(photo credit:Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
In the second half of the 12th century, a Jewish woman named Pucellina,
presumably of Italian ancestry, had dealings with the nobility in the town of
Blois, located in Champagne. Most likely she was a moneylender, not an unusual
profession for a medieval European Jew with funds; colleagues of hers were
lending money to members of the nobility as well as to the church.
distressing incident, namely a false blood-libel claim, transpired on May 26,
1171, ending in disaster for Pucellina. A male servant was supposedly watering
his horse by the bank of the Loire when he noticed a Jew nearby. According to
his account, this Jew was tossing the body of a Christian boy he had murdered
into the river. The servant was convinced that the entity thrown into the water
was a corpse because his horse was so startled that it refused to
This “witness” immediately reported his sightings to his master,
who realized that he had been afforded a perfect opportunity to undermine the
local Jewish community. In particular, he could undermine Pucellina, to whom he
had a strong aversion; this arrogant Jewish woman had the gall to consider Count
Thibaut (of Blois) her patron.
In the meantime, no body was found in the
water because the poor soul who had been seen on the bank of the Loire had
merely been carrying untanned leather that was rolled up and had slipped out of
his grasp, landing in the water. Nevertheless, upon hearing the report, the
count felt that it was his duty to arrest those involved; some 40 Jews from
Blois were imprisoned.
Unfortunately for those incarcerated, an
Augustinian arrived upon the scene; his presence considerably heightened
anti-Jewish sentiment. Attempts by members of the Jewish community to negotiate
a group ransom were in vain. The servant was brought to testify and successfully
withstood the water ordeal. The fate of those on trial was now sealed; Pucellina
was among the 30-odd prisoners condemned to be burned at the stake.
those who survived were a few who were fortunate enough to be ransomed and a few
who converted; interestingly enough, the majority of the victims were women. The
surviving members of the community negotiated with the king for future
protection and for rights to bury the martyrs; a call for a fast followed this
Susan L. Einbinder has developed a fascinating presentation of
the image of Pucellina (see “Pucellina of Blois: Romantic Myths and Narrative
Conventions,” Jewish History 12 (1998): 29-46). In a letter to the community of
Orleans written shortly after incident, this figure is presented as a powerful
Jewish woman with strong ties to the count. However, a mere 20 years later,
Ephraim of Bonn felt the need to alter the tale.
In his account, the
protagonist was no longer a wheeler-dealer in the count’s court, but a woman
involved in a romantic entanglement with her benefactor.
His heroine is
not a particularly likable character.
Yet once incarcerated with her
fellow Jews, she suddenly blossoms into an altruistic, caring member of the
community. This compassionate woman is portrayed as a victim of jealousy on the
part of Countess Alix, Count Thibaut’s wife.
By the 15th century, one can
no longer find the original Pucellina in contemporary accounts. In Emek Ha-Baka
(the Valley of Tears) by Yosef Hacohen, she has metamorphosed into a romantic
martyr figure who never would have soiled her hands lending
Despite the fact that there are five 12th-century letters
available offering tangible evidence about this event, it was preferable to have
a romantic heroine die as a martyr rather than a Jewish woman with ties to the
non-Jewish count solely based on economic utility. Nor did the romance
attributed to them by Ephraim take place. This woman clearly needed to be put in
her proper place in history.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history
and dean at the Schechter Institute as well as academic editor of the journal
Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and
on Jewish women.