From Charlemagne to Charles De Gaulle: The Fateful Shaping Force of Jew Hatred on French Jewry Part I

Article excerpt

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.


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.


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. …