Avignon is a quaint, ancient city in southern France, on the banks of the Rhone river. A rarity among European Jewish communities – Jews have lived there almost without interruption since Roman times.
Government of the city changed hands many times in the Middle ages. It was sometimes independently governed, sometimes ruled by the Muslims, by various French noble families, and by the Popes from the 14th century until the French revolution. These changes of government led to rarity in surviving documents. Archaeological digging in the city found a fourth century seal decorated with a five branched Menorah and other Jewish symbols and inscribed with the letters AVIN. In 390 CE Avignon’s Jews played a key role in a rebellion against the tyrant ruler Bishop Stephen.
Plenty of documentation survived on Avignon’s Jews from the late Middle ages. The Jewish quarter was in the old city center and was surrounded by a wall. 274 families lived inside it. The synagogue was across the road from the Pope’s palace (Popes and anti-Popes resided in Avignon throughout much of the 14th century). In a rare gesture, Pope Clement VI defended the Jews during the Black Death epidemic of 1348, when the mob blamed the Jews for the plague and wanted to burn them. Three Jews were not saved and were burnt by the Christian mob. The Avignon Popes’ doctors, bookbinders, tailors and tax collectors were all Jews. Jews controlled the industry of cloth making and dyeing, horse and cattle trading, timber trade, and sale of secondhand items.
The medieval community maintained a synagogue for men, a synagogue for women, a hospital for the sick, a Mikvah, a wedding hall, a butchery, and an oven for Passover. It also hired several functionaries, among whom a woman in charge of ‘translating’ the prayers for the women and leading them in prayer. The Jewish community was obliged to pay tithes to the Cathedral, and to support the Catholic College of St. peter.
Many Jewish scholars lived in Avignon. Most notable was Rabbi Levi Ben Gershom (Ralbag), commentator on Tanach, Astronomer, Philosopher, and one of the leading Medieval mathematicians. A lunar crater (“Rabbi Levi”) is named after him. Other well- known Avignon scholars include 12th century poet and writer Kalonymos ben Kalonymos. Cartographer Crescas Caslari (Yosef Halevi) also lived there, as did many other Jewish scholars.
A venture to establish a Hebrew printing house in Avignon was attempted ten years before Guttenberg established his printing shop in Mainz. A notary of Avignon recorded a contract dated March 1446 between a German goldsmith named Procopius Waldvogel and a Jew from Avignon named Davin de Caderousse. The contract stipulates that Waldvogel had been instructing Caderousse in the art of “Artificial Scribes” for two years. Waldvogel committed to provide Caderousse with several sets of 27 iron cast Hebrew letters and with all the wooden and metal machinery required to make a typeset and an imprint. In exchange, Caderousse committed to teach Walvogel the secret art of dyeing cloth (wool, silk, cotton) in various colors. He also committed not to copy Waldvogel’s secret art of printing. Apparently Caderousse reneged on his commitment, did not teach Waldvogel the secrets of dyeing cloth and a court ruling forced him to return all iron cast Hebrew letters and the printing and typesetting equipment to Waldvogel.
One can only wonder if the planned printing venture could have succeeded, and the first printed text might have been a Hebrew book instead of Guttenberg’s Latin Bible.
In 1493, following the expulsion of Spain’s Jews, many Sephardic families found refuge in Avignon, and the community doubled in size. Around that time the Jewish community of Avignon began acting as a bank, accepting deposits from wealthy Christians and paying them interest. This arrangement is unique in Jewish European history.
In the aftermath of the French revolution at the end of the 18th century, Avignon came under the rule of France. The community became more egalitarian, and governance passed from Oligarchy of the wealthy families to all members. Many of the city’s Jews migrated to other parts of France, and the community dwindled. In 1892 it numbered only 54 households. A fire in 1845 destroyed the old synagogue. A new circular shaped synagogue was built instead and is being used to this day.
In 1941, during WWII, 341 Jews resided in Avignon On April 17th, 1943, most of them were deported to Auschwitz and were murdered. The community was revitalized after WWII by immigration from north Africa. Today there are one thousand Jews living in Avignon.
Picture shows the 4th century seal found in Avignon with a five-branched Menorah.