Avignon's 'Odd Couple': The Popes and Jews of Medieval Provence

By Bartruff, Dave | The World and I, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Avignon's 'Odd Couple': The Popes and Jews of Medieval Provence


Bartruff, Dave, The World and I


The history of Judaism in Roman Gaul began with back-to-back catastrophes in the home of the Hebrews. The first occurred in A.D. 70 with the destruction of Jerusalem and Herod's Temple by Titus. The second was the fall of the Zealot Citadel of Masada three years later, during the final revolt against their Roman occupiers.

These tragedies spawned a new exodus by the Jews from Palestine as they dispersed throughout the Mediterranean in all directions. The first Israelites to arrive in what is today the French province of Provence, were a mixed assortment of refugees, traders, and slaves.

Their primary gateway was Marseille, located on the northern coast of the Mediterranean. The port city was founded by Phoenician Greek mariners in the sixth-century B.C., and had been incorporated into the Roman Empire in 49 B.C. Besides being France's oldest town, Marseille would later become the country's first capital.

The Jewish population was well integrated into French society by the end of the fifth century, and had been afforded special privileges and protections by the time the French monarchy embraced Christianity with the baptism of Clovis as France's first Christian king.

The emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine the Great, had himself earlier become a convert to Christianity and promoted the formerly persecuted religion all throughout his reign until his death in A.D. 337.

As the kingdom of France expanded, incorporating southern regions such as Languedoc on the Mediterranean, the position of its Jewish inhabitants began to deteriorate, leading eventually to their banishment and expulsion, especially under the French kings Philip the Fair and Charles VI from 1306 to 1394. Still, the Jews had their champions, such as the twelfth-century French saint, Bernard of Clairvaux, who declared, "He who touches a Jew is as guilty as if he had set to the eye of Jesus himself, for the Jews are His flesh and blood."

Mercifully, many Jews expelled from the French kingdom found refuge nearby; on the opposite bank of the Rhone River at Avignon, which was not yet a French possession. In A.D. 1305 the Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church, founded in Rome twelve centuries earlier, moved to Avignon by the order of Pope Clement V. Thus began a succession of papal rule outside of Rome that lasted until 1378. This was known as the "Babylonian Captivity." During this period, a total of nine popes ruled from Avignon. The Vatican didn't relinquish complete possession of Avignon and its other surrounding lands called, "Comtat Venaissin" until 1791, following the French Revolution.

With the arrival of Clement V, Avignon was immediately transformed into a "Second Rome." The new medieval "capital of Christianity" was encircled by three miles of walls and ramparts. And construction also began on the Papal Palace, the largest existing Gothic architecture in the world today. Its floor space, equivalent to four Gothic cathedrals, was completed in less than twenty years under the leadership of two builder popes, Benedict XII and his successor Clement VI.

Under the blessing of the Avignon popes, the Jewish refugees from the French kingdom, along with those already in residence, joined in the mammoth building effort to erect the new center of medieval Christianity.

Avignon Jews working in the trades and crafts such as masonry, tailoring, dyeing, and bookbinding, were all engaged by the papal authorities to create splendor and decor to the new pontifical court. At the same time, Jewish doctors and surgeons were well respected and practiced under the same patronage.

Cathedrals, churches, chapels, and convents began to rise within Avignon's city walls. Foremost among the houses of worship was the Notre Dame des Doms Cathedral.

Other sanctuaries included St. Peter's Church with an elaborate Flamboyant Gothic facade, St. Didier's Church in Southern Gothic style, St. …

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