French Jewish Genealogy - Ancien régime Geography Is Important
11 September 2022
When researching Jewish genealogy before the French Revolution, the reach back into the past is long, well into the Medieval era. Borders were different then and France looked quite different, not at all like the "Hexagon" (above) of today. Prior to the final expulsion of 1394, Jewish people were permitted to live only in specific places. These might have been certain towns, within which they may have been limited to just a few streets for residence and work. They endured long years of persecution and previous expulsions, but lived throughout France. It is important to note that, in 1394, the country looked more like this:
Quite a bit less than modern France:
This makes the map below, claiming to show French Jewish communities at the time of the expulsion, quite misleading, as a significant few of those supposedly French Jewish communities were not within the France of that day.
The expulsion, in all its horror, was successful, in that no known Jewish families remained in what was then France. However, their communities just outside of France did survive, as can be seen in this map.
If you are working with only a modern map of France, you will have the impression that the three main areas of Jewish communities:
- The Southwest
- The Papal States and Provence
survived the expulsion within France. That would be wrong, because they were not within France at the time of the expulsion and so, if this is not putting too fine a point on it, were Jewish, of course, but not French. The areas in black in the map just above were controlled by other powers:
- By the English in the far northwest and the southwest region of Aquitaine
- A tiny bit in the south belonged to the Kingdom of Navarre
- The Holy Roman Empire held the northeast
- Free Burgundy, Savoy and the Papal States owned all the rest of what is now eastern France
Paris, as ever, was a special case. Though no Jewish people were supposed to be living there, most likely they were. Robert Anchell, in his fascinating article on "The Early History of the Jewish Quarters in Paris", maintains that it is unlikely that Jewish people were ever, at any time since the Medieval Era, absent from Paris. He points out that they certainly must have been very discrete, for there is almost no documentation of Jewish people in Paris for nearly 300 years after the expulsion.
For research purposes, in each of the three main regions of Jewish communities there were different laws, rules, languages, customs and attitudes, making for different search methodologies today. Firstly, the language differences:
- The Southwest received many refugees from the expulsion of Jewish people from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, so many of the surviving documents of the region are in Spanish
- Alsace was part of the Holy Roman Empire for eight hundred years, while Lorraine was an independent duchy that was then governed by Stanislas of Poland. In both regions, the documentation is as much in German and Latin as in French.
- The Papal States or Comtat Venaissin, did not become a part of France until 1791, but Provence was annexed in 1481. The documentation can be in French or Latin
In all locations Jewish documents may also be in Hebrew.
For each of these regions, some of the best research may be done at the relevant Departmental and Municipal Archives. Some of these have been uploading onto their websites some very interesting Jewish materials. These are the departmental and municipal archives relevant to the specific regions:
- Departmental Archives: Landes, Gironde, Pyrénées Atlantiques
- Municipal Archives: Bayonne, Bordeaux
- Departmental Archives: Moselle, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Meuse, Vosges
- Municipal Archives: Metz, Nancy
- Departmental Archives: Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin
- Municipal Archives: Strasbourg, Mulhouse, Colmar
- Papal States / Comtat Venaissin:
- Departmental Archives: Vaucluse
- Municipal Archives: Nîmes
Do visit those websites and start exploring!
©2022 Anne Morddel