Early History. The Synagogue at Avignon.(From a photograph.)

Capital of the department of Vaucluse, France; formerly seat of the papal court. The first settlement of Jews in Avignon goes back probably to the second century of the common era, a few years after the destruction of Bethar by Hadrian. In 390 they were already sufficiently numerous to take a leading part in a revolt against Bishop Stephen. As usual almost everywhere, they congregated in certain portions of the town, known later as the Jewry, or "Carrière des Juifs." It lay at first on the banks of the Rhône, along the slope of the Rocher, and exactly opposite the papal palace; its narrow lanes are still called the "Reille Juiverie" and the "Petite Reille." There are still shown the remains of an ancient building declared, with or without reason, to have been the first synagogue. But in the course of the thirteenth century, this quarter, having become too crowded, was demolished by Louis VIII., and the Jews were allotted a new and more spacious location in the heart of the city, corresponding with the present Place de Jerusalem and the Rues Abraham and Jacob. This location was covered with buildings, four, and sometimes five, stories high, and was intersected by narrow lanes, for the most part unclean, and lacking air and light. Twogates, opened only in the daytime, communicated with the outer world. The synagogue, or "escole," was toward the southeast. It was burned down in 1844, and the present building, of modern construction, arose in its place.

With regard to its internal administration, the Carrière formed a sort of semi-independent republic, although placed under the control of the provost representing the Holy Chair. It convened its own assemblies or parliaments, appointed its own magistrates and officials, made its laws, its statutes or "ascamot," and regulated its taxes. Its population was divided into three classes, according to their property qualifications; each class being represented in the parliament by five delegates or "baylons," who were invested with both executive and legislative powers. The taxes were pro rata; and every one liable was required to declare each year upon oath the actual amount of his property. The collection of the taxes was entrusted to both Jews and Christians; the school was supported at the common expense; and instruction was obligatory and free. Like every other government, that of the Carrière had its critical periods; the assessment and collection of taxes especially gave rise to great difficulties and numerous scandals; but, compared with other constitutions, that of the Carrière, taken all in all, was relatively just and liberal.

In the Fifteenth Century.

The history, properly so-called, of the Avignon Jewry may be divided into two parts: the period preceding the fifteenth century, and that following it. During the former period, the Jews of Avignon occupied themselves peaceably in many trades. The city authorities never disturbed them; their neighbors looked upon them with no jealous eye; and as farmers, laborers, pedlers, brokers, money-lenders, small merchants, matrimonial agents, sellers of books and manuscripts, surgeons, barbers, and physicians, the Jews were to be found in every branch of human activity. The popes relied on them as treasurers, commissaries, and stewards; the magistrates entrusted them with the assessments of furniture and books and utilized their knowledge in making inventories of the estates of deceased persons. The university employed them in the purchase of rare and precious manuscripts; in short, every branch of the state testified to its good opinion of the Jews of the city by the use it made of them.

Unfortunately, toward the second half of the fifteenth century, their position underwent a complete change. From that epoch dates an era of violence, disorder, and persecution, which lasted until the French Revolution. The causes of this transformation were manifold. First there was the state of general trouble and misery caused throughout the country by the departure of the popes from Avignon; then the ravages caused by pestilence and inundations; the ruin left behind them by the mercenary troops of Francis I.; the egotism and the jealousy of the freshly emancipated bourgeoisie; finally and especially, the ever-growing intolerance of the Church. Avignon had lost a great portion of its population; its commerce, always flourishing under the popes, had come to a standstill; business had almost completely ceased; and discontent was wide-spread. At this economic crisis, the population of the Carrière was considerably increased by the arrival of Jews who had been persecuted in surrounding districts and sought refuge in Avignon and the county. These unfortunate refugees came from Dauphiné, Arles, Marseilles, and the principality of Orange, and naturally brought with them all the energy and activity of their race. This was thought sufficient ground to hold them responsible for the deplorable situation in the city. In the eyes of the populace, it was the Jews who had destroyed the commerce of the country and, by their dubious intrigues, had monopolized all its wealth. A widespread outcry arose against them on every side; which, being taken up by the representatives of the city and the Three Estates, soon took the shape of precise accusations against them, against their unscrupulous doings, their robberies, their usuries, and so on; and also of denunciations of the liberty accorded to these formidable rivals. From that moment, the delegates of the city and the country incessantly clamored for harsh measures of repression against the inhabitants of the Carrière.

Under the Popes.

The Jews had in no way deserved these attacks. They certainly formed the most miserable portion of the population. They were for the most part poor people who lived from hand to mouth; if some of them practised usury, it was generally as brokers for rich Lombard or Italian financiers. Moreover, all the usurers of that time were not Jews. The registers of court indictments in the fifteenth century are full of proceedings relative to loans on pledges. Men and women, clerics and laymen, all dabbled in usury; and papal bulls were of no avail against it. The accusation of monopolizing wealth had no better foundation in fact. The "manifestes," declared each year by the Jews at the assessment for taxes, furnish complete evidence of the absurdity of this charge. More than once, the Carrière was upon the verge of being foreclosed and sold by its creditors, so difficult was it for the Jews to pay their debts and numerous fines. If there were any monopolists of wealth at this time, they were the convents and churches. In 1474 Sixtus IV. himself was compelled to issue a bull to restrain the constantly growing wealth of the Carthusian and Celestine monks; nevertheless, in the seventeenth century they owned houses in nearly every street in Avignon, and even the synagogue and a large portion of the Ghetto. However this may be, against the popular indignation the Jews had no protectors other than the sovereigns of the country; that is to say, the popes. But the papal policy toward the Jews was of a very capricious kind. It knew no constant principle, but varied according to circumstances. The Church defended the Jews when her interests recommended such course; and, with a right-about-face, she sacrificed them when there was profit in their ruin. The Jews of Avignon furnished to the popes both a source of income and a means of expiating political mistakes; and thus it came about that the same pope proclaimed himself at one time their defender, and at another their adversary.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the popes generally welcomed the grievances of the populace.On the demand of the Three Estates, Pius II. in 1457 issued an edict forbidding Jews to sell grain or other articles of food; to make contracts with Christians, or to take mortgages upon their property. Sixtus IV. renewed these restrictions; Leo X. in 1513 prohibited them from acquiring stores of grain before the harvest, and from going into the fields. Alexander VI., Clement VII., Paul IV., and Pius V. renewed and intensified these prohibitions, canceled all debts of ten years' standing owed to Jews, and compelled them to wear, under extreme penalties for disobedience, the infamous Jew-badge. In 1567 the Council of Avignon gravely proposed nothing less than the absolute cessation of all relations between Jews and the rest of the population. It forbade Christians, as the canon laws regularly did, to accept unleavened bread from the Jews, to employ their physicians, to enter their bathing-houses, to associate or to play with them, to be present at their marriages or their festivities, to enter their service as nurses or servants. It also forbade masons to speak to them during their work, barbers to dress their beards, etc. Further, it forbade Jews to deal in horses or mules; to pass the night outside the Ghetto, or to go out at all on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in Holy Week; to show themselves on the street during the hours of church service; or to buy any articles pertaining to religious uses. Finally, Pius V. issued a decree banishing Jews from his dominions.

Levies upon the Jews.

It is true, indeed, that a rigorous application of the foregoing regulations would have rendered the bull of Pope Pius V. quite superfluous. For the Jews, completely paralyzed in all their commercial activities, would have of necessity quitted the comté to beg from more hospitable countries the right to live. But in actual practise, the excessive harshness of these laws was considerably modified; and although the situation of the Jews was always sufficiently precarious and wretched, there were nevertheless moments when they were treated with a certain degree of toleration—interested toleration, no doubt, but the best obtainable.

For the right of sojourn in Avignon, Jews had to pay a heavy tax to the representatives of the popes and the city. From the papal legates down to their cooks, from the consuls down to their coachmen, every official, and even the wives of certain officials, had the right to exact from them gifts and presents upon certain occasions, which, added to the regular taxes, must have amounted to very considerable sums. Being poor, the Carrière, to pay these, was obliged to have recourse to loans from individual Christians, convents, and churches, and sometimes even from the city. But the shackles imposed upon its commerce, as well as the poor state of trade in the country generally, prevented the Jews not only from paying their debts, but also the interest thereon. Their obligations therefore increased from year to year, and attained at time huge proportions. In addition to the regular taxes, both papal legates and the estates had no scruples in levying extraordinary contributions when they needed them. Thus in the seventeenth century, after the sojourn of the troops of Marshal de Belle-Isle in the county, the estates demanded of the Jews no less than 90,000 francs as their share of the expenses of supporting the army; although, with the rest of the people of Avignon, they had already contributed in advance. Naturally they were compelled to borrow this large sum.

But these very debts which, as has been stated, they contracted only under force and constraint, turned out to be for their benefit and made their banishment impossible. Their creditors, despairing of ever getting back their money, protested against the severity of these bulls and pontifical regulations, which hurt themselves indirectly, inasmuch as they prevented their Jewish debtors from honoring their obligations. They, therefore, insisted upon a less rigorous application of them, and opposed vehemently any idea of expelling the Jews.

The history of the Jews of Avignon in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is one long struggle between the city, the estates, and the Holy See. These three powers could never agree upon measures for or against the Jews. When the papacy needed funds, infractions by the Jews of the bulls and regulations of the councils were tolerated so long as the papacy profited by them. Thereupon, loud complaints from the populace would arise to remind the legates of their duty, and to insist upon the stringent application of the old prohibitory laws or even upon the expulsion of the inhabitants of the Carrière. On the contrary, when the Holy Church laid too many fetters upon the commerce of the Jews, and threatened their expulsion, the consuls flew to their aid, as is proved by certain inedited extracts from the instructions which they gave to their agent at the papal court. In 1616, upon the demand of the estates, the pope seems to have decided to order the expulsion of the Jews. The tidings produced great disquiet at Avignon, and the consuls, representing their constituents, wrote to their delegates at Rome as follows:

"We are determined to oppose this new movement, and the petition which they are making, or will make, in this regard, as prejudicial to certain individuals and contrary to the public weal. We desire that you oppose it in the name of our city, demanding that we be heard."

In another letter addressed to the same, they said:

"In continuation of what our predecessors wrote to you, concerning the Jews of the county, to insist that they shall not be expelled from the said county, we say to you that this city has right on its side to maintain that the Jews shall not leave this county, as well as to demonstrate that their residence in the country is necessary; seeing that the said Jews are indebted, both severally and as a community, in certain very considerable sums, as well to monasteries as to convents, noblemen, citizens, and merchants of this town; . . . another reason being, that the said Jews comport themselves decently and obey the rules of duty."

Thanks to this mutual antagonism of the three powers, the Jews were able to pass through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with expulsion only hanging as a menace over their heads. If dealing in land and grain was forbidden, if Jews were excluded from the positions of tax-collector and from other public offices, they continued to devote themselves, nevertheless, to small trading, pedling, and dealing in horses and mules.

But if their material existence, so uncertain and so wretched, was on the whole endurable, their moral condition was appalling. The Church, which permitted them to live, thought it necessary todegrade them in its own interests. The measures devised against them by the councils of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries have already been mentioned; but it was especially in the second half of the seventeenth century that the intolerance of the Holy Office smote them most harshly. From that epoch, up to the French Revolution, the ordinances of legates and cardinals followed each other with ever-increasing rigor; and all former regulations were applied to the letter.

The fanaticism of the Inquisition did not stop even there; it aimed at the voluntary, or involuntary, conversion of the Jews, and the disappearance of Judaism. To this end Jews were forbidden to read the Talmud and other rabbinical books; Jesuits and Dominican monks were appointed to hold discussions, or to deliver sermons, every Saturday in the synagogue, where the presence of the Jews was absolutely compulsory. But these sermons did not produce the desired effect. Then the Church had recourse to force. During part of the eighteenth century the plague ravaged Avignon. The Carrière had many victims, who were carried to the hospital and nursed by Dominicans, who, by persuasion, by promises, and by threats, caused to be baptized a full third of the poor patients entrusted to their care. These were for the most part children and old men incapable of resistance. Stimulated by this semblance of success, the monks continued their exertions long after the epidemic had disappeared. Although the Church forbade it officially, they secretly encouraged the carrying off of young Jewish children, whom they then forced into the pale of the Church. There is nothing more moving than the protestations—as indignant as futile—of the Jewish fathers against such proceedings: a child once touched by the waters of baptism had to remain a Christian, and was lost to its parents and to its faith. Avignon to-day contains about forty Jewish families. It belongs to the Circonscription Consistorial of Marseilles. Services are only occasionally held in the synagogue, a modern edifice erected by the municipality to replace the older one, which was destroyed by fire.


The Jews of Avignon formed with those of Carpentras, L'Isle, and Cavaillon the four communities called "Arba' Kehillot" by Jewish authors of the Middle Ages. These communities had a special liturgy of their own, called "Comtadin," from the name formerly borne by the province in which these towns were included. This liturgy, while resembling the Portuguese greatly, is distinguished from it by numerous differences; a few only can be cited: the omission of the prayer "'Alenu," the substitution of "Shalom rab" for "Sim Shalom"; the insertion of certain special liturgical compositions and poems on Friday evenings, which are not to be found elsewhere. There are also reminiscences of the local history; as, for instance, (the Nishmat for the Day of the Shutting In), recited on the Sabbath of the Christian Easter week in commemoration of the prohibition laid upon the Jews against leaving their quarters at that period, and the prayer .

  • For the rabbis and physicians born at Avignon: Gross, Gallia Judaica, Index, s.v. Avignon;
  • Leon Bardinet, Antiquité et Organisation des Juiveries du Comtat-Venaissin, in Revue Etudes Juives, i. 165 et seq., ii. 199;
  • idem, in Revue Historique, i.
  • For the origin and organization of the Jewry of Avignon: René de Maulde, Les Juifs dans les Etats Français du Pape au Moyen-Age, in Revue Etudes Juives, vii. 227 et seq.
  • For the policy of the Popes: Israel Lévi, Clement VII. et les Juifs du Comtat-Venaissin, ib. xxxii. 63 et seq.;
  • Lettres des Consuls d'Avignon, in the Archives Departmentales de Vaucluse (inedited).
  • For conversions in the eighteenth century: Jules Bauer, La Peste chez les Juifs d'Avignon, in Revue Etudes Juives, xxxiv. 251 et seq.
  • For the yellow hat: Idem, Le Chapeau Jaune chez les Juifs Contadins, in Revue Etudes Juives, xxxvi. 53 et seq.
  • For the commercial life of the Jews: Roubin, La Vie Commerciale des Juifs Contadins en Languedoc, ib. xxxv. 91 et seq.
G. J. Ba.