History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

France, North and South: A Contrast

Origin of the French Kingdom.

Now for a fuller word about the land of Rashi. We saw France gradually break away from the Frankish emperor to become a separate kingdom (similar to the process known as "fission" among the lowest organisms, which increase by each subdividing into two). The new country opened with the royal house established by Hugh Capet about the year 1000. Not that the early kings had much power. Some of the nobles and some of the bishops (as we saw at the time of the Crusades) were almost as strong. The lack of a powerful central government made life and property insecure. That which made life hard for the general public always made it harder for the Jews. The caprice of a noble could at once deprive them of fields, vineyards and mines, which we find them acquiring quite early. While a bigoted word of a powerful bishop was sufficient to turn all the superstitious populace against them.

Yet there were wide distinctions of social and political status. The France of Rashi's days and for three centuries after was not one country. Part of the North belonged to England, including Normandy, Bretagne, Anjou, Touraine, Maine, Guienne, Poitou and Gascony. The rest was broken up into baronies of which the French king ruled but one, though nominal lord over all. Each had a separate history and one was even Spanish.

Broadly speaking, we note a marked difference between Northern and Southern France. The North was narrow in its outlook and bigoted in its religion. The South, more particularly Provence or Languedoc, bordering on the Pyrenees, evinced broad culture and religious enlightenment.

Strange and yet not strange — the Jews of North and South partook of their same respective characteristics. Those of the North, like those of Germany on which they bordered, limited their religious and intellectual activity to Talmudic study and the interpretation of its law. Those of the South were more akin to the Spanish Peninsula on which they bordered and produced linguists, critics and philosophers,

Southern France.

The Christians of Provence, styled Provencals, were quite a class in themselves. On the one hand, they yielded no blind submission to the Catholic Church and declined to accept the authority of the Pope. So they were regarded as heretics, and came to be known from one of their towns — Albi — as Albigcnses. But the Church bided its time. We are then not surprised that they looked kindly on their Jewish neighbors and appreciatively on their religion. Some Jews were entrusted wth police and judicial powers.

The cultured Provencal Jews of the twelfth century naturally turned to Spain rather than to Germany for their teachers. They were a model community, moral, hospitable, benevolent and loyal. Some were merchants, some farmers, and fortune smiled upon them all. What a pity that such a community or their estimable Albigensian neighbors should be disturbed!

The chief Jewish centres were Narbonne, Beziers, Montpeher, Lunel, Posquieres and Beaucaire. We cannot mention all their distinguished scholars, but must confine ourselves to the two great scholarly families, the Kimchis, grammarians, and the Tibbons, translators.

The Kimchis.

Joseph Kimchi, who flourished in the twelfth century in Narbonne was largely instrumental in bringing Spanish culture to the Provence. He anticipated Ibn Ezra in transplanting Judaeo-Arabic science into Christian Europe. He has left behind him a Hebrew grammar, some commentaries and some poems.

But the great Kimchi was his son David. Through his Bible dictionary and his grammar, he taught Hebrew both to the Jews and Christians of Europe. It is true he only absorbed the results of the pioneer grammarians, Ibn Janach and Ibn Ezra, as he himself frankly acknowledged. But he presented their results in so popular a form and in so systematic a classification as really to supersede them. At times the world is as much indebted to the popularizer of a truth as to its originator. As widely read also and prized were his philosophic and ratonal commentaries on Scripture. These were rendered into Latin and aided Bible translators of a later day.

The Tibbons.

Lunel produced the Tibbons. Judah Ibn Tibbon, born 1120, was a physician by vocation and a linguist by avocation. He is styled "the father of translators." In addition to independent works, he translated from Arabic into Hebrew Saadyah's "Faith and Knowledge,"

Bachya's "Duties of the Heart," Gabirol's "Ethics" and "Necklace of Pearls," Jehuda Halevi's "Chosari," and Ibi Janach's Grammar and Dictionary. All these works have been considered in preceding chapters.

His son, Samuel Tibbon, was a keener scholar than his father. He wrote learned commentaries on Scripture. He translated Aristotle (not from the original Greek but from the Arabic translation) into Hebrew. His greatest contribution to the spread of Jewish learning was the translation into Hebrew of Maimonides' "Guide to the Perplexed." Both of the man and the book we have yet to tell.

Through these translations and those of less famous Tibbons, important works became familiar to Jews throughout the world. Most of them are known today — not by their Arabic but by their Hebrew names.

Still the Provence produced no striking and original thinkers. It is significant that the founders of the two families that made it famous — Kimchi and Tibbon — came from Spain.

Northern France.

Northern France exhibits a contrast both in literary culture and social status. Here the Jews suffered during the second Crusade. Still outside of that they were fairly secure as times went. Indeed the Crown was kinder than the Church and Louis VII refused to deny Christian servants to Jews in spite of the decree of the third Lateran Council in 1179. But this was but a brief gleam of sunshine. Storm clouds came with King Philip Augustus.

The same avaricious spirit that urged Philip Augustus to bring the rich lands of the barons more directly under his sway prompted him to despoil wealthy Jews. His pretext for this spoilation was that they were usurers and slew Christians to use their blood for the manufacture of Passover bread! We shall see this slanderous charge utilized by wicked men all through their history. Because the Jews demanded the execution of a Christian murderer in Bray-on-Seine, Philip Augustus ordered a hundred of them burnt. The bulk of the community committed suicide to escape a worse fate at the hands of the fanatic populace. Ah, 'twas a dangerous thing then for Jews to demand justice.

Jews Robbed and Banished.

But he did not stop there. One day in the year 1180 the synagogue service was rudely interrupted by the sacrilegious entrance of his minions demanding money. The Jews on the king's immediate territory were mulcted for 1300 silver marks, while Christians were absolved from debts to Jews on the payment of one-fifth the amount to the king! What shameless robbery given the sanction of royal decree. Next he seized their landed property. Then having stripped them bare this French Pharoah banished them from his dominions. The alternative of baptism was offered to give the heartless conduct a religious tinge. But the exiles found hospitable refuge in neighboring baronies.

Other Persecutions.

Those whom king and people spared in Northern France were pillaged by the marauders of the Third and Fourth Crusades.

Yet the crafty king who cared more for lucre than for the Cross soon invited the Jews back, having discovered them to be a source of revenue. So the next step was instead of banishing the Jews, to forbid them to leave — exile was exchanged for captivity. Galuth is the Hebrew translation of both. The next device to exploit the Jews was to encourage them to lend money to the people at usurious rates approved by the monarch, from which king and barons were to receive a large percentage. This enforced calling, while it enriched the nobility, impoverished the people and deepened their hatred of the Jews; for they did not see the real usurers in the background. This anomalous position between the upper and nether millstone must have warped their character while making hazardous their lives. Such an environment was of course inimical to culture or scholarship. Northern France only produced Tosafists (note, p. 129), of whom we may mention Rashi's grandson Isaac and Judah Sir Leon of Paris. Even the Talmud was expounded narrowly. It was an era of superstition in which hostility without deepened the mental gloom within.

Note. Latin:

As an added reason why Jews in Christian lands were for the most part ignorant of scientific training, it has been pointed out by Zunz that such works in scientific and general culture as did exist, and they were few, were in Latin. This was the language of the priest and the Church. Not unnaturally the Jews were averse to its study.

Theme for Discussion:—Some famous works better known in their translation than in their original tongues.