History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Expulsions from France.

Union of Separate Baronies.

Prior to the reign of Philip Augustus we saw that France was made up of small provinces ruled by barons, of whom the king was but one with just a little more power. The English monarch also held vast French dominions. But Augustus, this strong though cruel king, gradually formed a standing army, crippled the power of the barons and won much territory from the English king. By aiding the pope in heartlessly massacreing the Albigenses, he not only removed the heretics from the nation, but acquired sway over Southern France, too. So it ceased to stand in liberal contrast with the North, as described in chapter XV. By the time his grandson, (Saint) Louis IX, came to the throne, in 1226, France for the Jew was almost one intolerant whole.

Attacks on The Talmud.

Philip Augustus had persecuted the Jews out of avarice; Louis IX persecuted them out of piety. This state of affairs gave opportunity to the fanatic and the apostate. Here is a typical example:

A miscreant, Donin, who became baptized out of pique and took the name of Nicholas, slandered the Talmud, exaggerating its unguarded statements and charging it with antagonism towards Christians, with blasphemy and immorality generally. The whole Church was aroused and an investigation of the Talmud was begun. Again a "disputation" was arranged, in the year 1240; once more the Jews had to defend their traditions before a hostile tribunal. While nothing tangible was really proved against the Talmud, still all copies found in Jewish homes were confiscated and twenty-four cartloads burnt in Paris. The Jews mourned the loss of this literary treasure, that nourished their intellectual and spiritual nature, almost as sorely as a massacre of their brethren. The Talmud meant so much in their circumscribed, hunted life.

Jewish Physicians.

The next step taken by the clergy to discomfort the Jews was to debar their physicians, in whose hands the practice of medicine largely lay, from treating Christian invalids. This law by which bigotry was made to endanger life, together with other restrictions as to their hiring Christian servants and holding offices of trust, was passed in Beziers in 1246 and endorsed later in Southern France. The court also imposed a Jewish tax and a Jewish badge. The saint-king gave himself needless concern as to the size, shape and color of this stigma of ignominy.

Still it is difficult to understand why the Church should pass a law so injurious to themselves as that against Jewish doctors — for they were really the teachers of such Gentile physicians as there were. Christians sat at the feet of Doctor Shem Tob of Tortosa — yet he only took up the study of medicine at the age of thirty and still distinguished himself in his profession, so strongly ran Jewish talent in this direction. Church councils notwithstanding, Louis IV's brother turned for succor to the occulist Abraham of Aragon, and others followed his example.

The Fifth Crusade.

It was almost to be expected that Saint Louis would be the sort of monarch to be seized with the crusade mania. So, in due process, of course, we find him taxing French Jews to equip his expedition. He had previously remitted the payment of all interest to Jewish creditors. But his crusading zeal had not spent itself till he had banished the Jews from his domains. So, while the motive for expulsion that inspired him was very different from that which impelled Philip Augustus, the result was just as deplorable for the Jews. That both monarchs readmitted them after a short exile is a significant tribute to the economic value that this harassed people rendered to the nation that smote them hip and thigh.

Moses of Coucy.

Under these hard conditions we cannot expect much literary activity among the Jews of France of the thirteenth century. Provence, in spite of changed conditions, continued to be a centre for Jewish cuhure. Yet it is pathetic to see how even those of the less cultured North devoted themselves to the study of the law if of nothing more. France of this dark day produced Moses of Coucy, who, in addition to his commentary on the Law, was a great preacher — a revivalist, we might say. For he carried his message into Spanish Israel, creating quite an awakening with his stirring words, bidding them live up to the spirit, as well as obeying the letter of the Law. In the conflict around the "Guide" he took the Maimunistic side.

Here is a quotation from his writings:—"Those who lie freely to non-Jews and steal from them belong to the class of blasphemers; for it is due to their guilt, that, some say, the Jews have no binding law. If things go well with Israelites they should not lose their heads and forget God, and ascribe all successes to their own industry and skill.

"It is because man is half angel, half brute, that his inner life witnesses such bitter war between such unlike natures."

Jechiel of Paris, a Tosafist, expounded the Talmud to three hundred students until poverty, produced by repeated confiscations, closed the doors of his academy. In despair, Jechel emigrated to the East. Persistent suppression ultimately told and Jewish scholarship died out in France, overwhelmed by hostile influences.

By the time that Rudolph became emperor, France and Germany had changed places — the former being now in the ascendant. Alas! that this growing power was to be used against Israel, not for them. For France was for them more than any other country the land of expulsion. That word better than any other epitomises the history of the Jews in France from the close of the twelfth century to the close of the fourteenth.

Philip the Fair, who ascended the throne in 1285, at times found it advantageous to protect the Jews against the encroachments of the clergy. But this came from no regard for them whatever, but simply part of his policy in his fight against the arrogant Pope Boniface VIII and the pretensions of the Church generally.

First Large Expulsion.

For, when it suited his purpose, he suddenly imprisoned his Jews, in 1306, confiscated their goods, houses, synagogues, and ordered their departure within a month, on the penalty of death. Craft was added to cruelty, for his officers were ordered to pounce upon them unawares, after six months' secret preparation. In this way he obtained the largest amount of spoil. It had not even the condonement of misguided fanaticism. The motive was solely greed, an opportunity to confiscate their property. It was wholly a "commercial" transaction, a piece of royal brigandage. It grew out of a quarrel between him and the German Emperor (Albrecht) as to whom the Jews "belonged." It was decided that these money-earning chattels were the Emperor's property — a legacy from Rome, their conqueror.

So he expelled these 100,000 Jewish souls all but naked — that is, they were allowed only to take their clothes and a day's living. Some stayed and became Christians, some stayed and became martyrs. This band of wandering Jews, arbitrarily reduced to beggary, sought homes near, if they could; far, if the must; a few went as far as Palestine; the feeble died on the way. It was also an intellectual loss. Famous schools of learning closed and the pupils scattered. One writes: "From the house of study have they torn me. Naked was I forced as a young man to leave my ancestral home and wander from land to land, from people to people whose tongues were strange to me."

Three years later the beggared survivors were permitted to return by Philip's son, Louis X. The plea for their restoration came, not from the Jews, but from the people. According to Geoffrey of Bouillon, they were kinder creditors:

"Now may the God of all be praised, but if the Jews had lived in the kingdom of France many a Christian would have had great help, which they now have not." Again he wrote: "The Jews, in transacting such business, are much more good-natured than Christians now are."

It was their turn now to make conditions. They would pay 25,000 livres for their restoration, but must be permitted to collect their outstanding debts, of which they would give a third to the king. They insisted on the restoration of their synagogues, cemeteries and books. We are glad to record this idealizing touch.

On these conditions they were admitted for twelve years. But they must needs wear a badge — such was now the law of Christendom. Otherwise it was only petty persecutions of the clergy that prevented their life in France being a fairly happy one — for a while.

The Shepherd Uprising.

For, unfortunately, King Philip V was seized with the Crusade fever, too. Miracles approving the campaign were now discerned by the credulous masses. Soon four thousand shepherds, led by two unscrupulous men, were marching through France, armed with primitive weapons. The usual massacre of Jews by the inflamed fanatics marked the beginning of the crusade. So the old sickening details of wanton slaughter were repeated in 1320. In the fortress of Verdun, where 400 took refuge, the tragedy of York Castle was repeated. Nearly the whole Jewish communities of Toulouse, Bordeaux, Gascoigne and Albi were wiped out. Altogether, the obliteration of over one hundred and twenty congregations in France and Northern Spain is the record of the shepherd uprising.

As though their cup of bitterness was not full, another persecution arose in the year following. A number of lepers — shut out from society according to the usage of the age — wantonly poisoned the wells and charged the crime against the Jews, the popular scapegoat. This meant the burning of 5,000 innocents and the robbery and banishment of many more and ultimately the fining of the Jewish comnumity, after their innocence had been discovered by the French King, Philip V.

Another Expulsion and Restoration.

As though to keep up the unbroken record of persecution, in 1322, under Charles IV, we find them expelled again. Many had already begun a voluntary exodus from this unhappy land. From then till 1359 there is no history of the Jews in France, for there were none in the country.

In the meantime France had met retribution on the battlefield of Poictiers, 1356. King John was taken captive and a period of anarchy, famine and impoverishment followed.

One more France turned to the Jews to revive its finances. They had become an economic necessity. Here was a mission, but not the exalted mission of Scripture "to bring light (not lucre) to the Gentiles."

Menasseh de Vesoul was the forceful coreligionist who now arranged with the dauphin and exiled king for Israel's second restoration.

The return was granted for twenty years, which was from time to time extended. They could settle in town or village, they could purchase house or land. There was, however, an immigration tax as well as an annual tax. Menasseh de Vesoul, always alert for the interests of his people, was appointed Receiver General and was responsible for the payment of Jewish taxes. Perhaps, too, he may be credited with helping to establish a rabbinical seminary in Paris. They were not to be amenable to the regular courts, but were subject to a special judiciary. This assured protection to their persons and property; on the other hand, a Jewish crime brought severe financial penalty both on the criminal and on the Jewish community to which he belonged. But Israel, as a whole, has always been made to suffer for the sins of its individual offenders. A certain autonomous jurisdiction was granted for punishment of misdemeanors among themselves.

These regulations were changed from time to time, modified by the swaying passions of the masses. For it must be remembered that privileges were as perilous as privations, rousing anew the bigoted animosity of clergy and people.

This was particularly true in the matter of Jewish trade, practically confined to finance. Jews were allowed to charge 80 percent, hardly for their own benefit, but rather for that of the king, who used Jews as means of indirect and hidden taxation. But the harassed and infuriated people did not see the royal usurer, only the extortionate Jew, who occasionally imprisoned a reluctant debtor. So the smouldering hatred needed but a spark to produce a conflagration again. It came in the trifling affair of the Jews attempting to bring back an apostate to the fold. This incident, meeting the wave of persecution that was sweeping from Spain across the Pyrenees (to be recounted later), brought the climax.

Last Banishment From France.

It was banishment once more. In the year 1394, on the day of Atonement, the day selected by ancient Israel to declare the jubilee of liberty (Leviticus XXV) and restoration of homesteads, was chosen as the day to declare exile from homesteads of mediaeval Israel. Charles VI tempered the blow; he gave time and permission for the collection of debts and protected the departing exiles.

Later monarchs continued to expel Jews from each new province they won from their barons — such as Champagne, Dauphine, Provence, Savoy.

So the Jew was wandering again, finding insecure homes in not very hospitable Germany, Italy and Spain. Some few remained, really at the request of the Gentiles among whom they lived. Let us be grateful for this "one touch of nature."

So, as Jewish history had closed in England in 1290, it now closes in France a hundred years later, not to reopen in either till the seventeenth century. A few lingered in both lands, but as they only lived secretly as Jews there is no story of them to tell.

Theme for Discussion:

We may judge the spirit of an age and the degree of its enlightenment by the books it bans or burns.