The changing image of Pucellina of Blois

Tales of a 12th century French Jewish woman are distorted over the years to protect those who accused her community of blood-libel.

Torah 521 (photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
Torah 521
(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.
A 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 drink.
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.
Among 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 tragedy.
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 money.
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.