Commentary Magazine


The King, the Bishop, and the Jew:
A 6th-Century Disputation; Scene: A Hunting Lodge Near Paris

Jews lived in France before any Frank set foot there, and not they, but the Merovingian monarchs were the interlopers during the Dark Ages. Half-barbarous though it may have been, the Western Europe of that time was more tolerant than is generally appreciated, and the Jews as well as other minorities enjoyed a large amount of religious and social freedom by comparison with what they were to know in the Middle Ages proper, after the 10th century. This, and other things, are shown in this fascinating glimpse into a shadowy past that Allan Temko opens up for us. 

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This is a scene of the Dark Ages: when Rome had fallen for more than a century, and the rich province of Gaul was once again a wilderness ruled by wild Frankish tyrants; when all France was a battlefield and its cities were desolate; when no man was safe, but the Jew was as insecure as any. As a point in history, it is as much the beginning of modern times as the end of the classical world. For the Jew, the vast legal calm of Rome had forever disappeared; and, like the Roman, living in the midst of barbarism he became half-barbarous himself.

Sometime in the year 581 a curious religious argument took place at the royal hunting lodge of the Merovingian kings near Nogent, on the Marne, roughly ten miles east of Paris. On one side of the controversy were two of the most important figures in Europe: King Chilperic the First, a grandson of the conqueror Clovis, and ruler of the sprawling western realm of Neustria; and, assisting the king, Georgius Florentius Gregorius—Bishop Gregory of Tours—last of the great Gallo-Roman patricians, and, in these final years of the 6th century, the leading churchman in France. Their antagonist was one Priscus, a Jew, purveyor of gems and precious stuffs to the royal household.

The argument arose unexpectedly as Chilperic was about to return to his permanent winter residence in Paris. The King had grown weary of chasing boar and had commanded that his baggage be made ready for an immediate departure. Bishop Gregory, who was a guest at the country lodge, had come to bid farewell to the monarch at the same time that Priscus also arrived to say goodbye. Chilperic, a good-hearted blond giant who was nevertheless capable at times of enormous cruelties, was taken by a humorous impulse when he saw the famous prelate and the Jew together. Playfully he held Priscus by the hair and invited Gregory to impose a Christian benediction on the unbeliever: “Come, Bishop, and place your hands upon him.” Priscus, according to Gregory’s own account of the episode, resisted; and the King’s humor suddenly darkened.

O mens dura et generatio semper incredula !” he cried. “O stubborn spirit and forever unbelieving race, which does not understand the Son of God promised to it by the voice of its prophets!”

One would think that in a time when lèse-majesté carried the most severe penalties, such as loss of feet and hands, Priscus would have been silent, or at least replied prudently after this regal outburst. Instead, he spoke up defiantly.

“God,” said the Jew to his king, “does not need to share Himself. He does not enrich Himself through posterity, nor divide His power with others.” And to support his contention Priscus repeated the awesome words of Moses in Deuteronomy: “See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god with Me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal.”

Chilperic, evidently speaking to the Jew on even terms, answered with counter-references to the Scriptures, but Priscus was unconvinced. “Can God,” he demanded, “be made a man, be born of woman, be struck with rods, and condemned to death?”

Here Chilperic, who in other parts of Gregory’s Historia Francorum had not hesitated to debate difficult theological subjects even with the Bishop, appears to have been stopped by the Jew’s reasoning. The King did not reply, and Gregory took his place in the argument.

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What followed was a mixture of sermon and polemic. Gregory called upon all his late-Latin eloquence and Biblical erudition to refute Priscus. With some satisfaction he told the Jew that he would not take his evidence for Christ’s divinity from the New Testament, “but from books you approve, in order to pierce you with your own sword . . . as David killed Goliath.” And so the Bishop ranged through the Old Testament, drawing heavily on the Psalms and Isaiah and even Genesis. Once, forgetting his plan to ignore the Evangelists, he delivered a telling quotation from Saint Matthew. Again, he cited a passage that no scholar has since been able to find in the Vulgate. Just twice did Priscus interrupt the torrent of proof, each time with a brief question that seemed designed only to prompt new and more effective demonstrations by Gregory.

It was an old technique, and one that is not dead yet. As a propaganda device, edited carefully after the fact, it remained a favorite throughout the Middle Ages. The incredulity of the Jew is employed as an exotic foil to set off the Christian spokesman’s brilliance, as in the opposition of gems in a Merovingian brooch: the more stubborn the Jew’s resistance, the more absolute his eventual conversion or defeat. It is the age-old debate of the Church and the Synagogue, a tradition that goes back to Tertullian, or earlier.

This dialectic, with its theatrical possibilities, was as adaptable to the plastic arts as to the written word, and six hundred years after Gregory and Priscus, in the great Gothic moment of the Middle Ages, it was to receive a monumental expression in the image of two lordly rival queens dominating the façade of a cathedral. But in the 6th century, men scarcely knew how to carve in bas-relief, much less free-standing sculpture, and could not attempt ikons on so grand a scale. They were content to scratch crude scenes of violence on stucco or burnt clay, and depicted a misshapen Christ, armed with a crozier, trampling a serpent and an overturned menorah.

The dialogue of Priscus and Gregory, then, will tell us much more about medieval Christian theology than about Jewish reasoning, but it contains one anomaly which must not be overlooked: in this case the 6th-century Jew, with his “mens dura,” was not defeated. “We told him these and many other things,” relates Gregory of Tours, “but we could not lead this miserable creature to believe.” Finally, Priscus was silent, he refused to answer further. Chilperic, seeing the discussion ended, requested the Bishop’s blessing, which was given; and then the King mounted his great battlehorse and rode back to Paris with Queen Fredegond and all their savage Frankish retinue, through the uncut forest and along the banks of the Marne and the Seine.

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The paris that Chilperic and Priscus knew could not be recognized as the ancestor of the modern baroque capital. It was a violent and battered town of ten or at the most fifteen thousand souls, cramped within the walled island and the tiny faubourg on the Left Bank: a Paris that has vanished as completely as its superb contemporaries in Asia which have since been covered with sand. Of this lost Paris nothing is standing today except the ruins of the Thermae, the wrecked Roman palace that is a part of the Cluny Museum. All else has been buried, or destroyed. We can reconstruct the Merovingian city only from the debris of other monuments, the shape of streets in the oldest quarters, and the conjecture of archaeologists; and even so, we have precious little that reveals the vivid but desperately uncertain lives of the inhabitants.

In the Dark Ages the main southern road into Paris, as it had been under the Empire, was the solid highway built north from Orleans by the Roman legions. For the last thousand years, as part of the vast medieval pilgrimage route to the shrine of Saint James in Spain, it has been called the Rue St. Jacques, but its outline has not changed much since the days of the earliest and most pagan Caesars. Today the street has lost some of its interest and all of its Roman splendor, but it still provides one of the most agreeable promenades in the world, strolling down the hill of Saint Genevieve, through the Latin Quarter, on a sunny autumn day.

If, as Priscus did, we were to walk down the Roman road into the town, past the Thermae and its gardens, we would come to the spot on which the fine late Gothic church of Saint Severin now stands, with its fascinating neighborhood which Elliot Paul has sentimentalized. Here we stop. On these ancient streets and alleys, pressed against the southern bank of the Seine, the earliest Jewish quarter of Paris developed. Probably Jews had first lived here under the Romans, when, as traders, they naturally wished to be close to the river port. By Priscus’s time the community had already expanded so that it crossed the Seine on the Petit Pont, which was then covered with shops and dwellings, and spread into the fortified Cité. On the island the Jews settled on either side of the main north-south route, between the two bridges, and adjacent to the cathedral plaza where they sold fabulous merchandise from Asia. Here they remained for most of the Middle Ages, so that the street became known as the Juiverie.

Not very large, this primitive Jewish community. Today we can walk about its circumference in a quarter of an hour. Perhaps it contained five hundred members; we have no way of knowing exactly. But one fact is certain: the Jews formed a small minority in the midst of a hostile Christian population, and suffered for their weakness. A host of social prohibitions were directed against them, which, if strictly enforced, would have reduced them to a pariah level. Economically, the Jew found it almost impossible to earn his living elsewhere than in the market place.

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Commerce and the arts today seem hopelessly at odds, but in the 6th century they were inseparable. Rarely have merchants sold so much that was so lovely, and in many ways the story of Priscus, the most famous of these art dealers, is the story of all of them. They traded and manufactured on a local, national, and international scale, in days when a good breeze carried a sailing vessel across the Mediterranean in ten days. As often as not, the Jew in Paris was then literally a stranger, fresh from the Syrian East, a maritime trader like the antique Phoenicians, who bartered spices and gems with the barbarous West in exchange for slaves and furs. He traveled from city to city in protected convoys, lodging at synagogues as Christians stayed at monasteries, and he carried his exotic manners with him: his rich dress, his Greek speech, a half-Asiatic voluptuousness that caused the West to imagine him congenitally lewd. The Parisians would call him, almost as a term of respect, a Syrian, as they called all Easterners. But if he remained in Paris, and became part of the polyglot population, speaking its barbarous Latin and sharing its rough habits, wearing a leather cloak like a Frank and arming himself with a sword, he was called a Jew, and as such infinitely more vulnerable to the uncertainties of Merovingian life.

Priscus was one who stayed. His Latin name suggests that he may even have been a survivor of the Gallo-Roman Jewish community which was cruelly treated during the invasions. In any case, Priscus was thoroughly French, and a permanent resident of Paris when we discover him in Gregory’s Historia arguing with his king. Doubtless, besides catering to the court, he traded gold and jewels in the market square before the cathedral, which was six hundred years away from Notre Dame as an expression of religion, and might have been six thousand away as architecture. It was a poorly constructed basilica, not yet dedicated to the Virgin, but to Saint Stephen, and its essential plainness was concealed by brilliant decoration: mosaics, frescoes, expensive cloths, ivory, silver, and· colored marble. Probably the synagogue, which could not have stood far away, was a smaller and less elaborate basilica of the same type, for a Jewish temple dared not rival a nearby church, else it might be seized and converted to the worship of Christ.

We can scarcely imagine the splendor, however, of the bazaar on the cathedral plaza. From all the great trading centers of Asia Minor: from Antioch, Beirut, and Constantinople, from the valley of the Euphrates; and farther still, from Buddhist India and perhaps even the remote T’ang Empire of the Chinese, all the mercantile Near Eastern peoples—Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, as well as Jews—brought treasure to it. To try to recapture its magnificent energy, we must visit the crowded sheds of Place Maubert any Saturday morning, and imagine precious stones being weighed: rubies, garnets, pearls, and sapphires, instead of humble radishes and carrots. In Priscus’s market place there was the same tight bargaining—haggling, if you wish; the same loud cries of the hawkers; the same thrifty faces of the poor; identically delightful children underfoot; the same uniquely Parisian excitement in a rainstorm.

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The story of the debate with Chilperic and Gregory, and another short passage in Gregory’s Historia Francorum, provide all the biographical information that we have on Priscus. We learn that the Jew’s hair was long enough for Chilperic to grasp, that in the year 582 he had a son of marriageable age, and that he sold species to the King to earn his livelihood. This term could mean, in the variable Latin of the earliest Middle Ages, gold alone, but it could also indicate a variety of precious metals, gems, and lovely cloths. Probably Gregory had the larger sense of the word in mind. The 6th century cared little for narrow definitions. Its wide skirmishing wars, its unwritten social institutions, its half-rural cities and anarchic countryside broaden through the mist of ages, and blur.

There is some evidence, however, that Priscus at least began his career specifically as a goldsmith, a profession that then included the minting, but not necessarily the banking and lending, of money. In the marvelous collection of the Cabinet des Medailles, at the Bibliothèque Nationale, there is a small gold coin, perhaps three-eighths of an inch across, which experts say was cast at Chalon-sur-Saône about the year 555, a quarter of a century before we find Priscus at Chilperic’s court. The coin, worth a third of a solidus—eventually shortened to sou—bears the names of its minters: Priscus and Domnolus. The first may be our man.

Now Priscus is a common enough Latin name, and during this period was borne by Christians as well as Jews. In fact, in the year 555, the Bishop of Lyons was also named Priscus, and Gregory of Tours speaks so harshly of him that we are led to think he may well have neglected his episcopal duties to enter the gold business. Yet it is unlikely that an important prelate would have associated himself with a second person in minting coins, especially with a commoner. Exactly who Domnolus was we do not know, and probably shall never have more information than the fact that he struck other coins than the one on which his name appears with that of Priscus. There is little chance that he was a noble, or a churchman, else he should be mentioned in documents. On the whole he would seem to have been a simple artisan, and a good partner for the young Priscus starting in business.

Today Chalon-sur-Saône is a railway town, on the main line between Dijon and Macon, whose chief interest lies in its proximity to the gorgeous medieval village of Tournus. But in Roman and Merovingian times Chalon was a great city, and the seat of a provincial court. Here, if only for part of the year in 555, would come Chilperic’s father, King Clotaire, who ruled over a vast kingdom that was fragmented by his sons, and who was lord of Burgundy as well as France. We know that at least one other Jew, Phatir, whom we shall meet again before the tale of Priscus is ended, left Burgundy to serve Chilperic at Paris after the break-up of Clotaire’s kingdom. It is possible that Priscus did the same.

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So much for facts. Now let us examine the coin, and speculate to our heart’s desire. No gold has quite the mystic yellow color of the pure French mineral of the Dark Ages. It shines on museum velvet with a strange, weary force; and we are frightened, and inexplicably drawn, by its disturbing attraction: the deep pull of its yellow beauty.

The coin of Priscus radiates this power, and for all that it is gross to the point of vulgarity in its manufacture. On its face the names of the minters form a circular border for a portrait of a heavy-jawed despot; and although he wears the imperial diadem of Rome, with its cluster of starry diamonds, we see at a glance that he is a Merovingian king. Aside from the rough linear abstraction of his hair, which sprouts from under his tiara, the upper portion of his face is revealed only in a bold profile of nose and forehead, and a single striking eye that would do credit to the modern surrealists. Below, we have a pair of coarse lips, the fleshy line of the jowl, and no more, except the collar of a royal gown whose embroidery is the one touch of refinement in the entire image. If this is not King Clotaire before us, it could be Chilperic his son, or Clovis his father. For this is the barbarian face of three hundred years of tribal violence, senseless warfare that would not cease until Charlemagne (and then only temporarily). But beyond the overriding presence of barbarism, the coin of Priscus and Domnolus will tell us nothing, not even of the men who cast it. For this we must turn back again from Chalon to Paris.

The stalls of the gold merchants have vanished, but happily a few of their wares—all too few!—have survived the immense sweep of time: the fourteen hundred years that separate us from an age that cared for nothing so much as bright ornament. In the Cabinet des Medailles they glimmer with a calm radiance: the perfect fatigue of great age The violence, the coarse avarice, the cruel amusements of the Merovingians are forgotten, and we have only the pale, weary splendor of the gold. But when the afternoon sun lights the jewelry of these brooches and chalices and decorated swords, they dazzle us yet. The rubies blaze, and the emeralds slowly burn with their green heat. The crystal disks of the cup of Khosru shine like hot prisms: green, white, scarlet; with the terrible Persian despot dancing in the center. And the lovely Gourdon chalice on its mysterious dish of Burgundian gold, encrusted with heart-shaped turquoises and bordered with a garnet cloisonné! Priscus might have fashioned it in his workshop.

But at Bordeaux, in the Chasteigner collection, there is a treasure that will move us as even the glories of Paris cannot. It is a finger ring, again of the same pure Merovingian gold, that workmen found in a street excavation a century ago, and which is the one piece of unquestionably Jewish art that the entire Dark Ages has left us in Western Europe. On the seal is an intricate anagram that might have been impossible to decipher had it not been spelled out in Roman letters on the circular mounting: ASTER—Esther. The name alone is an immediate clue, but on each rising side of the ring there is an unmistakable symbol: the menorah. Nothing in all French art is more poignant than this ordinary ring and the superb and lonely name it bears.

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A few months after the battle of words at Nogent, early in 582, King Chilperic was moved by another of his large impulses. Acting in the name of the Church, he ordered the baptism of the Jews of Paris. Most of these unfortunates, remembering a violent mob action in Clermont a few years before, which led to forced conversion of “more than five hundred” and destruction of a synagogue, obeyed the King’s edict without a protest. Chilperic himself stood as godfather for a number of them, and we have the strange scene of the mustachioed tyrant lifting Jews bodily to immerse them in a great stone bowl of water, while Bishop Ragnemodus of Paris added his blessing. Gregory of Tours, who watched this procedure with misgivings, remarks laconically that although the holy water may have washed the bodies of the Jews, it did little for their hearts. “Liars toward God,” Gregory calls them, “who returned to their previous disbelief by simultaneously observing their Sabbath and honoring the day of the Lord.” To stop this practice, Chilperic closed their synagogue.

But no argument, relates Gregory, could persuade Priscus to recognize the truth. Apparently he defied the King again, for Chilperic had him thrown in prison, so that “if he did not agree to believe voluntarily, he would be made to believe in spite of himself.” This prison was almost certainly the carcere Glaucini, where according to legend Saint Denis had been tormented during a persecution of Christians three centuries earlier. The jail, whose ruins were not demolished until the French Revolution, stood on the northern side of the island, near the present Pont au Change and the flower market. It had been exceedingly unpleasant under the Romans, and under the Franks must have been grimmer yet, but Priscus did not remain there long.

Somewhere in his store of treasure he found presents that Chilperic could not resist, and the King released him after Priscus made a promise that smacks of the Arabian Nights: he would become a Christian, Priscus pledged, as soon as he had seen his son married to a Jewess of Marseilles. We can only guess the length of time that Priscus required to complete the wedding arrangements. Travel in France was hazardous throughout the Dark Ages; it could be intolerably slow on occasion. During the delay, a quarrel arose between Priscus and Phatir, a Jew we met long ago in Burgundy, who was now one of Chilperic’s new godsons.

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Whatever its cause, the quarrel was bitter. Its end was typically Merovingian.

One Saturday morning Priscus left home, “without any iron in his hand” and dressed in his prayer shawl, to attend services in a clandestine temple that was probably a private dwelling. He was accompanied by several men of his household, apparently also unarmed. Suddenly, they were ambushed in the street by Phatir and his servants, who cut them down without pity. Then, panicking, the murderers fled to the church of Saint Julien le Pauvre for asylum.

This was not the Saint Julien which stands on the identical emplacement in a charming park on the Left Bank today, and which dates only from 1170, but the primitive basilica that preceded it, a tiny pilgrims’ church where Gregory of Tours stayed when he visited Paris. It was only a few hundred yards to the royal palace, and the news quickly reached Chilperic, who commanded that the killers be taken from the church by force and executed. A mob quickly collected and marched to lynch them.

Somehow Phatir escaped. His henchmen were not so lucky. Rather than face the shouting throng of Parisians, they selected one of their number to kill them all, a phenomenon that occurred several times during this period. Successively, he stabbed each of them to death with his sword, and then, instead of finishing himself, appeared at the door of the church with his bloodstained blade. The mob, writes Gregory of Tours, killed him “cruelly.”

In the meantime Phatir had made his way to the palace, and in some way—again, we think immediately of sumptuous presents—persuaded Chilperic to pardon him and allow him to return to King Gonthramn’s realm of Burgundy. But a few days later he was found and killed by relatives of Priscus, and there the story ends.

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