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The Jewish Kingdom of Rouen

The Jews of Rouen relatively spared by increasing persecutions

First half of the thirteenth century

Another example of the Jews’ culpability invoked to justify their persecution : a sculpture of Rouen cathedral (the Jews raining blows on St. Stephen).

The re-incorporation of Normandy into France in 1204 did not at first change the situation of the Jews of Rouen. Anxious to preserve the autonomy of his Kingdom, Philip-Augustus lent a deaf ear to the exhortations of Pope Innocent III, who wanted him to denounce the “guilt” of the Jews. In accordance with his wish to have local traditions respected (see the 1207 act confirming the existing privileges of the inhabitants of Rouen), he endeavored to guarantee that the Jews of Rouen would have the same protections and privileges as they had had in the days of the dukedom. Thus, whereas the Fourth Lateran Council had declared that the Jews should wear a distinguishing item of clothing, this obligation, although enforced in the Île-de-France, was not immediately imposed on the Jews of Normandy.

Their finances, however, were subject to more and more centralized control. As soon as 1204, fourteen Jewish notables from Normandy were imprisoned in the Châtelet in Paris for that reason, one from each city or market town ; among them was Brun, Bonnevie’s son, representing the community of Rouen. Two years later, the Jews of Normandy were subjected to the same regulations regarding money-lending as other Jews : limiting of percentage of annual interest rates, compulsory registration of loans supervised by scribes who record the Jewish charters at Rouen, the prohibition of using Church property as collateral, etc. However, they often benefited from more lenient enforcement measures which preserved their age-old traditions. For example, given the frequency of the banking agreements between Jews and Christians at the time of the Plantagenets, a special clause in the 1218 edict granted them exemption from the restrictive measures regulating loans by establishing the presence of special bailiffs to preside over loan-contracting sessions.

This illustrated text of the Pentateuch (1239) was prepared by the scribe Elijah ben Berakhiah in the city of Rouen, as attested by the colophon appearing in it.

Philip-Augustus’ successors were more receptive to the pressure put on them by the Church : the regency of Blanche of Castille (1226-1234) and even more the reign of Saint-Louis (1234-1270) were consequently characterized by the inception of violent inquisitorial measures that eventually reached their peak with the expulsion of the Jews of France in 1306 by Philip the Fair. The measures included the absolute prohibition of money-lending, the requirement that Jews live by the fruit of their own work or by trade without ever lending money on interest (1236), forfeiture of Jewish books, especially the Talmud and its commentaries (ordered by the Pope in 1239), the Paris auto-da-fe of twenty-four wagonloads of Hebrew books in public places (6 June 1242), the forfeiture of Jewish property and banishment of Jews who still practiced money-lending (1248). To this list must be added massacres and destructive acts which systematically accompanied any mobilization for a new Crusade.

During that period, the Jews of Rouen were for a long time more or less protected from these exactions. The regional council held in Rouen in 1231 under the authority of Archbishop Maurice de Sully did lay down the compulsory wearing of distinguishing clothes and of a special badge -but the actual wearing of the badge is not attested before 1269. The relatively lenient treatment of the Jews was due in large part to the ministry of Archbishop Eudes Rigaud, a great religious figure, the friend and confidant of Saint-Louis, who remained archbishop for twenty-eight years (1248-1276) and simultaneously sat in the Exchequer of Normandy and the Parliament in Paris. Eudes never imposed a fine, for example, on a priory or a monastery that had accepted a loan from Jews.

The Book of Ivory, produced at Rouen in the 10th century.

Contrary to their Parisian counterparts, the tossafists of Rouen could therefore continue their activity, which actually flourished until the end of the thirteenth century. Testifying to this are the two illustrated Pentateuch codices undertaken by Elijah ben Berakhiah the Scribe complete with Massoretic notations. Decorated with imaginary creatures, similar at times to those in the tenth century Ivory Book of Rouen, the Vatican manuscript (1239) reveals many a detail of the Jewish material culture in Rouen at that time such as, for example, the pointed hat.

Another proof of the tossafists’ activity is to be found in the work of Cresbia ben Isaac, called the Punctator, a master of Hebrew style and rhetoric who succeeded Menahem Vardimas in 1224 and remained at the head of the Rouen academy for as much as thirty years. In 1242, that is to say three years after the edict of forfeiture issued by Pope Gregory, he copied and commented on the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, adding to it a wealth of personal comments. The Biblical Moses and Moses Maimonides are our two masters in Rouen, he observed in the introduction to his copy of the work.

In all likelihood, it is also in Cresbia’s workshop that the famous Great Mahazor, kept in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam was written. This book for liturgical celebrations reveals the rites and customs of the Jews in Normandy, which were not all the same as in Île-de-France, Burgundy, or Lorraine. This book alone constitutes a new chapter in the history of Jewish liturgy as well as Jewish art during the Middle-Ages, states Norman Golb who underlines the exceptional esthetic qualities of the Mahazor, the lavish use of gold by the illuminator in the initial rubrics, the deftness with which the scribe has drawn the text, the zoomorphs and other embellishments.

Astronomical sign (Aquarius) illustrating the Great Mahazor of Amsterdam.

He also notes that other features of the Mahazor have never been found before in the history of western medieval art, such as, in the Zodiac, Gemini represented by two adult figures embracing like Siamese twins, Scorpio represented by a mythological dragon spitting fire, and Virgo holding a grenade in her hand, as in Christian art. In brief, the esthetics of the Mahazor astonish because of its audacity, its bright colors, and the elegance of its conception.
The Great Mahazor preserved at the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam. This liturgical work, exceptional in the quality of its illuminations, was apparently executed at the atelier of Cresbia in Rouen.

The Great Mahazor preserved at the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam. This liturgical work, exceptional in the quality of its illuminations, was apparently executed at the atelier of Cresbia in Rouen.
A zoomorph illustrating one of the Pentateuch texts copied by Elijah b. Berakhiah (Vatican manuscript) and having analogies with the Book of Ivory, produced at Rouen in the 10th century.

Another great figure in Rouen was Samuel ben Solomon of Falaise, also known as Sire Morel. He was a rich and powerful businessman and an expert in Hebraic law as well as a rabbinic figure of high repute. In 1205, at the age of 20, he left the Yeshibah of Rouen, where he had been a student of Menahem Vardimas and other scholars, and was immediately imprisoned, together with thirteen other Jewish notables, in the Châtelet by the King of France (which testifies to his wealth, probably inherited). He pursued additional studies in Paris with Judah Sire Leon, and also continued to take care of his business affairs in Normandy and to sit in the Exchequer of Rouen. His reputation was such that, in 1240, he was invited to come to Paris with three other eminent Rabbis to defend Jewish law and beliefs against the attacks of the convert Nicolas Donin, and to try -in vain- to stop the auto-dafe of Hebrew books. Greatly affected by that calamity- the oppressor has withdrawn the soul and ravishment of our eyes, he said, we have no books left to teach and to propagate learning- Samuel had to make do with the collections he had saved in his personal library in Falaise and with the manuscripts of the School of Rouen, which had become the veritable stronghold of northern French Hebraic culture. In this way he was able to write a treatise gathering the opinions of twenty-five renowned French scholars and offering a wealth of details concerning the culture and ritualistic practices of the Jews of northern France and adjoining countries. This and his other work resulted in his being considered by his contemporaries and successors as one of the most important tossafists of his time.