Wednesday, September 14, 2022

A book on medieval history used in schools until the 1980s treated the blood libel as fact

Here's something I wish I had discovered before I wrote my book chapter on Oliver Twist and anti-Semitism, with its discussion of the supposed killing of innocent Christian boys by Jews.

A history book  by John Hooper Harvey, which was widely used in school sixth forms until the 1980s, maintained that there had been just such a killing in Lincoln in the 13th century.

A post by Dr J.A. Cameron on his blog Stained Glass Attitudes records:

One passage in his popular history book The Plantagenets (1948), praising Edward I’s statesmanship in removing the “exotic mass” of the Jewish community which in turn “united the national body”.

Additionally Harvey attempted convince his readers of the veracity of the most infamous case of Blood Libel: the accusation in 1255 of the Jewish community of Lincoln ritually crucifying a young boy called Hugh (later given a kind of informal local canonisation as Little St Hugh of Lincoln) upon the discovery of his body in a well. 

In his most disturbing show of unwavering positivism, Harvey claimed that because he’d read the original chancery rolls, the medieval court’s judgement on the case was “unassailable”. 

After repeated complaints from Jewish groups and even the Catholic Church in England, his publishers gave him a chance in 1984 to amend the text. He refused, and the book, which had been a mainstay of sixth-form history classes, went out of print.

It may be no surprise that Harvey was a member of a right-wing extremist faction in the 1930s:

He joined rabid anti-Semite Arnold Leese’s Imperial Fascist League, which found Italian fascism a bit too airy-fairy and instead met with the Nazi party and adopted ideas of Aryan supremacy, removal of citizenship for Jews and put a ‘kin swastika on their logo. 

While the British Union of Fascists allegedly hit a high of 50,000 members, the Imperial Fascist League only ever mustered a few hundred. H

Harvey was not in good company. This wasn’t just right-wing, it was full-on National Socialism with all of the biological racism that went with it.

Harvey was investigated by the authorities after the war broke out, but not interned. When you read this quotation from him, it's hard to see why:

"If Britain defeat Hitler it is a victory for Jews all over the world, if Britain is defeated by Hitler it is a defeat for the Jews and Britain would have a chance to put herself on the map again."

Do I hear a faint echoes of Brexit in the idea of Britain putting herself on the map again? 

Harvey's life and career - he was a leading historian of English medieval architecture - stand as a warning about the dark places into which romantic nationalism can lead you.

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