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The Jewish Kingdom of Rouen

The tribulations of Reuben bar Isaac (circa 1032)

The Pope’s decision did put a stop to the persecutions of the Jews of Normandy for a few decades. However, they still could be the victims of evil treatment, as in the case of Reuben bar Isaac, a land-owning resident of Rouen around the year 1032.

The medieval Jews had their own tribunals for regulating the internal affairs of the community.

His story has reached us thanks to two handwritten letters, one by a Jewish scribe of Arles, the other by a high dignitary of the Academy of Palestine. These letters were stored for centuries in the ancient Palestinian synagogue of Fostat (Old Cairo) in Egypt. The first of them is now preserved at the British Library, and the second at Cambridge University Library.

Duke Robert the Magnificent (also known as Robert the Devil).

Reuben was one of the important members of his community… and was wealthy. Apparently a widower, he lived in Rouen with his only son. He was a land-holder by inheritance. One day he sent his son to work in the fields with his servants. In the woods they were attacked and killed. Such a crime came under the jurisdiction of the Duke of Normandy for two reasons : firstly because it was a case of murder, and secondly because it had been perpetrated in a ducal forest and the Law of the Forests guaranteed special protection to whomever tra-vesed a royal woodland. Reuben bar Isaac consequently lodged a complaint with Duke Robert the Magnificent (also called the Devil), who refused to listen to him for the murderers were gentiles and immediately confiscated all his possessions, saying to him : you are old and do not have a son ; [thus] I will have all these riches.

In so doing, the duke was being doubly malicious : firstly, by refusing to prosecute the murderers solely on the grounds that the complainant was a Jew who requested that non-Jews be punished ; secondly by infringing on the feudal law of Normandy that authorized the confiscation of property only when the vassal himself had committed a crime or an offense. Property granted by the feudal lord could legitimately be taken back when the vassal did not have a male heir, but only after the vassal’s death.

Itinerary of Reuben bar Isaac.

Compelled to leave Rouen, Reuben bar Isaac decided to travel to the land of Israel in order to die in Jerusalem. On his way, representatives of the Jewish community of Arles, which then enjoyed great intellectual and religious prestige, gave him a letter of recommendation for all the holy communities beyond the sea. Eventually Reuben arrived in Damascus, but he was attacked by bandits who robbed and wounded him. He arrived in Jerusalem in a state of great despair and finally expressed the wish to return home via Egypt. According to indications in the two letters, Reuben must have died in Fostat in 1034 or 1035, without ever seeing his home country again.