Dr. Gonzo says that, not Hunter, but he wrote it, so shut your face and complain to your mum.)
Anyway, these people spend all the ample time that they have now that they are alienated from their families convincing themselves that Hillary Clinton is personally terrorizing tortured children to stimulate adrenaline which she then uses to keep her alive based on something that a gonzo writer who had his ashes shot out of a cannon by Johnny Depp wrote. I’m not making this up.
This is a lot like medieval beliefs about Jewish people in that there was a specific and on-going belief that they were engaged in what we refer to as “blood libel”. (Yes yes I have written about that before too. Deal.) This was the concept that Jewish people were kidnapping, torturing, and killing Christian children in a dark inversion of both the passion of Christ and the Mass. Stories were told of Jewish people devouring Christian children just as Catholics would consume the Eucharist, or of luring innocent young children with sweets into a crucifixion. Obviously none of this was true, but that did not stop Christians from wilding out any time a Christian child was found dead and attacking Jewish communities as a result. They would then celebrate by canonising the dead children locally (a practice which the Church repeatedly walked back, to their credit.)
Case in point, the hagiography of [former] Saint William of Norwich who was sadly found dead in 1144. By 1173, a local monk Thomas of Monmouth saw fit to commit what he believed was the passion of the young William to parchment. Much like the QAnon people, Thomas had some pretty, uh, extensive thoughts on how William suffered and died at the hands of his captors. He wrote about the child’s death at length, claiming that William was lured and kidnapped by a group of Jewish people on Palm Sunday. At first he was treated nicely, but then they…
“…suddenly seized hold of the boy William as he was having his dinner and in no fear of any treachery, and ill-treated him in various horrible ways. For while some of them held him behind, others opened his mouth and introduced an instrument of torture which is called a teazle [a wooden gag] and, fixing it by straps through both jaws to the back of his neck, they fastened it with a knot as tightly as it could be drawn.
After that, taking a short piece of rope of about the thickness of one’s little finger and tying three knots in it at certain distances marked out, they bound round that innocent head with it from the forehead to the back, forcing the middle knot into his forehead and the two others into his temples, the two ends of the rope being most tightly stretched at the back of his head and fastened in a very tight knot. The ends of the rope were then passed round his neck and carried round his throat under his chin, and there they finished off this dreadful engine of torture in a fifth knot.
But not even yet could the cruelty of the torturers be satisfied without adding even more severe pains. Having shaved his head, they stabbed it with countless thorn points, and made the blood come horribly from the wounds they made. [Jesus had worn a crown of thorns before his death.] And so cruel were they and so eager to Inflict pain that it was difficult to say whether they were more cruel or more ingenious in their tortures. For their skill in torturing kept up the strength of their cruelty and ministered arms thereto.
And thus, while these enemies of the Christian name were rioting in the spirit of malignity around the boy, some of those present ad judged him to be fixed to a cross in mockery of the Lord’s Passion … after all these many and great tortures, they inflicted a frightful wound in his left side, reaching even to his inmost heart, and, as though to make an end of all, they extinguished his mortal life so far as it was in their power.”
Aside from the, you know, batshit ideas about how people just looooovvvvee torturing children, for reasons, The William of Norwich story also shares a hallmark of QAnon theory: the idea of a shadowy world wide “cabal” of Jewish people who are secretly controlling the world. In addition to basically any political actor they do not like, the QAnon people enjoy throwing in wealthy and powerful Jewish people as a part of their conspiracy, namely George Soros and the Rothschilds. Because, you know, these individuals with pretty much diametrically opposed political views can all get together and agree that they just love a spot of child torture or whatever.
This is linked to the older conspiracy of the New World Order, which takes its cues from the literal Nazis, and slightly further back to the fake idea of a fake thing called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This was a text from 1903 that alleged to be the minutes of a very real meeting of a shady cabal of Jewish elders who were secretly plotting to take over the world. As you do. This belief crops up in QAnon itself from time to time, but is also on display in the William hagiography, where Thomas of Monmouth claims the boy met his fate because…
“…the chief men and Rabbis of the Jews who dwell in Spain assemble together at Narbonne, where the Royal seed [resides], and where they are held in the highest estimation, and they cast lots for all the countries which the Jews inhabit; and whatever country the lot falls upon, its metropolis has to carry out the same method with the other towns and cities, and the place whose lot is drawn has to fulfill the duty imposed by authority.”
So yeah, in the minds of medieval Christians there was always a secret Jewish conspiracy to murder and torture innocent children because, “every year they must sacrifice a Christian in some part of the world to the Most High God in scorn and contempt of Christ, that so they might avenge their sufferings on Him; inasmuch as it was because of Christ’s death that they had been shut out from their own country, and were in exile as slaves in a foreign land.” There may be no mention of adrenochrome, but we see the same idea that as a group these powerful individuals simply hated the “purity” of god-fearing Christian children and enjoyed torturing them as a result.
At play in the medieval conception of the nefarious and secret Jewish cabal was also the same thing that we see in QAnon, a firm belief that while all of this child torture was clearly going on, it was being allowed because it suited the needs of the powerful. Much as the Clintons or Obamas surface alongside the shady Jewish conspirators of QAnon there was a medieval perception of Jewish people as linked to and protected by royalty, which William alludes to this in his hagiography with his remark that the Jewish cabal is located in Narbonne alongside the “royal seed”. The idea was able to flourish because, well, it is true that Jewish people literally were linked to the monarchy in a number of ways.
They royal connection is linked to the fact that Jewish people were expressly forbidden from taking part in ordinary trades or even just peasant life in the medieval period because of, you know, all of the Antisemitism. They were instead explicitly forced into roles as money lenders. This is because of the conception of lending at interest as a sin, usury, during the medieval period as I have written about before. Jewish people, however, were not prevented within Judaism from lending to those outside of their religion. So because they could lend money at interest they were then forced to lend money at interest if they wanted to live, well, anywhere in Europe.
Because lending money was very useful to many rulers, many of them would place Jewish people under their explicit protection. Hell, in England Jewish people were explicitly invited into the Kingdom after the Norman Conquest by royal invitation. As a part of this, Jewish people usually paid taxes on their lending directly to the crown and were often subject specifically and only to royal law. This rankled Christians who a) were mad because they were in debt to a bunch of people they saw as outsiders, and b) they felt like the Jewish people they were in debt to were getting better treatment than they were.
Lest you, like the medieval Christians, think that being under royal control was somehow a good thing, I refer you to the words of one of my least favourite Holy Roman Emperors, Louis IV of Bavaria: “You, the Jews, your bodies—as well as your property—belong to us and to the empire, and we can do to you, treat you, and handle you the way we want and consider proper.” SO yeah, less of a good thing, and more of a vibe that Jewish people were literal chattel, something like animals. You know, special treatment! Connections! Not a perpetual state of subjugation that they as a group are completely unable to control and have been forced into by the powerful.
As depressing as reflecting on all of this is, it is also important to reflect on it. We need to face down the very real wrongs that medieval society perpetuated and reflect on how they built the world around us. We also need to study these things so that we can pick up on the ways in which modern conspiracy theories like QAnon are Antisemitic as hell and also extremely and unbelievably unimaginative. These same tropes are recycled time and again so that those who perpetuate them can give their beliefs credence. They see Antisemitic legends like the story of William not as the disturbing reflections of an unequal society that they are, but as a deep truths that those of us who haven’t succumbed to a deeply racist and unbelievably stupid conspiracy theory are refusing to engage with.
It is incumbent upon all of us to engage with these medieval legends like that of WIlliam of Norwich so that we can repeat this one actually true thing– blood libel is not real. It was not real when Thomas of Monmouth wrote an extended wank fantasy about it, and it was not real when whichever shady mofo who is profiting off selling Q merch reheated it to sell to a bunch of alienated Boomers in a collapsing empire. William of Norwich isn’t a saint because this didn’t happen to him. There was no group of Jewish elders in Narbonne casting lots to decide the fate of young children. And there aren’t a series of underground caves in the United States where children are being tortured to extract a drug which Donald Trump is systematically shutting down.
When people in the medieval period had a difficult life, it wasn’t because Jewish people were taking advantage of them – it was because they lived in a deeply unequal society where power and money were concentrated in the hands of the ruling class. When Americans now suffer it has nothing to do with some shady Jewish people reveling in their misery – it is because they live in a deeply unequal society where power and money are concentrated in the hands of the ruling class. This isn’t a conspiracy. There is no secret. Life is hard because rich people want to be richer and they don’t care about you. It has absolutely nothing to do with Jewish people, and there are no children being tortured in secret, that is happening in the open in sweatshops. You want to get mad at something? Get mad at inequality and also Antisemitism while you are at it. You don’t have access to secret knowledge, you are just a dick.
 Thomas of Monmouth, The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich <https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/1173williamnorwich.asp> Accessed 25 September 2020.
 Quoted in, Robert Mitchell, A History of Catholic Antisemitism: The Dark Side of The Church. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), p. 48.
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For more on the treatment of Jewish people in the medieval period, see:
On martyrdom and nationalism
On Odious Debt
On Mike Pence, Holocaust Memorial Day, and Christian interpretations of Jewish utility
Keep the word ‘Judeo’ out of your racist mouth Nigel Farage
On Jerusalem and the Apocalypse, or why you should be deeply unsettled right now
For more on QAnon and the medieval period, see:
On Q Anon and systems of knowledge