Town life

The Jews in Normandy in the middle ages

Little was known of the history of the Jewish communities in Normandy in the Middle Ages until the reinterpretation by Norman Golb of the name of a town in France, RDWS, which was transcribed as Rodez and which proved to be Rouen. He was then able to assemble a number of Hebrew texts from the middle ages referring to Rouen and to conclude that this town was an important centre of Jewish culture for many centuries.

The first episode mentioned in written sources was a persecution of the Jews in France and in Normandy; a Hebrew chronicle states that this took place in 1007. At that time a Jewish notable from Rouen, Jacob bar Jeqouthiel, who had initially been imprisoned by Duke Richard II, received authorisation to visit the Pope, leaving behind one of his sons as a hostage in the hands of Richard. Pope John XVIII listened to his complaint and sent a message to France requiring that the persecution should be ended. Jacob was not to return to Normandy however. Instead he went to join his family in Lorraine, and died a few years later in Arras.

The reign of the Conqueror was a period in which the Normandy Jews flourished; they were treated with respect by the Duke, and after 1066, they were encouraged to settle in England and especially in London. But the preparations for the 1st Crusade (1096) in Rouen, as in many regions of Western Europe, were accompanied by veritable pogroms which were violent, but also brief. William Rufus, who reigned in England from 1087 and administered Normandy in the absence of his elder brother Robert Curthose, did not approve of the excesses involved, and was able, fairly quickly, to put a stop to them. The members of the Jewish community of Rouen and their property had, however, suffered cruelly. The construction of the house in Rouen identified as a yeshiva (Talmudic academy) was, without doubt, part of the programme of restoration of this community and its buildings in the year 1100.

Under the Plantagenets, the status of Jews in Normandy and in England was on many occasions defined in favourable terms by Henry II, and subsequently by King John. From before the end of the 12th century, written sources of Hebrew origin give the names of many Doctors of Law who taught in Rouen. The importance of Rouen as a centre of Jewish culture is also attested by the fact that a doctor as eminent as Abraham ibn Ezra, at the height of his career, went there to work from 1149 onwards and this is where he wrote, amongst other things, his great commentary of Exodus, the very important text known by its name of Anciennes Règles, (Ancient Rules) which pronounces on the teaching of the Torah. It could have been composed, in its original version, on the occasion of a regional synod that met in Rouen in the 11th century.

At the beginning of the 13th century, economic prosperity and cultural activity in the Jewish community had reached a high level; this is the explanation for the effectiveness with which the Jews of Rouen were able to stand up to the trials that were to beset them during this century.


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