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 The identification of the Jewish Monument of Rouen

What proofs demonstrate that the building discovered in 1976 was a yeshibah

There had to be one yeshibah in every major city


Walls of the northwest corner of the School, showing the entrance to the turret housing the circular staircase.

According to the Ancient Laws for the Study of Torah, the Jews had to build a school (yeshibah or midrash) in every major city of every kingdom. In the Middle Ages such rabbinic schools are referred to in the main French cities of the time ; for example, as early as the twelfth century, the famous traveler Benjamin of Tudela describes such schools in Narbonne, Montpellier, Marseilles, and other places.
This obligation was particularly relevant in Rouen, the capital of one of the two Jewish Kingdoms (Narbonne being the other) established by the Carolingian authorities. What was discovered by pure chance in 1976 beneath the courtyard of the Palace of Justice during unexpected excavations are, by all present evidence, the vestiges of such a rabbinic school.
Of the existence of this medieval school there can be no doubt. It is first attested in a Hebrew text of approximately 1150 describing the arrival there one morning of a student named Jacob Israël, during the period of time when Samuel b. Meir directed the Rouennaise yeshibah. The school is moreover mentioned in a Latin act of 1203 in which John Lackland annuls the letters of credit of five Jewish moneylenders, among them a certain Abraham de Scola Rothomagi. (The term Schola can here refer only to the rabbinic school, where the aforementioned Abraham either taught or studied ; it cannot refer to the synagogue, for the differentiation of Abraham from the four other Jews would then be meaningless). In approximately 1220 Samuel of Falaise even describes in detail the views of his Three Masters under whom he studied at the Rouennaise academy.
We shall not cite again the literary Hebrew as well as Latin sources that give ample evidence of the vitality of the School of Rouen and of the reputation of the masters who taught there (see The Jewish Kingdom of Rouen, above). Rather, we shall deal here only with the textual and archeological data demonstrating that the vestiges of the monument discovered in 1976 are indeed those of the School.

A clearly identified location on the northern side of the rue aux Juifs.


Principal edifices of the Jewish quarter

In the above-mentioned Bulletin de la Commission des Antiquités, Charles de Beaurepaire describes the ruins of the synagogue and then writes : A bit further on in the same street [Rue aux Juifs], towards the Rue du Bec [that is to say towards the east], there was a house that was said to have been used as a Jewish school, according to a fifteenth century account that I remember having seen but am not able to find again.

Relying on de Beaurepaire’s description, Norman Golb wrote, in a book published several months before the discovery of the monument, that the fact that this building is no longer mentioned after the fifteenth century encourages the hypothesis that it was located in the northern part of the Rue aux Juifs and, unlike the synagogue, was destroyed when the Palace of Justice was built at the end of the fifteenth century.

Lucien René Delsalle rediscovered (in 1984) and re-edited the original report of a trial that took place in 1363, only half a century after the expulsion of the Jews from Rouen and the purchase of their district by the town authorities. In Le Roule des Plés de Héritage de la mairie Jean Mustel, reference is made to a building inherited by the aforementioned city, containing several floors, located in the parish of Saint-Lô in Rouen, appending, on one side and one end, the pavement, and on the other side and end the school of the Jews.
This document confirms N. Golb’s 1976 hypothesis, since the whole of the parish of Saint-Lô was situated in the northern part of the Rue aux Juifs, where the Palace of Justice was erected beginning in 1499. It is in total harmony with both the archeological and documentary facts as known today : it locates the Jewish monument precisely where it was discovered, that is to say east of the synagogue -which was what de Beaurepaire had reported- and west of the Rue Boudin, being only separated from the pavement of that street by the building bought by the town authorities after the expulsion of the Jews in 1306.

The building stands at a distance of only 60 meters from the synagogue, in harmony with the rule of the Ancient Laws for the Study of Torah that specified When the head of the Academy leaves the synagogue in the morning, he is to go straight to the School, without stopping on his way. That is to say, the rabbinic school was construed as being an entity physically separated from the synagogue.

A romanesque building dating back approximately to the year 1100


Plan of the edifice designed by Mme Dominique Bertin, archaeologist in charge of the excavation.

on. Georges Duval, a chief architect of French National Buildings, was able to date the building from the end of the eleventh or the beginning of the twelfth century by comparison or analogy with the crypt under the cathedral or with Saint-Paul’s in Rouen. For her part, Maylis Baylé, a Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique researcher, showed that it was built before Saint-Georges’ abbey in Saint-Martin de Boscherville (1113) and most likely by the same artisans.
This archeological dating coincides with that put forward by historians. Thus, Bernhard Blumenkranz made it clear that the building of the monument must have taken place between 1096 -the year of departure of the First Crusade and of the destruction of the Jewish cultural institutions in Rouen - and 1116 -the year of the fire that destroyed the major part of the town and left traces on this stone building.

The magnificence of the building

The monumental size of the building (14.10 m by 9.5 m) -almost twice as large inside as the synagogue- and the wealth of its architectural decor are in perfect agreement with the statement formulated, in consonance with earlier dicta, by Maimonides at the end of the twelfth century in his Mishneh Torah that the holiness of a rabbinic school is greater than the holiness of a synagogue.
In her study on The Jewish monuments of Rouen and romanesque architecture, Maylis Baylé has drawn interesting parallels with the decoration of Saint-Georges’ abbey in Saint-Martin de Boscherville, built a few years later.

Capitals of the Saint-Georges de Boscherville abbey.
Capitals of the Saint-Georges de Boscherville abbey.
Capitals of the Saint-Georges de Boscherville abbey.
Capitals of the Saint-Georges de Boscherville abbey.

Entrance in the southern wall


Vestibule of the School.

The entrance to the building is situated in the middle of the southern wall, which excludes the possibility of its having been a synagogue. By well-established rabbinic custom, the entrance to medieval European synagogues was always located in the western wall, as was the case in the monumental synagogue of the Rue aux Juifs.

Absence of an apse

In all the romanesque synagogues known in Europe, the Torah rolls were kept in an apse located in the eastern wall of the building. Relying on this fundamental argument, the partisans of the synagogue hypothesis assumed in 1976 that the excavation of the eastern wall -which was still buried under the monumental staircase of the Palace of Justice - would reveal such an apse. However, the excavation of spring 1977 proved the contrary, establishing that the eastern wall of the Jewish monument, unlike the bona fide synagogue in the Rue aux Juifs (see 8. above), did not have an apse of any kind.

A lower room for the storage of manuscripts


The plan of the ground floor recalls that of the libraries in certain Cistercian romanesque abbeys (Fossa Nuova in Italy or Furness in England). The room was dimly lit by four large loopholes opened in the northern wall. The three other walls, which had no windows, were ideal for the storage of manuscripts, which could have been kept in large cabinets (armoires) -placed against the walls.
The extremely precious nature of these manuscripts explains that there should have been safety devices built in, such as a twofold entrance door with an anteroom in-between. As Jacques Tanguy puts it, this enabled maximum protection against water streaming in and against fire, which were frequent at that time.
The small holes appearing on the eastern wall at about 50 cm from the floor testify to the presence of shelves that would have enabled the students to examine the manuscripts before they carried them upstairs for closer study. Oil lamps, found during the excavation, provided more light. The most precious manuscripts would have been fastened to the walls themselves with chains, as in the case of other medieval book-rooms.

An inner staircase


Bird’s-eye view of the circular stairecase.

The students -between 50 and 60 in number- reached the first floor by a spiral staircase located within the semi-circular turret at the northwestern angle of the building. For Michel de Boüard, this is one piece of evidence proving that the building was a school.
This inner staircase, situated kitty-corner from the building’s main entrance on the south wall, also proves that the building was not a synagogue, for the crossing of the ground floor by women going up to the gallery reserved for them on the first floor would have disturbed the prayer service and was not allowable by rabbinic custom.

A first floor dedicated to study

On the first floor was a room whose architectural vestiges make it possible to conclude that it was the main study hall. This was the place where the masters would explain Talmudic texts to all the students gathered there. As is shown by the archaeological vestiges, the students sat on stone benches fixed to the walls around three sides of the room, at 65 cm from the floor. The floor itself, 2.4m above the ground floor, rested on beams stuck in 28 rectangular put-holes that appear in the southern and northern walls.
Light penetrated into this study room through large windows, each 1.5 m wide.

Two or three additional floors for the learning of lessons and the accommodation of students

The solidity of the foundations and the width of the walls (1.6m) point to a three or even four story building, on the model
of Saint-Georges’ abbey in Saint-Martin de Boscherville. It would be consonant with the needs of a rabbinic school to have smaller rooms for the learning of lessons in small numbers (which the Ancient Rules for the study of Torah prescribed), and for the accommodation of students coming from elsewhere in Normandy.

Hebrew graffiti testifying to the sacred character of the building

The ground floor walls revealed more than fifteen Hebrew graffiti including names and phrases, some of the latter being repeated several times. Norman Golb, who deciphered them, has pointed out three of the latter in particular : May this house be sublime until an ox feel pity for a mule [i.e., forever], The Torah of God … May it be everlasting and May this house be sublime. These sentences, with their evocation of eternality, are in perfect agreement with the academic and therefore particularly holy vocation of the building.

A Hebrew graffito
This graffito cites a supplicatory passage from the Book of Kings : May this abode be (always) sublime.

No trace of another rabbinic school

The excavations and soundings carried out since 1976 by the archeological services both in the courtyard of the Palace of Justice and under the eastern wing of the building itself have not revealed any vestiges or traces of any sort of structure resembling a rabbinic school. On the other hand, as shown above, the existence of such a school in Rouen is demonstrated by numerous manuscripts -mostly medieval Hebrew texts of considerable variety- describing the intense intellectual activity that prevailed in this rabbinic school which was home to so many eminent scholars (see the Jewish Kingdom of Rouen, above).

Given all the elements accumulated to this day, the purpose of the Jewish monument in Rouen can hardly be any longer disputed. As Professor Golb asserted from the start, this building was indeed an Academy for Advanced Rabbinic Studies, and as such fully merits the designation The Rabbinic School of Rouen.