Hostility Against the Jews in Medieval France

By Lucie Laumonier

Judaism predates Christianity in history, but early on, Christians had ambivalent attitudes toward their Jewish cousins. The Council of Nicea, held in 325, officially accused the Jews of having caused the death of Jesus Christ. Perceived as a “God-killing race” by Christians, the Jewish community usually faced hostility in Christian territories – that is, in most of Western Europe. In France, as in other European regions, the medieval era saw changing and contradictory attitudes towards the Jews, who were alternately tolerated and persecuted. 

The French Jews had settled mainly in urban centers. They formed tight-knit communities organized around synagogues, butchers, schools, and bathhouses. The Jews of medieval France were known for their role in commerce and, from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, in moneylending. Many Jewish intellectuals gained fame for their active involvement in philosophy, science, and medicine. Here we look at how French authorities regulated the lives of Jewish communities and the reasons why Christians persecuted the Jews of medieval France.


The Establishment of Legal Frameworks in the Early Middle Ages

In the Early Middle Ages, most French Jewish communities had settled in the southeast, on the shores of the Mediterranean. Although there were few Jews north of the Alps, they were the focus of restrictive laws that limited their freedom of movement and their ability to interact with Christians. For instance, a mid-fifth-century council held in Troyes, northern France, prohibited Jews from going out of their houses to have any form of communication with Christians during Eastertide – a time celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, therefore a particularly tense period for the Jewish community who were accused of his murder.

A century later, other councils banned the appointment of Jews to any public office that would put them in a position of superiority over a Christian. Jews were no longer allowed to work on Sundays and were to refrain from eating with Christians. Intermarriage between Jews and Christians was forbidden in early Roman law codes, a prohibition early medieval law codes reiterated. At that time, the fragile state of Christianity – still a relatively new religion in Europe – fueled the clergy’s anxieties. Clergymen were afraid Jewish people would “pollute” the minds of Christians and turn them away from the Church. They advocated relentlessly for their conversion to Christianity. This project was finally successful in the seventh century when the Merovingian king Dagobert called for the baptism or expulsion of the Jews of his kingdom. More than a century of political unrest followed.


Dagobert’s rule, during which Jewish communities grew again in size. By the end of the year 800, Charlemagne became emperor. Charles’ attitude towards the Jews was ambivalent but more open than before. Carolingian capitularies reiterated certain older restrictions, and the chancery levied heavy taxes on the Jews. Because of these taxes, Jews constituted a reliable source of income for the chancery. Charlemagne, therefore, granted the Jewish communities privileges safeguarding their autonomy and their rights to practice their religion.

For instance, Jews responded to their own laws for all matters concerning “low justice,” such as marriage and business contracts, small offences, and inter-community disputes. Murders, however, were to be tried by the Christian authorities. Until the First Crusade, the lives of medieval French Jews were relatively peaceful – only two episodes of violence were reported in the early eleventh century. But things were about to change.

Pogroms and the Crusades

Set in the context of religious zeal, the Crusades stirred the pot of hate. Pope Urban II came to France in 1095 and preached the First Crusade with tremendous success. The message was clear: Christians should take up arms to fight the enemies of God and Christianity. While the pope clearly laid out that the point was to free Jerusalem, some interpreted it differently. According to chronicler Guibert of Nogent (1055–1124), a group of men from Rouen, Normandy, had decided to leave for the East, but they began questioning their purpose:

“We want to attack the enemies of God in the east after traveling great distances, while before our eyes are the Jews, of all races God’s greatest enemy.”


Pondering their options, the men took their weapons, captured many Jews, and killed them, adults and children alike, only sparing those who accepted conversion. Then they left for Jerusalem.

The Crusades fueled dozens and dozens of pogroms across Western Europe. In the late eleventh and early twelfth century, the pressure to convert was immense, and the risks of refusing to convert were even greater. A mid-twelfth-century Christian chronicler, Richard of Poitiers, acknowledged the great sufferings of the Jewish people at the outset of the early crusades, of which he underlined the unfairness. But the anti-Jewish sentiment in the Christian communities only grew stronger.

In the aftermath of the crusades, European Jews were at the center of rumours propelled by distrust and suspicion. In Blois, France, in 1171, Christians accused members of the Jewish community of having murdered Christian children during religious rituals. Called the “blood libel,” these accusations first appeared in England and were attested across Western Europe from the twelfth century to the modern era. In Blois, the blood libel accusations lead to the dramatic death of more than 30 members of the community. The survivors’ estates were confiscated. Ten years later, King Philippe Augustus expelled the Jews from the royal domain.


Institutionalized Stigma

Anti-Semitism received the Church’s support in the early thirteenth century at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). The council invited kings and rulers to force the Jews of their kingdoms to wear a distinctive symbol on their clothes or a specific hat that would make them immediately recognizable by Christians. In 1269, Louis IX of France made the symbols mandatory.

The thirteenth century also witnessed the forced segregation of Jews to specific areas. Traditionally, Jews lived together in neighbourhoods often nicknamed juiveries (Jewries). Paris counted four juiveries at that time. When Saint Louis made the distinctive symbols mandatory, he also forced the Jews to live in Jewries. Forced residence in Jewries signalled the birth of “ghettos,” neighbourhoods reserved for the Jewish population of a given town.

In the aftermath of the fourteenth-century plague, many Jewries were equipped with gates locked at night to prevent people from entering or exiting the district. Jewries started to turn into ghettos. The point of the ghettos, some rulers argued, was to protect the Jews from the violence Christians perpetrated against them. But ghettos also functioned as traps and participated in marginalizing the French Jewish communities.

Plague and Pogroms

The first decades of the fourteenth century were marked by an economic crisis and recurring food shortages. Anti-Semitism was on the rise again. In 1319 and 1321, Parisians – Christians – manifested their hatred toward Jews by publicly burning the Talmud. The plague signalled a new era of pogroms and violence against the Jews, who became the “scapegoats” of the crisis. The chronicler Jean de Venette witnessed and described the consequences of the plague for the Jews:


Some said that the pestilence was the result of infected air and water… and as a result of this idea, many began suddenly and passionately to accuse the Jews of infecting the wells, fouling the air, and generally being the source of the plague. Everyone rose up against them most cruelly. In Germany and elsewhere – wherever Jews lived – they were massacred and slaughtered by Christian crowds and many thousands were burned indiscriminately.

As Venette states, Christians accused the Jews of having poisoned wells to spread the disease. In Toulon, southern France, 40 Jews were killed by fire right after the epidemic started. In Strasbourg, northeastern France, in 1349, hundreds of Jews who lived in the city’s ghetto were locked up in a building by angry Christians and set on fire. Similar massacres happened in the pontifical city of Avignon, and in Narbonne, Carcassonne, and Toulouse, to cite but a few southern French examples. Pope Clement VI (1291–1352) issued a bull forbidding the killing of Jews, but to no avail. Distrust and hatred were so intense that the city of Strasbourg, in the Rhine valley, expelled all Jews from its jurisdiction and forbade them from entering the city. This law was only removed from the city’s policies during the French Revolution in the late 1780s.

In many ways, medieval anti-Judaism paved the way for modern anti-Semitism. From accusations of greed and avarice to the blood libel, from the wearing of distinctive symbols to mandatory residence in ghettos, the Middle Ages witnessed the development of a series of stereotypes and a system of repression that had repercussions far into the twentieth century and the modern day. But the Jewish communities of medieval France did not always live in fear. They enjoyed times of peace and independence and were, usually, relatively integrated into urban communities. Their role in the intellectual renaissance of the twelfth century is especially remarkable and well-marked in historiography.

Lucie Laumonier is an Affiliate assistant professor at Concordia University. Click here to view her page or follow her on Instagram at The French Medievalist.

Click here to read more from Lucie Laumonier

Further Readings:

Chazan, Robert. Medieval Jewry in Northern France: A Political and Social History. John Hopkins Press, 2019.

Chazan, Robert. The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom, 1000–1500. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Taitz, Emily. The Jews of Medieval France: The Community of Champagne. Greenwood Press, 1994.

Golb, Norman. The Jews in Medieval Normandy: A Social and Intellectual History. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine. Click here to learn more about it.

Top Image: A 13th-century depiction of St. Paul presenting the cross to a Jew. Alençon – BM – ms. 0054, fol. 347v. © Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes, CNRS.