Narbonne: A Lost Medieval Jewish Kingdom
by Nadine Epstein
Jewish kings reigned from the 8th to 14th century in southern France.
People are surprised when I mention that Narbonne, a small city in the Languedoc region of southern France just north of the Pyrenees and a few miles inland from the Mediterranean, was once home to a “Jewish kingdom” ruled by a dynasty that is said to be descended from King David. And why not? It’s not often one hears of Jewish kingdoms outside of ancient Israel.
Located on a plain that connects Europe to the Iberian Peninsula, Narbonne was an important city in the early centuries of the Common Era, fought over and controlled at various times by Romans, Visigoths and, from 719 to 759, the Saracens—as the Christians of that era called Muslims. Jews lived there in relative peace from at least the 5th century on, plying commercial trades and paying an annual tribute for protection. But when Pepin the Short, the Carolingian king, pushed the Muslims back over the Pyrenees, a fascinating new Jewish chapter began to unfold.
Many historical primary sources—Roman, Christian and Jewish—mention Narbonne. They often contradict each other, but all agree that Pepin gave Jews one-third of the city and the right to possess hereditary property, making it possible for Jews to build fortunes in real estate, manufacturing and industry. The reasons for this benevolence vary from text to text: One says Jews helped defeat the Saracens, another that a Jew rescued the king when he fell from his horse, and yet another that Jews had convinced the Saracens to accept tribute without harming the messenger. Some historians simply attribute Pepin’s move to smart strategy: A powerful Jewish community could facilitate trade worldwide and function as a political buffer between Christian and non-Christian lands to the south.
This was not all: The Frankish kings wanted a Jew of noble blood to rule its Jewish kingdom. (Again, there are differences as to why—a fight over succession in the Jewish community is one reason mentioned.) That man was Rabbi Makhir, a noted Babylonian scholar who was brought to Narbonne to establish a school of Talmudic studies. As the story goes, Makhir was a prince (in Hebrew, nasi) of Davidic descent and, as a member of the Jewish royal family, was eligible to hold the honorary position of exilarch—ruler of exiled Jews in Babylon. Upon his arrival in Narbonne, Makhir was ceded large territories outside the city that had been reconquered from the Muslims, and exempted from military service and royal taxes.
Makhir directed the affairs of the Jewish community and sired a dynasty. He and his descendants were not sovereign kings but rather rex Judaeorum—Latin for “king of the Jews,” says Norman Golb, professor emeritus of Jewish history and civilization at the University of Chicago. “Some scholars have always scoffed at this figure. But the historical sources are absolutely unambiguous about the presence in Narbonne of a rex Judaeorum.” While the Jewish kings did not rule over Christians, their subjects received preferential treatment. Not only could they have Christian servants, says Nina Caputo, professor of history at the University of Florida in Gainesville, they might have enjoyed privileges that Christians didn’t, such as the right to bear arms. At times, Christians were shocked and peeved by this “scandalous” behavior. “Have you heard of Agobard of Lyon?” asks Caputo. “He was a bishop and he got into a fight with King Louis the Pious [Charlemagne’s son] in the 9th century. Louis had given Jews incredible freedom of life and trade, and Agobard writes a letter of complaint saying that the Jews are getting more privileges than Christians and that the king is threatening Christendom.”
Narbonne at this time was a major power amongst a complex regional web of principalities. “It is right above the Pyrenees, right on the threshold of Christian authority,” says Caputo. “It is a site of important battles. It was an important trade site and political site.” Narbonne was also a locus of Talmudic learning: Rabbi Makhir and his descendants were famed for their ability to interpret Talmudic law and held spiritual sway over Jews throughout the region and beyond. Benjamin of Tudela, the great Jewish traveler of the Middle Ages, who passed through Narbonne on his way to the Orient in the 12th century, described Narbonne as “mistress of Hebraic law,” with Jews there of “the race of David” who possess “great goods” under the protection of the princes of the country.
These were volatile times, and Jews, like everyone else, could be subject to violence. There is a record of one such outbreak in 1236, precipitated by an altercation between a Jewish traveler and a local Christian, which sparked an uprising against the Jewish community. The viscount, Don Aymeric, quickly intervened and with the help of the city’s notables quieted the mob, returned all looted property and averted loss of life. One of the victims of the riot later instituted what is called the Purim of Narbonne to commemorate the rescue.
Eventually, it was the Jewish community’s prosperity that led to its demise. Narbonne’s viscounts benefited from Jewish taxes, and French kings, deeply in debt, began to eye Jewish property as a way of enriching their coffers. In 1306, King Philip the Fair confiscated Jewish property and expelled the Jews despite the efforts of local authorities to protect them. Some later paid to return, only to be expelled again a few years later for the same reason. After that, few came back.
A few decades later, the plague broke out in Narbonne, and a flood changed the course of the River Aude, preventing ships from reaching the city. Narbonne fell into decline and never recovered its preeminence. Although the descendants of Rabbi Makhir no longer ruled over a kingdom, they continued to marry into Europe’s noble families, both Jewish and Christian, spreading claim to Davidic descent. It is difficult to separate fact from legend, but some genealogies link Narbonne’s Jewish kings to the great monarchs of Europe, the founders of the Illuminati and even to King Arthur.
A Visit to Narbonne Today
When I first read of the medieval Jewish kings of Narbonne, I felt a powerful urge to visit their seat of power, even though I knew that the travails of the 14th and later centuries had left little to see. Still, there are remnants of Narbonne’s fascinating Jewish past in this lovely city of 53,000 in southern France.
When I visited, Christophe Cabrier—head of the guided tour department of Narbonne’s tourist office—took me first to the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, the town hall square. Located at the heart of the old city, it was known in medieval times as the caularia, or cabbage market, in Occitan, the local dialect. The caularia was a site of historic tensions between church and state. On one side towered the Archbishop’s Palace (now home to the city hall and museums of archeology and fine art), and on the other, the Tour Mauresque, the palace of the viscount (it’s been replaced by a 19th-century shopping center). Narrow stone streets, lined with homes, shops and cafes, veer off the square in several directions.
Clearly marked on old maps, the main Jewish section of Narbonne was a stone’s throw from the viscount’s palace. (A second smaller Jewish quarter under the protection of the Archbishop was located just beyond the walls of the city.) Cabrier led us through its streets. Many of the buildings date back to the Jewish era or are built upon old Jewish structures, he explained. All are privately owned, however, so digging for the past is nearly impossible.
The Jewish district had several synagogues, but all traces of them have vanished. Cabrier pointed to an area off the man street—Rue de l’Ancien Courrier—where the last major medieval one stood. He then brought us to No. 16, Rue de l’Ancien Courrier, where Rabbi Makhir, Narbonne’s first Jewish king, and his descendants lived from the about the 8th to 14th centuries. The house is not easy to see since it is nestled in a courtyard behind an entry arch blocked by a locked iron gate.
On the opposite bank of the Canal de la Robine, which flows through Narbonne in the former bed of the River Aude, is the town’s beautiful 1901 metal Baltard-style covered market. Around the corner is an old church, now home to the Musée Lapidaire. The museum holds most of Narbonne’s Roman bas reliefs and tombstones, which were cut up and reused to build new city walls after the Roman era. They stand on earthen floors in the alcoves and main sanctuary in jumbled and lonely grandeur. Although plans are afoot for a new museum, this is a magnificent way to present the stones. I loved walking among them as natural light streamed in through the church windows.
After a search, however, we failed to find the three remaining stones with Hebrew inscriptions; they had been relocated upstairs to a non-public area in anticipation of a future move. Most of Narbonne’s Jewish antiquities did not survive, Cabrier sadly remarked, and the Jewish cemetery, which was located outside the city walls, was demolished long ago.
After greedy French kings expelled the Jews and confiscated their property in the 13th and 14th centuries, Jews stayed away from Narbonne until the 1960s, Cabrier said, as we walked up the Rue Droit to a 15th-century almshouse built by the archbishop to distribute bread to the poor. The almshouse, at 6 Rue Droit, is now home to the city’s only Jewish congregation. The exterior is being reconstructed and the only clue to its use is a mezuzah embedded in the wood of the door frame. Later, before Shabbat services, I visited with some of the congregants, French-speaking Jews from Algeria who were among the 35 families—250 Jews—who immigrated to Narbonne.
Why did they choose to come to Narbonne? They were drawn here, I was told, by the agreeable climate of southern France and the city’s storied Jewish past. In particular, I learned, they were proud that their new hometown was once a center of great Jewish learning, ruled by Jewish kings.
The Marais District: Paris
I began my visit to Paris’s Marais district in the 13th-century Jewish quarter at the Museum of Jewish Art and History, located in the palatial Hotel de Saint-Aignan, a former private mansion at 71 Rue du Temple, built in 1650. In 1942, a group of Jews living there were deported to Nazi concentration camps, so the museum’s main collection is bookended by memorials to those who were sent to their deaths. In between is a celebration of Jewish life in France—indeed all of Europe—from the Middle Ages to the present, thematically organized by celebrations of the Jewish holidays and life cycles. There are many beautiful religious and cultural artifacts, but since I’m a history buff, I gravitated toward the original documents declaring Jews to be citizens of France and the large collection of Dreyfus memorabilia, only a small part of which is currently on display. Opened in 1998, the museum is supported not by private contributions, as it would be in the United States, but by the Parisian and French governments.
Afterward, I wandered the narrow streets of the Marais, once Seine River swampland and now a trendy, bustling part of modern-day Paris. Behind ornate iron gates are the former “hotels” of the wealthy, now converted for public and private use, surrounded by apartment buildings with gloriously large windows and high ceilings. Although Jews first lived there in the 13th century, the district’s reputation as a Jewish neighborhood was established in the 19th and 20th centuries, when Jewish life centered on the Rue de Rosiers.
I rendezvoused with Joelle Dautricourt, a Parisian artist who visited the Marais often as child in the company of her mother, a Jewish ballerina who survived the Holocaust in Paris. Dautricourt guided me through stone-paved streets to show me their favorite haunts. The baths they once went to are now a clothing boutique jammed with shoppers, although the sign “Hammam” still graces the front of the building. Their favorite restaurant, marked by a plaque, is also now a boutique. Still open for business is Dautricourt’s beloved Jewish bookstore, Librairie du Progress, at 23 Rue des Ecouffes, founded in 1904 and filled with books, records and collectibles. She was warmly greeted by the elderly proprietor, Berthe Nachman, the daughter of the original owners.
We peered into the windows of the other bookstores and Judaica shops, then slipped into the narrow—five meters wide—Orthodox synagogue at 10 Rue Pavée, lit by candelabras and exuding an air of old Europe. As we peeked into the sanctuary, the rabbi politely shooed us upstairs to the balcony. Later, we walked over to the Mémorial de la Shoah, at 17 Rue Geoffroy l’Asnier, to read the names on the wall of French citizens who had saved Jews.
I’ve left the delicious food for last. It was difficult to choose between the many restaurants on and off the Rue de Rosiers offering Jewish cuisine, be it traditional Eastern European, deli, falafel or couscous. There are Jewish bakeries, too, and plenty of non-Jewish eateries. Although I spotted a few men in Orthodox garb and a religious family with many children in tow, the restaurants were crowded with Parisians and tourists, happily speaking a multitude of languages. The Marais, now rightly known for its eclectic shops and cafés, was very much alive.