Rouen's Medieval Jewish Rabbinic Academy, Excavated in the 1970's, Remains Off-LimitsIn the summer of 1976, an early 12th-century building in Romanesque style was discovered beneath the courtyard of the Palace of Justice in Rouen, itself situated on the ancient Rue aux Juifs ("Street of the Jews") of that city. At first, only three sides of the building could be excavated, as the eastern wall supported the monumental staircase of the Palace. The cleaning of the exposed interior walls revealed numerous Hebrew graffiti, and because the building was in monumental style and facing onto the northern side of the Street of the Jews, it was inferred by local archaeologists that the building was a medieval synagogue. This affirmation was published in a lengthy article appearing in the daily Paris Normandie (September 2, 1976). Shortly thereafter Prof. Norman Golb of the University of Chicago, who had earlier in 1976 published a scholarly monograph on the history and culture of the Jews of medieval Rouen based on manuscript sources, was asked by those investigating the site to examine it and to comment on the proposed identification.
His statement (Paris-Normandie, September 17, 1976), was to the effect that the authentic monumental synagogue of medieval Rouen was located, according to still-preserved plans and documents, not on the north but rather on the south side of the Street of the Jews, near the corner of the Rue Massacre -- i.e., approximately 75 meters west of the newly discovered building. Golb indicated that the newly discovered building was located approximately where an ancient document, studied only once by a single scholar many decades ago, had indicated the presence of an edifice known as the "School of the Jews."
Theoretical Reconstruction of the School of the Jews, from The Jews in Medieval Normandy, Norman Golb.
The identification of the building as the higher school of Talmudic studies, or yeshiva, of the Jews of medieval Normandy was subsequently urged by Golb in a report to the official representative in Rouen of the French Ministry of Culture. Golb emphasized that no other such academic building of the Jews of medieval Europe had ever been identified, and he emphasized the need to excavate the still-uncovered eastern wall of the building in order to determine whether or not the building contained a semicircular apse-characteristic of medieval European synagogues-on that wall. In October 1976, the Rouennaise representative, M. François Bourguignon, forwarded this report to the Minister of Culture in Paris, requesting that authorization be granted for a continuation of the dig and funds established to insure the "presentation of this unique edifice [to the public]".
The excavation of the eastern wall was authorized and undertaken during the winter of 1977, recognizing that the appearance of a niche or apse on the eastern wall was a crucial factor with respect to its theorized identification as a synagogue. By April, 1977, enough of the wall had been revealed to make clear that it did not contain an apse, and it became clear, too, that other architectural features of the building were not consistent with medieval rabbinical rules operative in northwestern Europe regarding synagogue construction. The entrance was not on "the wall opposite the apse" as prescribed in rabbinical sources, but rather on the southern side of the building, while the "large windows" also ordained by those sources were absent. These features (including an apse) were by contrast clearly defined in the plans of the authentic medieval synagogue located on the southern side of the Rue aux Juifs, which in addition-also according to the extant plans-had been constructed in the form of a tower, likewise in accordance with rabbinical rules regarding synagogue construction.
Although the excavation of the eastern wall of the Romanesque monument discovered in 1976 virtually eliminated the possibility that the building had served as a synagogue, no further definitive progress was made toward the positive identification of the monument until the winter of 1985. At that time, M. Lucien Delsalle of Rouen pointed out (Etudes Normandes 34, no. 1, pp. 81-84) that, already in 1924, Lucien Vallin had brought to light a second document concerning the "School of the Jews" which indeed gave a precise location to the building (Le Roule des plès de Héritage de la mairie Jehan Muste1, pp. 99-101). This document, inscribed on 28 September 1363-i.e., fifty-seven years after the expulsion of the Jews from Normandy and royal France by Philip the Fair-contains the record of efforts made by the municipality of Rouen to collect rents and fees on "certain hereditary holdings" situated in the "parish of St-Lô of Rouen," on one side of which property was located "the pavement" and on the other "the School of the Jews" (lescole as juys).
Since it is known from the document of 1363 that the School was situated on the northern rather than the southern side of the Street of the Jews, the only street that may legitimately be identified with the "pavement" of the latter document is the one now known as the Rue Boudin, the street bordering the Palace of Justice on its eastern side. Thus, by virtue of the documentary evidence now available, the monument in question cannot legitimately bear any other name than The School of the Jews of Medieval Rouen. It is, until today, the only monument evoking the intellectual life of the Jews of medieval Europe that has ever been discovered, and as such merits a proud and sympathetic presentation by France to the world at large.
The editor thanks Prof. Gold for his assistance in preparing this article.
reading on the Jews of Medieval Rouen and the School of the Jews see The
Jews of Medieval Normandy: A Social and Intellectual History by Norman
Golb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 621 pp. ISBN 0 521 58032
3). The book is the first comprehensive account of the high Hebraic culture
developed by the Jews of Normandy during the Middle Ages, and in particular
the Anglo-Norman period. Of special note are for JHR readers are chapters
2 (which traces Jewish settlement patterns using historic and existing
place names), and 4 (which describes and analyses the Jewish Quarter of
Rouen including the synagogue and the School of the Jews based on a variety
of methods and sources.
Present Status of the "Exposition Permanente" on the History and Culture of the Jews of Mediaeval Normandy by Norman Golb
The EXPOSITION PERMANENTE project was first proposed by me to Mayor Jean Lecanuet of Rouen, in a letter of May 22nd 1985 responding to the mayor's request for help developing tourism to Rouen (his letter to me of 4 February 1985). I further discussed the project with M. Lecanuet and other municipal officials in Rouen late in 1985 and in 1986. In May 1987, I was asked by them to prepare a text, with accompanying illustrations, for the project. I developed the plan in full detail and in September of 1987 sent it, together with sixty color slides and other illustrated material, to M. Roger Parment in his capacity as Deputy of the Mayor for Cultural Affairs. Subsequently announced to the public in 1989, the Exposition was to include the following themes:I. Origins of the Normannic JewryII. Jewish Communal Life in Medieval NormandyIII. The Streets of the Jews of Normandy, and Spread of its Jewish PopulationIV. Significance of the Emplacement of the Various Streets of the Jews of Normandy, and Classification of the Streets by TypeV. Rouen, Principal City of Medieval Normandy, and its Earlier Name: Development of Ancient Rothomagus to Rothom and RodomVI. Major Dated Events in the Socio-Political History of the Jews of Medieval RouenVII. The Street of the Jews, the Jewish Quarter, and the Cemetery of the Jews of Medieval RouenVIII. The Monumental Synagogue of Medieval RouenIX. The Mansion of Bonnevie the Jew and Other EdificesX. The School of the JewsXI. The Hebraic Scholars of Medieval Rouen in the 12th and 13th Centuries and their Contributions to Biblical and Rabbinic Studies.Assurances were given to me, as well as to the public, that the Exposition would be introduced into the crypt holding the School of the Jews and maintained there permanently. By 1990, however, neither project developed. Discussions, however, were held, and a well-known film designer was engaged to transform the submitted material into a permanent exposition. Also at issue was the assurance of protection from the humidity of the underground space housing the monument by suitable air-tight casings.
A local committee was set up in Rouen to further this undertaking, but by 1990 several individuals in the city unattached to the municipal government had begun an effort to delay the initiative, citing in particular the monument's "fragile" condition and undesirable state of humidity. This effort was abetted by the publication, in the same year, of the catalogue accompanying an archaeological exhibition at Rouen's Museum of Antiquities entitled "De la Gaulle à la Normandie." In this work of 285 pages, the descriptions of archaeological findings were accompanied by bibliographical lists of publications pertinent to them, but bibliographies had been excluded from the descriptions of the medieval Jewish buildings of the Rue aux Juifs! As if in response to this turn of events, Mayor Lecanuet secured the approval of the Municipal Council late in 1991 to place new street signs in the Rue aux Juifs signaling "l'important quartier juif de Rouen" in the Middle Ages.By this time, regrettably, Roger Parment had passed away, and in 1992 Mayor Lecanuet also died. The ensuing period of instability in the municipal government did not help the monuments of the Rue aux Juifs, and the Exposition Permanente project was put on further hold. The individuals who had been attempting to downgrade its importance were emboldened, and by 1994 a new tourist map of Rouen was published by the Office de Tourisme. This map eliminated all reference to these monuments! The local committee charged with putting the Exposition Permanente into effect was reorganized, and any of its members favoring the original project was removed. While the new Deputy for Cultural Affairs was still assuring correspondents in 1993 and 1994 that an Exposition Permanente would be installed within the crypt, the original program for the exhibit had been set aside and another one, made by the new committee, was circulated. Most of the description of Normannic Jewish society and its related Hebraic culture that lay at the heart of the original Exposition plan was removed from the new one. Instead, the new plan concentrated on archaeological descriptions of the monuments in the Rue aux Juifs of Rouen, interlaced with the general history of Rouen and raising questions as to the identity of each of the buildings. In addition, the several plans and descriptions of the authentic medieval synagogue of Rouen, located on the southern side of the Rue aux Juifs, were treated as being of dubious authenticity.
Also by 1994, however, a chief architect in the bureau of Historic Monuments of France, M. Moufle, had finished his study of the School of the Jews. His report proposed ways of treating the problem of humidity and conserving the building. This report was submitted and approved by the appropriate authorities. For reasons that were never made clear, these recommendations were never acted upon, and the Exposition Permanente project (now downgraded to an exhibit focusing on the archaeology of what had once been the Jewish quarter of Rouen) became a temporary one, introduced for a small number of days each year into the crypt. The School of the Jews became a neglected historic monument of France, increasingly ignored by the local authorities, and open only on rare occasions. Finally, the technical neglect of the building-despite M. Moufle's report and recommendations by those responsible for the historic monuments in the Seine-Maritime department-led to the complete closure in 1998,of the most important surviving monument of medieval Jews in France.
Yet coincidentally with the closure of the monument, an interview with me appeared in Le Monde (10 July 1998), focusing upon my recently published The Jews in Medieval Normandy (Cambridge, 1998) and emphasizing the apparently growing reluctance of parties in Rouen to either protect the building or permit a serious permanent exposition within the crypt (or its precincts) on the history and culture of the Jews of medieval Rouen and Normandy. The increasing public concern eventually resulted in a letter by the distinguished Parisian attorney Serge Klarsfeld addressed to the Socialist mayor of Rouen, Yvon Robert, in which questions were raised about the puzzling developments. The response of Mayor Robert was to put responsibility for an Exposition and for the protection of the building upon the Ministries of Justice and Culture, working in conjunction with the Service Régionale des Affaires Culturels and Rouen's Office de Tourisme. The implication of the letter was that, if an Exposition Permanente were ever to be installed within the crypt housing the monument, it would not be one whose primary focus was the history of the Jewish society of medieval Rouen and Normandy or the Hebraic culture developed there during the Middle Ages.
Thus it is that,
a quarter of a century after the momentous discovery of the School of the
Jews-a building unique in the world and whose unearthing was hailed by
the international press-the outcome of the struggle over the effort to
portray its significance to the public at large remains uncertain.
International Survey of Jewish Monuments
c/o Jewish Heritage Research Center
Box 210, 118 Julian Pl.
Syracuse, New York 13210-3419, USA
tel: (315) 474-2350
fax: (315) 474-2347