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The Rouen Chronicles – Rouen’s Jewish Heritage – 1

April 7, 2015
1657 - Rouen France, Previously known as Rothomagnuess, Rowon, Roan..

1657 – Rouen France, Previously known as Rothomagnuess, Rowon, Roan..

1. Rouen’s Jews…

Today the Jewish population of Rouen, France is quite small, some 700 people living in a city of approximately 115,000, many of whom are emigres from Algeria and Tunisia, a shadow of its past prominence.(1) Half century ago, when I lived in Rouen for the academic year 1964-65, I had virtually no contact with the city’s Jewish Community. I did not seek them out although, unless memory fails me (possible) the current synagogue on rue de Bons Enfants was there. It had a plaque memorializing Rouen’s Jews sent to concentration camps in Germany where they were exterminated. I would walk by it on my way to the center (near the cathedral) from rue de Renard, where I lived at the time.

Yet all of these years, I wondered about a Jewish presence there.

Rouen had all the historic hallmarks of the kind of urban areas where Jews would tend to concentrate. Despite being inland from the English Channel, access to the Atlantic Ocean, Rouen was an important port, center of commerce and long distance trade, reminiscent of other urban areas which in the past had a sizable Jewish presence: Amsterdam, Salonika, Granada, Tunis come to mind. Rouen, a city founded by the Romans and originally known as Rothomagus (and later Rodom, Roan) sits about halfway along the Seine River between Le Havre and Paris. The river was navigable as far as Rouen and even during the year I lived there ocean-going ships docked at its port area, which I frequently visited, the Seine being deep and wide enough to accommodate them.

Jewish communities, long involved in commerce and trade on the one hand, and desirous of the presence of a river for sacramental purposes on the other, looked for such a place. I have wondered about if Rouen wasn’t yet another example of some lost Jewish history, yet another place where in the distant past Judaism thrived, before the forces of bigotry and greed suddenly turned on them, once again, purging their populations and obliterating, or near obliterating their cultural traces. Does the contemporary light touch of Rouen’s Jewish presence hide a more historically flourishing past?

The answer turns out to be – yes, very much so.

The traces of that history, hints of a vibrant Rouennaise Jewish past, have long been there. An old street in the center of town was named “rue des Juifs” (Jewish Street). Researching old Normandy maps revealed many other “rue des Juifs” in surrounding areas. Brief, but not insignificant citations like the mention of a monk named “William the Jew” (forcibly converted like others?) who lived in a nearby abbey as well as other references, some suggesting that early Jewish population of London hailed from Rouen, having been encouraged to do so by William The Conqueror after his 1066 victory over the English monarchy which changed the country’s history. 

William the Conqueror brought them to England because he found that in Normandy they had been good for business; in particular they provided access to the silver of the Rhineland. The Jews of Rouen may also have helped to finance his invasion of England; in return for the chance to work in a country from which they had previously been barred…another reason they found favor with the king. Since Christians were not allowed to be money lenders, some other group of merchants had to be created. Jews become moneylenders by default, as it were, and as a result they were abused and despised in equal measure. (2) These English Jews, originally from Rouen, would be expelled from England. (More than two hundred years later, in 1290, in exchange for funds promised by parliament King Edward I expelled all of the remaining Jews from his kingdom. By then their numbers were approximately 2000.)

There were also brief but still intriguing commentaries of the slaughter of Rouen’s Jews by Crusaders, in 1096, on their way to First Crusade. Like in Germany, in France, Crusader organizers whipped the public into a frenzy of excitement with vivid stories of atrocities that Moslems had purportedly committed against Christians in the Holy Land – virtually all of which were fabricated, including those charges brought against Moslems in Pope Urban II’s November, 1095 speech at Clermont. To prepare themselves for the task of slaughtering Moslems in the Middle East, for practice, the Crusaders rose against the Jews in Europe along the way.   While the anti-Jewish pogroms that initiated the First Crusade were known to have savaged the Jewish Communities in Germany – Mainz, Coblenz and other places, Church historians had long down played the French atrocities until recent historical research made a strong case otherwise: that the French crusaders had also whet their appetite for slaughter in the Holy Land on the Jews of France, all over the country actually, including in Normandy and that the slaughter of Rouen Jews was among the worst of these incidents, mauling a community that had lived in the region for, it now is known, for more than a millennium.

Port of Rouen, France; This port has been operating for 2000 years

Port of Rouen, France; This port has been operating for 2000 years

2. Unlocking Past Mysteries…

In 1998, Cambridge University Press published Norman Golb’s monumental – not a term I use lightly – The Jews of Medieval Normandy, detailing the long and uneven history of Normandy France’s Jewish Community, the center of which was Rouen for more than a millennium. In this volume, Golb marshals into a comprehensive whole, the detailed and painstaking research of decades that are woven together into a vibrant history of Normandy’s rich Jewish heritage, all but lost world. While much had been gleaned concerning the early history of Britain’s Jewish community, very little was known about Normandy’s Jewish heritage upon which, by the way, Britain’s Jewish presence was largely built.

In the decades prior to the publication of Golb’s major work, a number of archaeological discoveries were already suggesting there was intellectual gold in “them thar hills.” In 1976, a cellar with Hebrew inscription on it was discovered underneath the western portion of the courtyard of Rouen’s Palace of Justice. Many years of painstaking research followed, until finally, a few years ago, the structure was declared to have been a “yeshiva” – a Jewish school of higher learning. There is some debate over this claim, but regardless of whether it was a yeshiva or not, it was most definitely some kind of important Jewish institution. Shortly thereafter, in 1982, another major archaeological discovery was discovered: the mansion of a merchant, Bonnevie, the Jew, was unearthed in the same locality, all this only a small part of what was a large, prosperous, culturally rich Rouen-region Jewish heritage.

Combined with the study of maps, other written documents and comparing what was known about other European centers of culture and learning, Golb was able to put together a picture of Rouen in the period before the onset of the First Crusade, 1096. Another research thread seemingly unconnected added a great deal to the picture: some of the documents from that great cache of Jewish culture “a hoard of fragmentary literary texts and historical documents found in the storage room, or genizah, of a synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo) and brought to several of the great libraries of England and the Continent during the latter half of the nineteenth century.” (3)

Including several hundred thousand documents in Arabic, Hebrew, European languages, a hundred and 20 years after its discovery, the Cairo Genizah, as it has been called, still has an enormous treasure of secrets yet to be revealed to scholars. Most of the documents describe the world of the 7th to 11th century Middle East and have been a treasure trove to Muslim and Christian scholars as well as Jewish ones. Some, however, shed light on the lives and culture of European Jewry, adding valuable factual information and insights concerning their world. Part of the problem in studying them is that it require people with multi-lingual skills, and a profound knowledge of Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Turkish as well as several European languages as well as the historical and religious context in which the documents were created. No easy task. As a result, researchers have hardly scratched the surface of all the available documents. But already, the Genizah has yielded valuable documents about the lives of the Jews of Normandy and Golb and others have been able to integrate Genizah documents into their understanding of Normandy Jewish history, enriching greatly what was known.

The synthesis of all this is a vivid portrait of one of the key centers of European Jewry in the period before the First Crusade, as well as a clearer picture of how that First Crusade mauled and nearly destroyed that world. The broader picture is clear: Rouen was a major center of Jewish life, that included a vibrant commercial community, several synagogues, a special Jewish cemetery in the area near the current railway station (SNCF) on a street called rue Campulley, and a “Yeshiva,” a school for higher learning that trains rabbis. It was also, from all appearances, an important regional center of Jewish life that drew in many smaller communities from its surroundings, something of a hub where major Jewish figures of that period (and also later), lived and taught. For the details, one need only consult Golb’s work.

3. Rouen YeshivaJews and Phoenicians; Jews and Romans

Recent research – and here Golb is central – has considerably reworked our understanding of Jewish history in Europe. Part of the problem stems from the fact that until around 1000 A.D. there are very few written records. This can either be due to the fact that few were written or, that those written were destroyed in the anti-Jewish pogroms that accompanied the First Crusade of 1096. Until recently, the picture prior to 1000 A.D. was quite cloudy.

The new framework suggests a very long, and generally prosperous Jewish presence in Normandy going back to the time of Julius Ceasar’s Roman Conquests of Gaul, completed in 50 B.C. Earlier, as early as 950 B.C. or there abouts, Jews, the Israelites, had accompanied Phoenicians from Lebanon across the Mediterranean to Carthage ( a suburb of modern-day Tunis), Sicily and Southern Spain. The two groups, Eastern Mediterranean allies of sorts, worked closely together to build the Phoenician trading empire. Nearly a 1000 years on, Jews would pair up with the Romans and play a similar role as merchants, artisans and bankers of the Roman empire, including in Normandy where the Romans established towns like Rouen, Dieppe, Caen that are still important urban centers today.

A Jewish presence in Normandy – as a protected ethnic community within Roman society thus dates from approximately the time of Christ. The system which started in Roman times and continued during the early Christian era resembled in many ways the position of Jews in the Islamic “millet system.” They were essentially an “ethnic-class” protected by the Romans and then early Christianity as they would be in the Islamic world at about the same time. They enjoyed economic privileges, tended to be self-governing on cultural matters, but were bereft of political power. While it is unclear how they fared throughout the period 1 A.D. to 1000 A.D. – if there were moments of repression, here, history is, at least until today, silent. Still there are suggestions that the Normandy Jewish Community was overall successful and even prosperous. This can be gauged from a number of historical facts. Among them:

▸ Many of the early medieval towns in Normandy, Rouen included, have what is mentioned above as a “rue des Juifs” (Jewish Street), indicating both a street and as archeological evidence indicates a Jewish Quarter, a district of a town where Jews lived. The one in Rouen included the homes of very wealthy individuals, again, suggesting a prosperous community in general. The fact that the rue des Juifs, in Rouen is right in the center of the medieval town suggests that Jews were there from a very early date, that they were not late-comers to Rouen and that their economic and social success grew with that of the town.
▸ There are many references in the literature of Rouen about a Jewish Cemetery which Golb explores in detail in legal and other documents from the 11th, 12, 13th and continuing into the 15th centuries. Not only are there references but Golb has unearthed the actual site of the Jewish Cemetery, placing it just to the west of the current SNCF railway station whose northern boundaries are along the small two block rue de Campulley. The size of the cemetery suggests a long historical period through which Jews lived in Normandy
▸ The more recent discoveries of the Rouen Yeshiva (1976) and the Bonnevie Home (1982) suggest that the city was a regional center of Jewish life that included many surrounding towns and villages. By 1100, just after the First Crusade, the population of the Jewish population of Rouen was estimated to be around 6000, a full 20% of the city’s population. 


First Crusade – 1096 – Jews Slaughtered in Europe before Crusaders Slaughter Moslems in the Middle East

4. The First Crusade – Things Fall Apart

What was most probably close to a millennium of relatively cordial relations between Normandy’s Jewish and non-Jewish communities begins to erode in the decades prior to the First Crusade and then falls apart as the crusade gets underway. It is difficult to determine all the factors that came into play that triggered this crisis but there are several likely historical themes to consider.

▸ While Jews had some genuine economic power and cultural autonomy, there is no indication that they ever had, throughout this formative period, anything approaching political power, which made them vulnerable to the whims of those in control, which from the 300s to 400s A.D. were entirely Christian monarchs and/or the Catholic Church itself. Christian monarchs eyed Jewish commercial success at times with envy and it was not unusual – in return for privileges that Jewish merchants and financiers would loan money to monarchs either voluntarily or involuntarily to one degree or another. At times, rather than pay back the debt, monarchs and nobility would simply confiscate Jewish property, actions in opposition to which the victim financiers would have little or no recourse. This was something of a royal sport, almost as common as hunting!
▸ Although it still had a long way to go before maturing, early capitalism was beginning to take shape throughout Europe but most especially in the northern Italian states and along the northwest corridor (England, France, the Low Countries, Germany). It was a world in transition from a feudal to a capitalist mode of production. Jewish merchants played a key role in the feudal period, linking local productive units – ie, manor production in Europe with the rich old world trading system passing through the Middle East for which they were the undisputed middlemen. But as manufacturing capitalism begins its slow but steady expansion, first textile manufacturers and then other producers begin to have their own salespeople dealing in long distance trade, cutting into what was something approaching a Jewish monopoly in Europe. A long-term structural tension thus took shape between the new local/national bourgeoisie in formation and the former well-worn Jewish merchant capitalism.

This was a historically slow process that ebbed and flowed over a period of at least 500 years, if not more. It would be some elements of this new rising class that would both encourage antisemitism, and actually lead the charge against the Jews as a systematic pattern of repression took place.

▸Another factor in the rising antisemitism was the less financial role of the Catholic Church itself in this period.  A considerable amount of finance was actually in the hands of and controlled by the Catholic Church, which was emerging as Europe’s biggest banking institution in this period,, this in spite of Catholic prohibitions of handling money, charging interest. This emerging bourgeoisie, both Catholic and non, saw Jewish banking and commercial interests as competitors and sought to undermine Jewish financial success.

While economic rationales were perhaps not primary in the growing antisemitism to which Jews were increasingly victimized, it was a factor. The cooperation of the Catholic Church with this rising bourgeoisie cemented a coalition whose economic interest both lay in destabilizing, undermining and ultimately undercutting the role of the Jewish merchant class. And this they were able to do by fanning the flames of antisemitism.

▸In a similar way that the Crusades in the Middle East, among other things, produced a fair amount of plunder and booty which was then used as seed money for the development of capitalism in Europe, the plunder and expropriation of Jewish assets and property played a similar role. In fact the targeting of the Jewish Community in Europe, France included, was in part a way to raise money to support the Crusade in the Middle East, the plunder of which was then employed to seed merchant capitalism in Europe later on. 

All this is developed – not to deny the religious rationals for antisemitism – ie, targeting anyone who wasn’t a believer and in the case of the Jews, those accused of “having killed” or “having participated in the killing of” Christ. These tactics were successfully used to divert the anger of the great mass of poor people caught up in this historic transition from the elements in power more responsible for their suffering and to turning the public wrath against the Jews, a kind of scapegoating that Jews would have to endure from these days in the mid 1000s to our current era with well known terrible consequences.

5. Killing Jews In Preparation To Killing Muslims

Although the records are incomplete, more and more evidence is coming to the surface that after 1000 years of relative calm and prosperity the situation of the Jews in the Rouen region – and throughout Europe – started to deteriorate a half century prior to the First Crusade. The number of incidents began to multiply as individual attacks mounted. Had these incidents occurred with such regularity earlier, but simply were not recorded? This included the confiscation of property, violation of old feudal rights that Jews had enjoyed and murder. In order to raise money to help finance the Crusades, besides confiscating Jewish property and wealth, the Catholic Church stepped up its sale of indulgences to the population, a financial racket which did produce a fair amount of loot for the Vatican, but later on – a couple of hundred years later, got the Church into the trouble that would lead to the Reformation and the split in Christianity. The attacks on the Jews turned into  more organized slaughter after Pope Urban II sent out the call for a Crusade against the Moslems to “liberate” Jerusalem. In 1095, Urban II came to Clermont and called on the Christian world to embark upon the First Crusade – call to drive back the Turks, and in so doing liberate the Christians and reconquer Jerusalem.

The response was immediate.

As many as 80,000 may have been recruited to answer the call. One part of it was organized along military lines; however one element, later referred to as “the People’s Crusade” was of a different character. Organized at the behest of Peter The Hermit, a bitterly antisemitic priest from Amiens in northern France, it was a chaotic affair, with no clear leadership or discipline that drew largely upon the poor, working class and minor commercial elements in Europe. This element was whipped into a frenzy about tales of Muslim atrocities committed against Christians – highly exaggerated and fabricated accounts. Long before the Crusade reached Constantinople, doorway to the Middle East, these elements – angry mobs for the most part, turned their fury on their non-Christian neighbors in Europe, most particularly the Jews.

As Peter Frankopan notes in The First Crusade: Call from the East (2012),

“Horrific massacres accompanied the progress of the People’s Crusade, as it passed through Germany; the Jewish populations of Cologne and Mainz became the victims of breathtaking violence. So shocking was the terror unleashed that in some cases, people took their own lives. ‘The Jews, seeing how the Christian enemy were rising up against them and their little children and were sparing none of any age, even turned upon themselves and their companions, on children, women, mothers and sisters and they all killed each other. Mothers with children at the breast – how horrible to relate – would cut their children with knives, would stab others, preferring that they should die thus at their hands, rather than be killed by the weapons of the uncircumcised.’ In other locations, such as in Regensburg, the Jews were at least spared death; but they were driven into the river Danube where they were forcibly baptised.’” (4)

Earlier historians had argued that the worst Crusader excesses against the Jews of Europe took place mostly in Germany, but recent research indicates the pogroms were, in fact, far more extensive. This antisemitism was not limited to Germany. It included Prague and extended to the entirety of France as well where entire Jewish communities were threatened with extinction. One of them was Rouen. Attacking Jews in Europe as a prelude to killing Moslems in the Middle East became a permanent feature of Crusader campaigns, “a tradition” if you will, but while murders took place in later crusades, it is argued that much of the worst violence against Europe’s Jews transpired during the First Crusade (1095-1099). To this day, many religious Jews the world round say prayers in remembrance of the 20th century Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis, and in memory of Jews slaughtered in the First Crusade.

In Rouen antisemitic rioting broke out, shortly after Pope Urban II’s Autumn, 1095  Clermont Christian call to arms.(5)This was just a prelude to what would follow a year later.September of 1096, sometime just before the departure of Crusader bands from Normandy, bands of Crusader marauders invaded and attacked Rouen’s Jewish Quarter. As Golb relates the essence of the Crusader logic, “We want to attack the enemies of God [in the Holy Land] in the est after traveling great distances, while before our eyes are the Jews, of all races God’s greatest enemy. This would be doing our work backwards.! (my emphasis) A blood bath followed in a pattern that would repeat itself throughout France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The Jews of Rouen were rounded up, herded into a synagogue and then “without discrimination as to age or sex” (Golb) systematically slaughtered. Some children were kidnapped to be forcibly converted to Christianity.

The Crusaders moved on, leaving a shattered Jewish community. But shortly thereafter, many – thousands in fact – of those Jews who had forcibly converted to Christianity were permitted by the local ruling classes in the region, to re-convert back to Judaism. It took decades but the community rebuilt some of its structures and institutions. Then in 1306, the Jews were expelled from France. They were readmitted several times until finally in 1394 they were permanently expelled. Many went to England, where Rouen Jews had been welcomed by William-The-Conqueror after he had subdued the English in 1066. Others went north, to the Low Countries (today’s Belgium and Netherlands).

6. Afterthought – Criticisms of Golb’s work.

There is much in Norman Golb’s pioneering work on the Jews of Normandy and Rouen in particular which, I believe, is both accurate and on the mark historically. Yet in the years after the publication of “The Jews In Medieval Normandy” a number of critical themes have emerged which are noted below. One source is an article by Elma Brenner and Leonie V, Hicks in Society and Culture in Medieval Rouen: 911-1300 AD, (Brepols Publishers: Brussels: 2013) (6) which the authors edited. In the last essay in that volume “The Jews of Rouen in the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries” the authors challenge some of Golb’s theories on several grounds:

  • referring to another source, (Gernard Gauthiez) they state that Golbs numbers for the size of Rouen’s Jewish community are probably overstated. Golb claims Rouen’s Jewish population in those days to be between 2000 – 3000. Gauthiez and William Chester Jordan argue that the true number is unknown and that Golb’s estimates are exaggerated.
  • Elsewhere in his history of Rouen’s Jews Golb claims that they came early on (around the time of Christ) as an appendage to the Romans (stated above in this piece). This claim is based upon the fact that there were Jewish communities in the Rhineland (today’s Germany) that arrived very early and that the evidence for a large Jewish presence in northern France at the same time is lacking and questionable. Several other authors pick up the theme, among them Michael Toch who claims that the Ashnenazic Jewish communities in northern France and Germany “which had a shared cultural affinity” originated only the tenth and eleventh centuries as a result of immigration from Southern Europe. Brenner and Hicks substantiate their argument by noting that earliest written reference to the medieval Jewish community of Rouen is possibly an anonymous Hebrew chronicle from 1007 describing the fate of one Jacob ben Yekutiel who goes to Rome to seek the Pope’s aid in preventing the persecution of fellow Jews under Duke Ruchard II of Normandy
  • There is also an argument over a structure discovered under Rouen’s Palais de Justice. Some, Golb in particular, claim it is a yeshiva (Jewish establishment of learning) , others suggest it is a synagogue. The claims are more than just mere hair-splitting. If indeed it is a yeshiva, this elevates the role of Rouen – making it more central to Normandy Jewish life.

All this, in my mind, while open to scrutiny does not take away from the essence of Golb’s work – that Rouen had, until the Jews were expelled from France in 1306, a vibrant and prosperous community that played a key role in the commerce of the region, most especially the trade routes along the Seine from Paris leading to the English Channel at Le Havre from their across to Britain. Did Golb overstate the significance of his research? Hard to tell at this point. They remain open questions. Fair enough to say that Jewish migration with the Romans remains unproven to date and that at least at this juncture it is possible that what he took for a yeshiva was only a synagogue. But the rest of his contribution is both solid and revealing.



1. Rouen ; synagogue et Centre Communautaire » [archive], sur (consulté le 28/11/2014)

2.  Peter Ackroyd, Foundation, The History of England from its Earliest Foundations to the Tudors. London, 2011. Chapter 20. pp. 225-8

3. Norman Golb. The Jews in Medieval Normandy. Cambridge University Press. 1998. p.xiii

4. Peter Frankopan. The First Crusade: The Call From The East. (2012) pp.119-120

5. Thomas Asbridge. The First Crusade: A New History: The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity and Islam. Oxford University Press: 2004. p. 84

6. Leonie V. Hicks and Elma Brenner, editors. Society and Culture in Medieval Rouen: 911-1300. Brepols. Brussels: 2013.


The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 1

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 2 – Ahmed Ben Bella

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 3 – Robert Merle in Rouen, October, 1964 

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 4 – “Fortunes de France” translated into English

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – City of Wisdom and Blood

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle -The Literary Work Of Robert Merle In Two Sessions-Notes

The Rouen Chronicles – Arques La Bataille – Dieppe

The Rouen Chronicles – The Botched Dieppe Raid  of August, 1942 – Part One

The Rouen Chronicles – The Botched Dieppe Raid  of August, 1942 – Part Two

The Rouen Chronicles – Amsterdam 1965

The Rouen Chronicles – Ferid Boughedir

The Rouen Chronicles – The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos

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