French Knights killing Jewsduring the First Crusade
We have been looking at the long history of anti-Semitism in France so as to better understand the current tensions that French Jews are experiencing after the murder of four Jewish victims in a Kosher supermarket on the outskirts of Paris three weeks ago. The current outbreak of anti-Semitism is being blamed on Muslim immigrants to France while it is overlooked that the French have a long tradition of persecuting and harassing the Jews. We have looked at the story up until the Crusades and the High Middle Age. We will now pick up on that saga.
The situation of the Jews in France only deteriorated as the Middle Ages wore on. All through the period of the Crusades various local bishops and feudal lords instituted programs of forced conversions or expulsion from their territories. In Lent of 1181 King Philip Augustus had his soldiers round up the Jews in the royal domains while they were at synagogue and forced them to surrender their money and jewelry. The following year he expelled all those who would not convert to Christianity, giving them three months notice during which they could sell their assets while he confiscated their homes, shops, mills, factories, and other properties. Their synagogues were turned into churches. It was not long, however, before the King realized the disastrous implications on the economy of the Kingdom that was caused by the expulsion of the Jews and in 1198 he recalled them, permitting them to settle in Paris and several larger cities in his domain where he licensed them to engage in moneylending and pawnbroking with the Crown receiving a hefty cut of the profits. The Crown viewed the Jews as their property and it was illegal for a Jew to move from the royal domain to that of another feudal lord. This restricted their freedom of movement and put them in a position somewhat akin to that of a serf though their work was economic rather than agricultural.
Louis IX (Saint Louis, reigned 1226-1270) was a particularly pious man and while he seems to have no animosity towards the Jews he did want, in accord with Christian theology, to abolish usury (moneylending at interest). This had disastrous implications for the Jewish community in as that moneylending at interest was their chief business. In an effort to end the practice, the King reduced the all debts of Christians owed to Jewish moneylenders by one third but insisted that the remaining two thirds had to be paid to the Jews within a given time frame. This would pretty much cut the profits from the money lending and return the original amount of the loan. While requiring the debts to be paid promptly guaranteed a certain justice for the moneylenders, at the same time he handicapped them in their collection. The moneylenders could not have their Christian debtors imprisoned for failure to pay. He then ordered the confiscation of all property owed by those who still engaged in moneylending. On a religious level—as differentiated from the economic questions—in 1243 Louis ordered the burning of 12,000 Talmudic manuscripts. The King also enforced a decree of the Fourth Lateran Council that required all Jews to wear on their outer garments, both back and front, a circular badge that identified them as Jews.
Philip the Fair (reigned 1285-1314) expelled the Jews from France in 1306, confiscating their properties, money, and the debts owed them by Christians. The Jews were arrested on July 22nd, the day following Tisha B’Av, the annual fast marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. In prison they were told that they had to leave the kingdom before the end of August and they could take with them only the clothes they were wearing and 12 sous (about .6£, at the time not an inconsiderable amount, perhaps two months wages for a working man.) Everything else was confiscated to the crown; debts owed them by borrowers were transferred to the crown. Philip was a truly evil man whose concern was motivated by greed for the crown revenues. The following year he would turn on the Knights Templar, executing their leaders and confiscating their vast wealth to the crown.
In 1315 Philip’s Successor, Louis X, recalled the Jews to France, guaranteeing them they could remain for a trial period of 12 years. They were forbidden to engage in money lending and required to wear a distinctive armband identifying them as Jews. They could only resettle in those cities and towns where they had lived before and they were not permitted to discuss religion with Christians. They had to work either at manufacturing or at trade; money lending was forbidden them. The situation did not last the promised twelve years. In 1322 many Jews were expelled again from France under Charles IV, being blamed for poisoning wells in the 1321 Leper scare—an alleged conspiracy of spreading leprosy through poisoning the drinking water. Another expulsion of the Jews from France occurred in 1394 during the Reign of Charles VI.
In the late 15th century, much of the region of Provence—until that time not part of France but held by a number of independent feudatories (including the Pope and the King of Naples), passed to the French Crown and was incorporated into the kingdom of France. In 1501 the Jews of Provence, ancient communities going back to Roman days, were given an order to covert or leave the Kingdom. Many did convert to Christianity but others crossed the Pyrenees into Catalonia and Aragon.Jews began migrating back into France in the early sixteenth century and remained relatively unmolested; in fact unnoticed amid the turmoil and tragedies facing the House of Valois. In 1615, however, Marie de Medici, regent for her young son, Louis XIII, decreed that Christians should not shelter Jews nor converse with them. Louis’ son, Louis XIV, considered another expulsion of the Jews in 1648 but by that time more enlightened understanding was beginning to affect political decisions. Moreover, the economic impact of the Jewish community was considerable to a French Crown that was on a wild spending spree. As the Church began losing its influence with the spread of Enlightenment thought, religious toleration began to replace the more rigid patterns of the medieval and counter-reformation periods. Of course not all saw this as good; nor do all see religious toleration as good today. We will see that anti-Semitism survived the Enlightenment and the French Revolution to take root in the Catholic Restoration of the 19th century and still colors right-wing French Catholicism today.