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The Jewish Kingdom of Rouen

The expulsion of 1306

In the final years of the thirteenth century, the Jewish district of Rouen had seen its population increase because of the arrival of many refugees either from England, where the expulsion of 1290 had affected as many as 15,000 people, or from villages in Normandy in accordance with Philip III’s policy of gathering the Jews in cities. All those in France now had to wear the yellow badge, except for a few notables who, in exchange for large sums of money, could sometimes be spared that ignominy.

In 1269, St. Louis requires the Jews to wear the rouelle. In 1306 Philip the Fair decides to expel all of the Jewish inhabitants of royal France and to confiscate their goods and property.

The Jews of Rouen no longer escaped the harsh laws oppressing others elsewhere in France, whether they concerned taxes -the tallage levied on the Jews of France in 1282 amounted to sixty thousand pounds- or the prohibition of certain activities (Philip the Fair even went so far as to force the Bailiff of Rouen, around the year 1300, to despoil and imprison two Jews, Samuel and Yossi, for practicing medicine), or finally, the expulsion of 1306.

By seizing the property of the Jews expelled from his kingdom, Philip the Fair thought he would bail out the public treasury, which the war against Flanders in 1302 had emptied. He was attempting to protect the gold and silver currencies, which had lost two-thirds of their nominal value. As a final expedient to convince people of the truth of his announcement that good money would again circulate from 8 September 1306 onward, he sent a letter on 21 June to all his officers secretly enjoining them to carry out the mission he had orally entrusted them with : namely, to imprison all the Jews and seize their possessions so that any treasures found in their homes might be used to replenish the royal treasury. The expulsion began in August, as had been planned. Despoiled of their property, expelled from their homes, the Jews of Rouen joined their brethren from Normandy and the rest of France on the road to exile, moving to the south and east.

In reality, by banishing the Jews Philip the Fair was not only perpetrating an evil act but was also making the worst possible financial move : selling their property, often in auction sales, brought in far less money than had heretofore accrued to him by taxation. Particularly was this so because the ownership of the property he had seized was often denied him in court by the civil and religious authorities, and he consequently had to reconcile himself to dealing in transactions that generated little profit.

Thus, while the sale of all the property seized in the Bailiwick of Rouen did bring in a profit of 16,787 Tournois pounds to the Royal Treasury, this figure, though relatively high, did not include the property situated within the city and suburbs (intra muros), which was paradoxically far more valuable. Probably fearing that the Exchequer might agree with plaintiffs, the King gave the city -in exchange for a symbolic annual rent of 300 small Tournois pounds- the property of all that the Jews possessed in the city and the suburbs, to wit the houses, yards, gardens, cemetery, goods and all real estate. The charter of February 1307 is undoubtedly the outcome of long transactions that had begun just after the expulsion. That the mayor, the juries and the city were the highest bidders in the auction sale that took place seems therefore to be nothing but a legal twist aimed at forestalling any derogation of the king’s authority.

The charter of 1307 marks the end of the corporate Jewish community of Rouen. Expelled from the city, the Jews of Rouen lost their ownership rights to the Jewish district and the lands in the suburbs forever. That date also marks the end of the School of Rouen, whose later renewal can be certified by no document whatever.

Yet the presence of Jews in Rouen would continue. They benefited by the measures of tolerance granted by Louis XI until 1321, and then by Charles V after 1364, as is exemplified by a roll of fines from 1380 testifying to their presence in Rouen at that time. Later on, after Henry II consented to the Jews’ return to France in 1551, a numerous community settled there, especially in the seventeenth century, arriving from Holland and Portugal.

The loop was closed in the twentieth century when, having been persecuted by the Nazis, Polish Jews came to settle in Rouen after the war. Some of them were probably the distant descendants of those Jews who, expelled by Philip the Fair, had escaped to Germany and then to Eastern Europe in the fourteenth century.