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The Jewish Kingdom of Rouen

The last decades of Medieval Judaism in Rouen


The reign of Saint-Louis, which had witnessed the increase of the persecutions against the Jews, ended with a forced disputation that took place in Paris (circa 1270) and opposed a Dominican, Paul Chrétien, a convert with whom the pious king had become infatuated, to Abraham ben Samuel, who was then head of the School of Rouen. This former student of Menahem Vardimas had been chosen, as a chronicle states, to represent the wise people of our generation by virtue of his being considered the most competent person to oppose that fearsome Dominican who, banished from Spain by his former fellow-Jews for renouncing his faith, demonstrated against them such vengeful zeal as only apostates may have. What ensued in the wake of this debate remains unknown.

St-Louis places the Talmud on the Index of prohibited books (1239) and orders the public burning in Paris of wagon-loads of Hebrew books (6 June 1242).

The persecutions of Louis IX were to continue and even increase under the reigns of his successors, Philip III (1270-1285) and Philip the Fair. The cause can be traced to growing financial needs generated by the wars against England and Flanders. Construction of new synagogues and the repair of older ones were prohibited, sacred books were seized and destroyed, property was forfeited, taxes the Jews had been exempted from until then were levied.

In 1276, the Exchequer of Normandy forced the Jews to settle and live only in cities, perhaps in order to enforce the obligation imposed by Saint-Louis in 1269 to wear the so-called rouelle, a circular yellow piece of velvet or cloth sewn on the front and back of a garment. The interdiction against living in the country was therefore partly responsible for an increase in the population of Rouen during this period.

At all events, by the end of the thirteenth century the Jewish community of Rouen still enjoyed an eminent -though hardly secure- position, which is proved by the fact that one of its members, named Calot, was chosen by Philip the Fair to be procurator of the Jewish communities of the Kingdom. He was perhaps related to the dynasty claimed to stem from the lineage of King David that had been reigning for ages over the Jewish Kingdom of Narbonne, whose members often bore the name Qalonymos (Calot is the abbreviated form of that name) or Toros (=Todros). He is the only one who never bore the title. First among his responsibilities, Calot, on behalf of the king, had to collect the tallage levied on the Jews, which was increasingly needed to pay for the war effort ; more generally, he served as the king’s interlocutor concerning Jewish affairs. Calot of Rouen was apparently neither a scholar nor a rabbinic personality, which seems to reflect the distinction then operative in northern France between civil and religious affairs of the Jewish community.

The reign of St. Louis has been recognized as pursuing increased persecution of French Jews.

This eminent position is confirmed by the presence in Rouen, at the same period, of Simson ben Isaac of Chinon, the last rabbinical grand master of northern France before the expulsion of 1306. He is the author of Sefer keritut, which would eventually be published four times until 1709 and would be used for centuries as a model of Talmudic methodology. It explicated the rules of logical induction and deduction which are the basis of Talmudic rhetoric, and supplied students with appropriate methods for the investigation of difficulties in the old rabbinic texts. He also wrote the famous Glossary kept in the library of Leipzig University, a prodigious work to which many studies have been devoted : it contains translations into Normannic French and interpretations of difficult passages of the Bible, and also includes comments of all the renowned exegetes of the School of Rouen, among them Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Berakhiah and Cresbia. It is as though this last great Rouennaise scholar, writing so close to the expulsion of the Jews from France, anticipated what was to come, writes Norman Golb.

It may also have been this feeling of a menacing apogee that inspired Simson of Chinon’s desire to complete the work of Eliezer of Touques. The latter had started, with the help of his students, to bring together in complete form, destined for future generations, the most reputed tossafoth of the northern French rabbinic scholars. This last interpretive collection on the Babylonian Talmud was most likely finished before the 1306 expulsion. Simultaneously, Simson had begun to write his own copy of that same Talmud according to the textual form in which it was studied in France and Normandy. The exemplar of that copy is kept in Munich today and is the only complete manuscript of the Talmud of Babylonia that has been transmitted to us from the Middle Ages. The invention of printing in the fifteenth century was to ensure its circulation and to give the Talmudic expertise of the Jews of Normandy a dominant position for a very long time in all the rabbinic schools of central and eastern Europe, established after the expulsion of 1306 as the Jews of France and Normandy migrated eastward.