A new adventure beckons. There is the enticement f mystery. The topside facts, encapsulated in umbers, convey a come-hither look. Get into another historical morass? At some point resistance gives way to the lure of mystery. I throw in the towel.
Webegin with the population numbers listed in the Encylopaedia Judaica (1973), compiled by Salo W. Baron, the ever-insightful dean of American Jewish historians. As of 1300, they depict France as a key center of European Jewry, a community of 100,000, accounting for about one in five European Jews at the time. Two centuries later, in 1501, there are no professed Jews left in the kingdom. France is Judenrein. Its Jews become a significant part of the momentous shift of European Jewry from West to East.
The mystery deepens. Once Jews are gone, it stays that way for a long time. Arthur Herzberg, focusing on a period quite a ways down the road in The French Enlightenment and the Jews, finds that: "In all of France in the year 1700 there were not five thousand Jews." Indeed, in the core areas of France a Jewish presence is not re-established until after the revolution of 1789. The Jewish population of France does not regain its 1300 level until the latter part of the 19th century. That's the bare bones of the mystery.
FLASHING BACK TO ROMAN TIMES:
At the other end, flashing hack, the Jewish presence in medieval France, we quickly discover, was no flash-in-the-pan. The roots of French Jewry trace back to Roman times. To get at that story, I repair to a long-admired historian, Henri Pirenne, whom I had first encountered in his History of Europe, written without access to sources, basically from the storage of what was in his head, animated by a determination not to let dejection get the better of him while interned by the Germans in World War I.
Now the work to consult is Pirenne's Mohammed and Charlemagne (1939), a book on the close of the ancient world and the beginning of the Middle Ages. It's a book with a broad sweep. What is surprising is the prominence of the Jewish presence. Here's Pirenne's take.
The key feature of the Roman Empire was its Mediterranean character. The major group identified with its extensive maritime traffic were the Syrians, "or those who were known as such."
Jews were found in all the cities. They were sailors, brokers, bankers, essential to the economic life of the time. Their literacy also made them desirable agents for government tax farming and as toll collectors. By the time of the barbaric invasions, Jews were almost as numerous as Syrians and Greeks. Jews "had penetrated everywhere before the invasions and there they remained after the invasions."
There are well established Jewish communities in France by the 6th century. Citing Gregory of Tours, 6th century historian and Bishop of Tours, Pirenne notes the presence of Jews in Clermont, Paris, Orleans, Tours, Bourges, Bordeaux and Arles. There are early settlements also in Brittany, Avignon, Metz, Narbonne and Poitiers. Their primary center was evidently Marseilles, already then a great seaport. Synagogues in Paris and Orleans date back to the 6th century.
As an indication of the numbers of Jews, Pirenne cites the conversion of no fewer than five hundred in Clermont. There were many forced conversions in the 6th century, leading to a rebuke of French bishops by Pope Gregory the Great.
Forced baptism, it may be noted, was not unique to France. The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius ordered the conversion of all the Jews in the 7th century but it just didn't take hold. The Jews of Constantinople were hardly disturbed. It introduced a certain ambiguity in Jewish status. Where there was baptism, it was easily washed off. French forced baptism was more serious stuff.
WHO KEEPS THINGS MOVING AFTER THE FALL?:
Jews were a key factor, it appears, in the "singular persistence" of economic life in the Mediterranean region after the fall of the Roman Empire until the Arab conquests of the 7th century. The Western Mediterranean then became, as Pirenne terms it, "a Musulman lake." The Islamic conquest made for a new ball game. Pirenne sees it as "the most essential event of European history which had occurred since the Punic Wars" between Rome and Carthage.
By the early 8th century, with the conquest of Spain in 711, the process was complete. The great port of Marseilles was largely emptied of its international functions. International trade died.
Whatever commerce continued was now dependent on Jews. Pirenne writes: "Under these circumstances the only persons who were still engaged in commerce were the Jews. They were numerous everywhere. The Arabs neither drove them out nor massacred them, and the Christians had not changed their attitude to them. They therefore constituted the only class to make its living by trading." Jews became the only surviving link between East and West, maintaining contact with the Orient.
Medieval markets became increasingly local. Jews played a significant role, to the point that market days falling on Saturday were changed to facilitate Jewish participation. Jews are the professional merchants of the time, so much so, Pirenne notes in his Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, "that the words Judaeus and Mercator appear almost synonymous."
Jews are key in the trading of goods from a distance, such as pearls, horses, cattle, spices, paper. They provide the incense indispensable to church ritual and "... those rich fabrics of which cathedral treasuries have preserved occasional specimens down to our own day." Jews, apart from some Venetians, were almost the only people who made their living by commerce.
CHARLEMAGNE SENDS ISAAC TO BAGHDAD:
Charlemagne, king of the Franks, crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800, his domain now expanded to much of Western and Central Europe, was well disposed to the Jews. He recognized their autonomy in part of the city of Narbonne, including the role of the head of the community.
He saw the Jew as expert trader and facilitator. When he decides to break the ice in East-West relations, his delegation to Caliph Harun al-Rashid at Baghdad, the first by a Western ruler, includes a Jewish merchant, Isaac, as interpreter. Isaac is the only one to return after a five-year journey, with the Caliph's gifts to Charlemagne, including an elephant.
Pirenne cites the dependence on Jewish merchants by Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne and his successor, who accorded them special privileges during his reign. Louis brought the merchant Abraham of Saragossa into his court.
Jews accumulate wealth, are well regarded in court circles, build new synagogues. They own estates and vineyards. Even the wine for the Mass comes from Jewish vineyards. Wholesale and foreign trade is in their hands. Pirenne concludes: "Here, incontestably, we are dealing with great merchants who were …