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Encyclopaedia Judaica

Jews in France 03: Cultural life in the Middle Ages

Communities - professions - social regulations - jurisdiction - propaganda of "Christians" and Jews - Jewish synods against criminal anti-Semitic Church - taxes - structures in 15th century

from: France; In: Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971, vol. 7

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)

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[Professions: moneylending - trade in agricultural products - physicians etc.]

From the 12th century onward, moneylending became increasingly prominent as a Jewish occupation. It was particularly pronounced - to the point of being sometimes their sole activity - in the places where the Jews settled at a later date or after the readmissions to the kingdom of France. In the main, these were private loans, with a multitude of creditors and a small turnover. In the east and southeast the Jews were principally traders in agricultural produce and livestock. Throughout the south, particularly in Provence, there were a relatively large number of physicians who, in addition to practicing among Jews, were sometimes also appointed by the towns to take care of the Christian population. The agriculture, and especially viticulture, subsisting mainly outside the kingdom, supplied the needs of the Jewish population and only exceptionally the general market. Petty public officials, watchmen, toll-gatherers, etc., were found especially in the south, but rarely after the 13th century (one of the few exceptions was the principality of Orange). Halfway between commerce and public office was the activity of broker, often found in Provence.

[Social regulations: badge - compulsory Jewish quarters in France since 1294 - protection from Inquisition]

The regulations of the Fourth *Lateran Council (1215), interpreted as the compulsory wearing of the Jewish *badge, were at first imposed in Languedoc, Normandy, and Provence (by councils held in 1227, 1231, and 1234); a royal decree enforcing this in the kingdom of France was not promulgated until 1269. However, compulsory residence in a Jewish quarter dates from 1294 in the kingdom of France, although only from the end of the first half of the 14th century in Provence. Although the French crown often sought to protect the Jews from Church jurisdiction - especially that of the inquisitors - it imposed the legal disabilities or measures of social segregation which had been first advocated by the church itself.


Following the example of (col. 18)

the magister Judaeorum [[Jewish Master]] of the Carolingian period, "guardians" of the Jews were often appointed; in the kingdom of France there was one for the Languedoc and another for the Langue d'Oïl which included approximately the regions situated to the north of the River Loire. Their authority extended to all legal suits in which Jews were one of the parties.

Jewish internal jurisdiction was increasingly limited: thus in Provence even simple administrative matters in the synagogue were brought before the public tribunal. A special form of oath (see *Oath, more judaico) was laid down for Jews who were witnesses or parties to a trial.

["Christian"-Jewish polemics and propaganda]

In the 13th century Christian polemical writings in creased considerably: in practice Judeo-Christian disputations were relatively free and still quite frequent. After early warnings, followed by the explicit church prohibition on the participation of laymen in such discussions, they became increasingly rare. The Jews lost none of their sharpness in these confrontations: the most outstanding examples are the Sefer ha-Mekanne and the polemic  treatise which goaded *Nicholas of Lyra into a reply.

[Synods with German-Jewish representatives - synod of Saint-Gilles (1215) against the criminal anti-Jewish Church]

[[...]] The first synods (gatherings of communal representatives) are known from the middle of the 12th century. At the synod of Troyes in 1150, the representatives of the French communities were joined by officials from German communities. The 1160 synod, also held in Troyes, convened only representatives from the kingdom of France, Normandy, and Poitou. Therefore it is evident that this was not a firmly established institution convened at regular intervals. If, as seems apparent, these synods normally involved the attendance only of communities directly concerned, it is astonishing that the synod of *Saint-Gilles (1215) convened the representatives of the communities between Narbonne and Marseilles only to discuss a problem of the greatest importance for the whole of Jewry living in Christian countries: how to prevent the promulgation of the projected anti-Jewish canons by the Fourth Lateran Council.

[Tax collections]

With the proliferation and increase of Jewish taxes, the civil authorities rapidly realized that a Jewish inter-communal organization covering the area under their authority served their interests; it became the task of this organization to assess and to collect all the taxes levied on the Jews. Although some communities tried to make use of this arrangement to reach a direct, and more advantageous, agreement with the authorities, when misfortune struck an isolated community, others often spontaneously revealed their active solidarity. Thus, at the time of the tragedy of Blis, the communities of Orléans and Paris brought relief to the persecuted. (col. 19)


[Centers of Jewish schooling in France during the Middle Ages]

The leading centers of Jewish scholarship were found in Île-de-France (principally Paris, then *Dreux, *Melun, Pontoise, *Corbeil, *Coucy-le-Château, and Chartres) and in Champagne (led by Troyes, then *Dampierre-sur-Aube, *Vitry-le-Brulé, *Joigney-sur-Yonne, *Joinville, *Château-Thierry, and *Ramerupt); there was also a concentration of centers of learning in the Loire Valley (Orléans, Tours, and Chinon). As well as this, there were a number of schools in Languedoc (headed by Narbonne, then Argentière, *Beaucaire, *Béziers, Lattes, *Lunel, *Montpellier, *Nîmes, (col. 19)

*Posquières, *Capestang, and *Carcassonne) and in Provence (with Arles, *Trinquetaille, and Marseilles, then Salon and Aix-en-Provence). A few other provinces were also active, though on a much more modest scale; in the wake of Île-de-France came Normandy (with *Évreux and *Falaise and possibly also Rouen) and Brittany (Clisson); in the wake of Champagne, Burgundy (with *Dijon); following Provence, Comtat Venaissin (with Monteux and *Carpentras), as well as Orange and Avignon; and after Languedoc, Roussillon (with *Perpignan). Lorraine (with *Verdun, *Toul, and Metz) and Alsace (with *Strasbourg and *Sélestat) assured a link between northern France and the Rhineland. By contrast, Dauphiné (with only Vienne), and especially Franche-Comté and Savoy, hardly played any part in this intellectual ferment.
The north was principally the home of talmudic and biblical commentaries, anti-Christian polemics, and liturgical poetry. In the south scholarly activities extended to grammatical, linguistic, philosophical, and scientific studies, and innumerable translations (mostly from Arabic, but also from Latin). Of particular importance were the mystic circles which gave an impetus to the kabbalist movement. Both north and south produced decorated and even richly illuminated manuscripts.> (col. 20)

[Structures of the Jewish communities in France in 15th century]

The Jewish communities organized themselves with increasing efficiency. Although the earliest  confirmation of internal statutes dates from 1413 (Avignon), these were certainly current practice long before then. As well as these statutes - which regulated internal administration through elected officials (actual power lay in the hands of the wealthiest), financial contributions toward communal expenses, and religious obligations - sumptuary regulations were often laid down, intended to limit the ostentatious display of riches.> (col. 19)
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Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): France, vol. 7,
                    col. 17-18
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): France, vol. 7, col. 17-18
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): France, vol. 7,
                    col. 19-20
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): France, vol. 7, col. 19-20

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