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The Jews of France:
A History from Antiquity to the Present
Esther Benbassa
Translated from the French by M. B. DeBevoise

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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 1999, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to

Chapter 1


Due to the absence of documents, it is difficult to attest the beginning of the Jewish presence in Gaul with certainty. The Bible makes no reference to this region. One does find in it the word Tsarfat, but this term designates the town of Zarephath (also called Sarepta) in Phoenicia, and only later came to be applied to France, as in Israeli Hebrew today.


Stretching from Antibes to Toulouse and, toward the north, as far as the vicinity of Lyons, the Midi found itself under Roman domination from 125-122 B.C.E. From the time of its conquest, in 58-51 B.C.E, by Julius Caesar, until its invasion by barbarians from the east and north in the fifth century, the history of inland Gaul was inseparable from that of Rome. The Jews who settled in Gaul did so as Roman citizens or protégés.

    With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. by the armies of Titus, and then the last Jewish revolt against Rome, led in 132-135 by Simon Bar Kokhba, which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem under Hadrian, Gaul emerged as one of the new chosen lands for Jews who departed in forced exile or of their own will. The flow of emigration was directed mainly toward Rome, which sheltered Jewish communities living there in peace, and later reached the periphery of the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar had earlier granted the Jews a charter of liberty, confirmed by Augustus. The Jews' fidelity to these emperors was commensurate with their gratitude, which did not fail to arouse animosity toward them on the part of groups opposed to the regime. The suppression of Jewish revolts in Palestine had not called into question their status within the Roman Empire. The empire continued to tolerate different religions, in keeping with a realist policy by which the Romans, like other conquering peoples, obtained stability in exchange for respecting local religions. The old Roman religion itself was woven from a set of beliefs related to local gods along with others borrowed from the Greeks. This wave of Jewish emigration toward Rome is therefore unsurprising.

    A number of legends surround the settlement of the Jews in Gaul. From the beginning of the Christian era, mention is made of certain Judean notables who were forced out of their native land by the Roman authorities. As a land of exile for condemned Roman politicians, Gaul must have also received Jews suffering the same fate. To claim, on the basis of this, that Jewish communities then existed in Gaul would nonetheless be risky. At difficult moments of their history on French soil, however, Jews have themselves asserted as much, hoping to counteract hostility by proclaiming the antiquity of their settlement. Here we encounter a recurrent theme in the history of the Jews, in France as in other countries, and one to which they regularly resorted when their situation became precarious.

    In fact, it is not until the fourth century that written documents mention an actual Jewish presence in the region, confirmed in the centuries that followed. The Jews there did not all come from Palestine; many of them belonged to the diaspora, made up in part by populations converted to Judaism. The Christianization of the Roman Empire under Constantine the Great, with the recognition of Christianity as the official religion in 313, and the restrictions that gradually came to be imposed on the Jews, favored their emigration, particularly to Gaul, which was slower to become Christianized. Their numbers there, however, remained modest: there were only about thirty-five localities, situated for the most part along the Mediterranean littoral, such as Narbonne and Marseilles, but also in the active river valleys—commercial thoroughfares par excellence—and their environs, or in the crossroads of certain major routes such as those of Clermont-Ferrand and Poitiers. The settlement of Jews along an axis following the valley of the Rhône and extending from that of the Saône to its juncture with the Rhine corresponds to the route taken by the Roman legions, which Jews followed as soldiers, tradesmen, or merchants in search of a better life and more favorable economic conditions. The Gauls considered them Romans.

    The Jews living in Gaul benefited from certain rights and privileges deriving from their Roman citizenship, granted in 212 by Caracalla to all the inhabitants of the empire under the constitutio Antoniniana. These included freedom of worship, military service, and access to public office. Jews practiced trades that did not distinguish them from other Roman citizens, such as agriculture and wine-growing. Nor did they limit their activities to commerce alone. They dressed like the rest of the population, bore arms, and spoke the local language; even in the synagogue, Hebrew was not the only language used for rituals. Their ancestral names—biblical, Roman, and Gallo-Roman—did not differentiate them from other inhabitants. During this period relations between Jews and the surrounding society were relatively harmonious.


In the fifth century, Germanic barbarians invaded the western Roman Empire. Starting from the lower Rhine, the Franks, a loose confederation of small, more or less autonomous tribes, conquered the north of Gaul, some of their number advancing as far as the Meuse.

    Gaul had resisted the Christianization of the Roman Empire for almost two centuries. Out of a concern for unity, Clovis, who had brought together under his authority many of the Frankish colonies established to the north of the Loire, converted to Christianity (probably in or about 498), and by virtue of this transformed himself into an ally and protector of the church. From then on, the church was able to establish its influence while helping the sovereign to combat the neighboring peoples and to enlarge his authority. The Christian faith thus came to unite the different elements of the kingdom, the former and the new masters of Gaul alike, even if manifest regional differences persisted, above all between the north and the south, which did not respond to evangelization in the same way. Nonetheless, the legal status of the Jews, inherited from the prebarbarian era, was not yet called into question. They continued to live in accordance with their traditional customs. The barbarian laws, drafted in Latin, were themselves largely influenced by Roman law.

    Under the Franks, it is not until well after Clovis that one can speak of a radical separation between the Jews and the peoples newly won over to Christianity, which was yet unstructured on the level of dogma. Moreover, the rural population was still attached to paganism, while the Christian faith gained converts only among urban groups. This was true not only for Gaul but also for Germany. Jews during this period, lacking the Talmud, adhered closely to the text of the Bible and to certain oral traditions. There existed a religious confusion between Judaism and Christianity, both with regard to prescriptions and to worship, a phenomenon that was not peculiar to Gaul. The manner in which people were won over to the new religion was still superficial, and there persisted a certain susceptibility to heresies such as Arianism, Donatism, and Manichaeanism, which reappeared with the barbarian migrations and for which the church, in this period of intense evangelization, held the Jews responsible.


By the fourth century, Christian theology had taken a clear position with regard to the Jews, who did not recognize the messianic character and divinity of Jesus. The state of inferiority in which they were to be kept was both punishment for their blindness and the sign of the authenticity of Christ's message. The church, from the time of its establishment in Rome, labored not only to curtail the privileges of the Jews but did its utmost to remove them gradually from social life, confining them to positions in which they could not exercise authority over Christians. They were thus disqualified from holding public office and owning Christian slaves. Over time this restrictive policy came to be extended to Gaul. The church set up council after council, while combating the religious confusion that persisted. There followed an open struggle against Judaism. It has long been maintained that the church's aim was to check active Jewish efforts at proselytizing—a claim that is challenged today. It is quite plausible that some pagans and Christians converted to Judaism in this climate of religious confusion; but we have no way of knowing how many did so or why.

    The church forbade clerics from sitting down at table with Jews, and Jews from either going out in public during the tense period that lasted from Maundy Thursday through Easter Sunday or mixing with the Christian population. It prohibited exogamous marriages, which were relatively frequent, particularly under the Merovingians. The posts of tax collector and judge were closed to them. The fact that attempts were made to separate Christians and Jews is evidence of continuing relations between the two groups in Frankish society. At the same time, the fact that such restrictive measures were reiterated by councils between the sixth and seventh centuries suggests that the church had trouble applying them rigorously—trouble even making its voice heard. It undertook also to bring back errant lambs into the fold by conversion to Christianity, relying more on persuasion than coercion, as Pope Gregory the Great had recommended.

    The pressure exerted by the church did not alter to any great degree the condition of the Jews in Gaul, despite the precariousness they imparted to it. Nor was the fate of these Jews at all comparable to that of their co-religionists in Visigothic Spain after the conversion to Catholicism of the sovereigns of that country, zealous neophytes who showed themselves to be especially harsh toward the Jews. Finally, in 613, the Visigothic king Sisebut obliged them to be baptized. In Septimania, a Gaulish enclave within the kingdom of the Visigoths, Jews were subjected to the same treatment. Many sought refuge in more hospitable lands, notably in Provence. The Fourth Council of Toledo in 633 nullified Sisebut's measure ordering the forced conversion of the Jews and again advocated conversion by persuasion.

    However, even if the situation in Gaul was less grave than in Spain, where Christianity was newly triumphant, the appearance of Islam and the ensuing Arab conquest led to a deterioration of the Jewish condition under the Merovingians in the seventh to eighth centuries. Once more, legend provides an apparent explanation. Under pressure from the Eastern emperor Heraclius, whose astrologists are supposed to have predicted the destruction of the Christian empire by a circumcised people, the Merovingian king Dagobert I demanded the conversion of the Jews in his kingdom, including those who had sought refuge from Spain. The alternative they were offered was to leave. There is nothing to prove that things occurred in this way. The fact remains, however, that from this time onward Gaul seems to have experienced a sharp decline in the number of Jews within its borders that lasted until the ninth century, except in areas close to Spain.


The Muslim advance was checked in 732 at Poitiers by Charles Martel, the defender of Christianity against Islam. His son, Pepin the Short, founded the Carolingian dynasty in 751. The Pope went in person to France and, at the monastery of Saint-Denis, crowned Pepin king in 752. From this moment, the policy of the Carolingian sovereigns was marked by alliance with Rome and indulgence with regard to the Jews.

    Expulsions were never total. It may therefore be supposed that the Jews did not wait for Charlemagne in order to settle in the lands of the Carolingian empire that he inaugurated in 800, but it was from this time that their numbers begin to grow under favorably peaceful circumstances.

    The relations between the emperor and the Jews are surrounded by a certain number of legends spread by an entire narrative literature, notably the account from a Christian source known as the Pseudo-Philomena, composed by a monk in the thirteenth century, attributing to the Jews an essential role in the surrender of Narbonne. This accusation was all the more serious since at a time when society depended on oaths and the sworn word, to betray one's masters was considered a crime. Thus the Jews were said to have traitorously delivered Narbonne to the future emperor—though it was, of course, his father who conquered the city in 759.

    On this account, Charlemagne, after the taking of the city, divided it into three parts, one for the count, another for the bishop, and the third for the Jews, whose leader bore the title "king of the Jews." Reference to such a division is found in rabbinical texts of a historiographical nature, dating from the twelfth century, which probably inspired the Christian account. These sources thus erected Charlemagne into the protector of the Jews, typically attributing to the son what his father, Pepin the Short, had done on their behalf. This substitution, common in the chansons de geste that make up the Charlemagne cycle, helped to magnify his role.

    Beyond their legendary character, whether in the matter of the king of the Jews (which may be connected once more with the myth of settlement, this time on Narbonnaise soil), or of the grant of a third of the city (which no doubt corresponds to a demand on the part of the community for confirmation of the status its members enjoyed under Muslim domination as "protected subjects"), such accounts attest to a significant Jewish presence in the city, a presence that had probably grown under its brief occupation by the Saracens (720-759).


Such accounts also reflect the good relations that existed between the first Carolingian kings and the Jews. This suggests many of them were attracted to the Carolingian empire, which, moreover, enjoyed a climate of peace. Very shortly one finds Jews at the royal court entrusted with diplomatic missions, such as the one carried out by Isaac the Jew on behalf of Charlemagne to the Abbassid Caliph Harun-al-Rashid in Baghdad. Polyglot, and having extensive connections throughout the Jewish communities of the Diaspora, they were in a position to provide indispensable contacts within the young empire. Charlemagne also needed them for economic reasons. The Jewish traders who then linked the West to the East were called Radanites—a term that may signify merchants and navigators from the region of the Rhône (possibly derived from the late Latin Rhodanici).

    From the fifth century, following the example of the Byzantines (then known as "Syrians"), the Jews developed commercial activities on an international scale, operating by land and by sea. These two groups had the upper hand in Mediterranean commerce. After the defeat at Poitiers, this commerce passed in part under the domination of the Jews. They exported slaves, furs, and silk manufactures to Italy, Spain, and the Levant, and imported to Gaul spices, balsam, garum, dates, brocades, and precious metals. The crossroads of this luxury trade were located in the Meuse and at Narbonne. These traders could be found even in Paris, on the Île de la Cité, near the forecourt of Notre Dame today.

    The trade in spices, owing to the contact it brought with the Orient, also contributed to the training of Jewish physicians. Around 825, Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, accorded Jewish merchants a number of privileges (such as exemption from certain tolls and other duties on the transport of merchandise as well as royal protection of their life and property), which suggests that these merchants played an important role in international commerce. Intermediaries between the court and the powers of other countries were recruited from the ranks of these merchants, whose clients also included high-placed ecclesiastics.

   The usefulness of the Jews was not unconnected with the favored treatment they received. As in the Merovingian period, they continued to benefit from Roman law. They were not foreigners, but free men—albeit men whose liberty was circumscribed. They enjoyed the privilege of self-rule according to Jewish law and customs in exchange for a fee. They could own slaves, and import them from abroad, but in principle they did not have the right to sell them in other countries. They were permitted to employ free Christians, and this despite the opposition shown by the ecclesiastical authorities. In matters concerning them, Jews were judged in accordance with their own law. Their testimony was accepted in court, and, in place of the oath normally taken by the plaintiff and the accused, a special formula was devised—the more judaico oath—that made it unnecessary to invoke either the Trinity or the Gospels. This formula had the additional advantage of shielding Jews, except in certain cases, from the judicial tests of ordeal by fire, boiling water, or flagellation—tests applied to non-Jewish subjects that were invoked in the name of the judgment of God and marked entirely by Christian religious elements. Charlemagne later endorsed an alternative form of ordeal in trials between Christians and Jews. Jews could bring suit against Christians; but in the event a Christian was required to present three witnesses, the Jewish plaintiff was required to present two, sometimes three times as many. Moreover, Jews were subjected to higher taxes than Christians.

    Gradually, privileges and protection of individual Jews gave way to a desire for more complete control over their condition, and so for a more centralized form of administration. Some have seen in this the source of the appointment, probably by Charlemagne, of a magister judeorum (master of the Jews) charged with oversight of questions concerning them. We know very little about the prerogatives of this official. Louis the Pious displayed the same favorable attitude toward the Jews. Carolingian charters were largely influenced by feudalism and laid the foundations of a royal alliance between Jews and the central authority that, in the absence of legal statute, made them dependent, as a practical matter, on the good will of the sovereign. Such alliances—unilateral, fragile, varying according to economic powers and necessities, valid insofar as the Jews were useful, capable of being broken at any moment, when there was no longer any need of them—aroused against the Jews the enmity of those classes that were in conflict with the king or with the monarchy itself, and later with the feudal lords. The history of the Jews in European lands during the Middle Ages is also one of circumstantial alliances such as these, which determined the condition and, above all, the survival of the group.


The royal consideration shown toward the Jews provoked a hostile reaction on the part of the clergy. Agobard, archbishop of Lyons, expressed himself vehemently on this point and launched an anti-Jewish campaign. Others followed his example. Louis the Pious, seeking unity for his empire, relied on court clerics and bishops such as Agobard. Strengthening the partnership with the church had the effect of aggravating the vulnerability of the Jewish population.

    Following the grant of a privilege by the king to the Jews of Lyons, protecting them against the intolerance of the clergy, Agobard rose up in protest and composed four epistles. In the first, entitled "On the Insolence of the Jews," he denounced the benevolence of the magister judeorum, the physical abuse to which Jews submitted Christians, the privileges and honors from which they benefited at the hands of the court, the construction of new synagogues, the eloquence of their preachers by comparison with priests, the adjournment of market from Saturday until Sunday for religious reasons, and the theft of Christian children, subsequently sold as slaves. He sought to win over other bishops, and then the king himself, to his cause. On his death, he was succeeded as archbishop by Amulo, who continued his work, elaborating on the same themes with still greater vehemence, notably in an epistle of 846, "Against the Jews," in which he castigated their proselytizing. It must be said that the conversion to Judaism in 839 of Bodo, a deacon at the court of Louis the Pious, at the height of the anti-Jewish campaign, did nothing to relieve the tension.

    The Councils of Meaux (845) and of Paris (846), in supporting Amulo by restrictive decrees, were barometers of the prevailing atmosphere in Carolingian society. Royal authority found itself weakened by the treaty of Verdun, which, in 843, carved up the empire into Western Francia, Middle Francia, and Eastern Francia (the latter becoming Germany). The Council of Toulouse, which met in 883 at a moment of wavering resolve on the part of the court, and therefore increasing Jewish vulnerability, ratified the restrictions of preceding councils and various public humiliations, such as the slap administered to a Jew at Easter by the Bishop of Toulouse on the steps of the cathedral, on the pretext that in the past the Jews had delivered the city to the Saracens (although it was known that Toulouse had never passed under Muslim domination).

    Easter, by recalling the role that Jews played in the passion of Christ, charged relations between Jews and Christians with an intense animosity. In fact, the famous slap was administered to avenge the injury done by the Jews to Jesus. It was nonetheless customary to accuse them unjustly of a lack of loyalty. They were also held responsible for the Danish incursion at Bordeaux in 848. This ceremony, known as colaphization, was discontinued only in the twelfth century, on condition of payment by the Jewish community of Toulouse of a special tax to the clergy. These humiliations were repeated in other cities, such as Béziers, where, under the bishop's direction, Easter week turned into an anti-Jewish riot. Once again it would be necessary to wait until the twelfth century for such practices to come to an end, at which time the grateful Jews handed over to Bishop Guillaume, the architect of this result, a large sum of money, supplemented by an annual tax.

    While the Carolingian royalty was weakening, retaliatory measures against the Jews multiplied, the church increasingly making its influence felt. In 876, the bishop of Sens expelled them, together with the nuns of the city, for reasons that remain unclear. In a diploma of 898, Charles the Simple, a king devoid of authority, deprived the Jews of a part of their assets by assigning these, in the guise of royal alms, to the Church of Narbonne. Official communications of 899 and 922 subsequently confirmed these partial confiscations. Of course these measures were not always strictly applied.

    All these measures do not alter the fact that the Jews still enjoyed free status. They did not live at the margins of the dominant society; to the contrary, they participated fully in its life. Nor can their history be reduced to a series of persecutions. Rather than a kind of racial discrimination, it was more a question of theological anti-Judaism, directed against a religious group regarded as deicidal for its refusal to submit to the message of the Gospels and to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. For this reason the Jews were stripped of their initial status, to the benefit of the Christians, who were now the Verus Israel (or "true Israel"). The Jews were not inexorably damned, since by conversion, the sign of the second coming of the Redeemer, they could be saved. Though canonical law continued to uphold the principle of tolerance of the Jews, the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which often also enjoyed political power, did not always respect it. In the last analysis, however, the church did not aim at their destruction; to the contrary, the abiding existence of these loyal guardians of the Book, in which was printed the divine word, came to be seen as a genuine proof of Christian faith.


The Jews practiced a great variety of trades. At the beginning of the Carolingian period, because the church controlled substantial landholdings, they were not in a position to undertake farming on a large scale. Moreover, the prohibitions of various councils against Jewish ownership of Christian slaves gradually made working the land more difficult. They did, however, possess buildings, fields, orchards and vineyards, garden farms, and mills. They devoted themselves to agriculture and, in particular, wine-growing in the valleys of the Rhône, the Saône, and in the Paris region. Jewish wine production seems to have been still larger in the ninth century, to the point that it supplied foreign markets. Certain priests actually bought from Jews the wine that they used to celebrate the Eucharist. In the Middle Ages, vineyards and orchards could be planted near, or actually within, cities and subsequently required only tending. This allowed some proprietors, Jewish scholars among them, to pursue other activities.

    A certain number of Jews managed the assets of bishops and abbots. Others were in the service of kings. They played an important role in East-West trade. They also practiced medicine. They were found, too, in trades such as the dying of fabric, and the tanning and currying of leather.

    This picture is far removed from that of the Jew confined to commerce, particularly in money—a situation to which he was gradually reduced by virtue of political and economic circumstances, urbanization, and the increasingly numerous restrictions that came to weigh upon him.

    The modest cultural boom that occurred under Charlemagne—sometimes called the "Carolingian renaissance"—seems to have had no counterpart in the Jewish world, except for certain inconsequential fits and starts. In any case, we have little information about it. The Jews were well integrated in the non-Jewish environment, which explains their use of Latin and ignorance of Hebrew, the language of the sacred Jewish texts. The centralized organization of Babylonian Judaism, with its academies and religious teachers, enabled it to serve as a beacon for the communities of the diaspora during this period. Oriental influence made itself felt on Frankish soil through the activity of Radanites who were in contact with the communities of the region, reaching its height in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

    It was only toward the end of the tenth century, or the beginning of the eleventh century, that the Talmud arrived in France, and even then the Jews did not scrupulously observe its teachings. On the other hand, pre-kabbalistic texts seem to have been relatively well known. Contacts between the Orient and the Carolingian Empire led a doctor of law named Mahir to leave Babylonia and settle in Narbonne, where he founded a talmudic school that helped establish Jewish studies in France. It was not until the eleventh century, however, that there existed a real Jewish cultural life. Influences reached France also from Italy and Muslim Spain, where important Jewish cultural centers developed.

    The Frankish period was therefore on the whole a peaceful one for the Jews, notwithstanding a certain amount of forced conversion and exile. Despite some variation, depending on the sovereign and the epoch, their condition of life and their occupations were not radically disrupted, still less as many decisions and restrictions were not rigorously enforced.

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