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The Use and Validity of Jewish Seals in French-Speaking Areas

Our knowledge concerning medieval documents sealed by Jews in the royal domain of France is weak. The writer has not encountered any definitive work dealing with Île-de-France, the traditional heart of France, containing the city of Paris. Such studies that do exist are a product of Christian research; no Jewish scholars seem to have penetrated deeply into the archives of northern France in search of this information, as they have done for England and Germany.* Lacking documentary evidence, we are not in a position to state whether there were any Jewish personal seals before the 1182 expulsion or whether, if they did exist, they had legal validity and to what degree. We cannot even state that the Jewish personal seals known from northern France were attached to documents dealing with legal matters requiring seals, as distinct from those concerning private affairs.

It would appear logical to suppose that Jews had personal seals in Champagne, where the annual fairs in the eleventh and twelfth centuries were such an important element in western European economic life. There are records of business activity in this period involving Jews from Champagne, whose rabbinical fame, indeed, was at least partly the result of their elevated economic status. In fact, the first two Ashkenazi synods or rabbinical conventions were held at Troyes, one around 1150 and the next after 1160, a site doubtless chosen because of the importance of these fairs. No mention is made in the records, however, of Jewish seals.

The duchy of Burgundy, which was farther removed from the mandate of the royal house than was Champagne, seems to have permitted the use of personal Jewish seals after 1200 in certain isolated cases. One factor may have been that some of the richest Jews lived in Burgundy during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Two Jews from Dôle, Menesier (Manasseh) and Moiroudi (see Nos. 30 and 31), sealed a document in 1276; in 1286 Beniet (or Beniot), also from Dôle, did likewise (see No. 32). The other extant document sealed by Jews with their own seals comes from Brittany, where the seals of Jacob of Nantes and Haranc (Aaron) of Segré were appended to a quittance dated 1234 (see Nos. 33 and 34). Unfortunately all five seals either have disappeared or are in such bad condition that they have little historical value. The legal background of the seals from Brittany—a duchy absorbed into the domain of France only after the medieval period—is somewhat obscure. Burgundy is better documented in this respect.

The function of the seal in Burgundy indicates neither the primacy of Germanic custom nor that of Roman law but seems to be caused by historical circumstance. The Burgundians were a people of German origin who had been driven west into Gaul and there became allied with the Romans. They had a codified law by the sixth century. Burgundy over the centuries was at times not only independent but a powerful kingdom, sometimes under French domination and at other times associated with the Holy Roman Empire, but the name (Bourgogne) gradually became restricted to the area formerly called the Franche-Comté, and the area fell into the French orbit. The ducal house of Burgundy flourished till 1361, when the duchy returned to the crown of France.

The result of this mixed background is Roman law superimposed on Germanic custom. In the former, notarial registration with witnesses was sufficient to validate documents. In the latter, a seal was required and sealing followed a ritualized formula. Burgundian documents indicate the use of seals, though there does not seem to be a specific formula related to the sealing. The use of Jewish seals is ambiguous. Léon Gauthier in 1914 published a study of thirty-three documents involving Jews, almost all from the thirteenth century. Seals were commonly employed, but Jews did not seal. To cite a few typical examples, Gauthier’s document 12, of 1283, involves a quittance indicating the repayment of a sum of money borrowed by Gauthier de Montfaucon from one Savourey,* a Jew from Pontarlier. At Savourey’s request the castellan of Lord Montfaucon sealed to acknowledge return of the money, while the castellan of Pontarlier, where Savourey lived, sealed as his representative. Document 24, of 1298, is similar. There, one Mossé of Pontarlier requests in the same fashion the seal of the representative of Gauthier de Montfaucon to validate a partial payment of debt. Document 26 from 1301 involves Savourey’s widow, the Jewess Bien Venue, who is arranging to adjust a debt owed to her late husband. To honor the agreement, she swears by giving her word on “the law of God given by Moses,” and then requires that the Christian lord seal with his seal.

The problem, as with many generalizations, is that we know of three Jews (Nos. 30-32) who owned seals and who used them to validate, presumably to some legal extent, documents in the late thirteenth century. We know from other documents that at least two of these Jewish sealholders were prominent men with close ties to the local aristocracy. It would seem that, because of the greater latitude allowed in this area, which only a few years earlier had been a powerful independent duchy, exceptions were permitted to allow certain well-placed Jews to use personal seals. The legal force of these Jewish seals is unclear. The pattern on the documents this writer has seen from Burgundy indicates that Jews swore to the validity of the contract at signing but that for sealing they depended on the recognized authority of their region, who may have carried an official title such as Jews’ castellan or Jews’ seneschal, to stamp the document with his seal. However, the wording of the document to which is affixed the seal of Beniet or Beniot of Dôle, shown as No. 32, seems to indicate that some Jewish seals were considered legal proof of authenticity.

It is no accident that most Jewish personal seals from the medieval period in France come from the south, mainly from Languedoc. Though the Talmudic contributions of Jews from the royal domain and Champagne are unequaled, their glory was cut short by Capetian might. Furthermore, the Crusaders saw no point in traveling vast distances to kill Moslems when they had unbelievers at home who could be murdered and despoiled so much more conveniently. The Catholic kings continued the persecution even after the early crusades had run their course, and the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw a disintegration of the Jewish position. In 1268 all the possessions of the Jews in the royal domain and Champagne were confiscated by King Louis and Theobald V, acting in concert, followed by the imprisonment of all French Jews by Philip the Fair in 1306 for reasons of extortion, and, then, the Jews’ expulsion. Royal France, which under the Carolingians had been hospitable to the Jews, slowly but surely became the graveyard of their hopes.

The situation in the south of what is now France—the Loire River being the approximate border between north and south—was quite different. Conditions in Languedoc and Provence were far more favorable to the Jews, especially in Languedoc, though certain cosmopolitan cities of Provence such as Nîmes and Marseilles also had flourishing Jewish communities.

Before Pope Innocent III excommunicated Count Raymond VI, in 1208, and launched a ruinous crusade against its inhabitants, Languedoc was a proud and prosperous country. Its hereditary ruler was the count of Toulouse, who also held the titles of duke of Narbonne and marquis of southwest Provence. Raymond VI was a cousin of the king of France and brother-in-law to both the kings of England and Aragon.

The pope’s crusade was launched to wipe out the Albigenses,* a heretical sect whose base was in this area and who had adherents among the highest feudal lords. The Albigenses, who loathed Rome, not only tolerated Jews but regarded them as fellow-sufferers. They were such an important element in Languedoc that the counts of Toulouse, though Catholic, refused to start a civil war by suppressing them. Tolerance was good policy, and the Jews blossomed in this unique medieval atmosphere, particularly in the great commercial cities of Narbonne, Toulouse, and Montpellier.

Southern France followed Roman law rather than Germanic custom, so that the Jew was not juridically a stranger without rights. Jews owned land and held public office. In the leading center of Narbonne the Jews elected their own governing body, subject to the general municipal ordinances, and, by tradition (reportedly from the time of Charlemagne), there was a “Jewish king” recognized by the duke of Narbonne, with certain powers over the Jewish community. As noted in the discussion of No. 20, this was the position of Kolonymos bar Todros at the time of the 1306 expulsion order. In Montpellier in the twelfth century Jews were deeply involved in the school of medicine established there; in 1300 Jacob bar Machir is recorded as a regent of the faculty of medicine. In towns like Beziers and Carcassonne the viscounts allowed the Jews to hold important offices, including that of bailiff; it is significant that the majority of the population of these towns was Albigensian. Raymond V of Toulouse made the nasi Abba Mari bar Yitzhak bailiff in his seigneurie of Saint-Gilles about 1170: this was an important post, as the bailiff was in charge of rent collections, fines, and the administration of justice and had the equivalent of viceregal power. A bailiff held the rank of baron in the feudal order of Languedoc, according to some reports. Thus the position of the Jews in Languedoc before the crusade against the Albigenses and the institution of the Inquisition was similar to that of their co-religionists in neighboring Aragón-Catalonia, as well as Castile, and more secure than that of Jews elsewhere in Europe.

The relentless religious war against Languedoc deteriorated into a political game between weakened Aragon, whose rulers, despite their zealous Catholicism, felt a sympathy for their cousins in Languedoc, and imperialist France. From 1208 to 1225 the fortunes of war shifted from one side to the other, but in 1226, with the approval of the Roman Catholic Church, the king of France was declared legitimate overlord of Languedoc. After this step was taken, Capetian will was imposed, and the country was absorbed into the royal domain of France in 1271 after the death of Raymond VII, the last count of Toulouse, and his surviving daughter, who died without issue. Then everything changed for the Jews, as indicated in one of the articles of the treaty of surrender of Raymond VII, which stated that no Jew could hold public office.

It is in this center of Jewish power and influence that most of the seals analyzed here had their origin, and only by putting them in a sociocultural context can we establish their meaning. There have been several important and carefully documented studies of the Jews of Languedoc in the medieval period. The oldest, published in 1881 by Gustave Saige, is based on contracts dealing with land sales and leasing ranging from the years 955 to 1281. Salamon Kahn published a series of articles from 1889 to 1894 dealing with Montpellier archival material. These unedited documents came mainly from the town’s two oldest notarial registers. The city of Narbonne was the focus for a similar series by Jean Regné, published in 1908 to 1912, covering the fifth to the fourteenth centuries. Since the notarial registers of Narbonne had disappeared and the records of the surviving archives dealt mainly with land transactions, Regné, like Saige, concentrated on such contracts. The most recent study, one of Perpignan,* is by Richard W. Emery. Emery used seventeen notarial registers, dating from 1261 to 1287, and some material from the early fourteenth century.

It is highly significant that the standard English formula to “sign and seal” never appears in the documents published by these men. An oath backed by witnesses and registered by an official notary of the city seems to be the sole legal requirement. Though the personal seal was not uncommon among the Jews of the Midi, as we have seen, it did not appear to have any juridical function at all. In England, as has been noted in the previous section, the seal had a rather ambiguous legal status, but in these documents from southern France seals do not even play a peripheral role. It may be added that the contracts in question all dealt with issues involving Christians. Gustave Saige says that in matters only involving Jews they “followed the Mosaic law,” that is, they recognized the authority of the bet din, using the Hebrew script among themselves. In such intra-Jewish matters seals would be entirely superfluous. Emery, in correspondence with this writer, flatly asserted that in all the years of his study in the Latin notarial registers of Perpignan, which contain many acts of the Jewish community, he had never encountered a Jewish seal.

Gustave Saige, who showed an unusual interest in Jewish seals in his Les juifs de Languedoc, has a short chapter entitled “Hebrew Signatures, Jewish Seals.” There he writes that Jews often signed the Latin documents in Hebrew as a guarantee against falsifications. He continues, “the Jews made use of seals as well.… It can be said that many relate to the Jews of the Midi.”* He mentions the seal of Kalonymos bar Todros, and coneludes, “Kalonymos was thus ranked together with a Christian lord since it was lawful for him to seal public acts with a shield,” by which he means the representation of a shield on Kalonymos’ seal. In this disappointing analysis, Saige refers only to this seal and makes no mention of acts or documents to which it or other Jewish seals were appended or to the legal value of such sealing. In fact, the only seals mentioned in the documents studied by Saige are a few belonging to Christians. On March 8, 1217, Aymeri, viscount of Narbonne, and his wife leased property to the Jews of Narbonne. The notary for Aymeri signed and sealed the documents. On March 10, 1297, the inquisitor of Pamiers specifically granted permission for the Jews to maintain their privileges as of old in the province of Narbonne. The inquisitorial seal is appended to this document. On March 27, 1301, Gaston, count of Foix, confirmed the privileges accorded by his ancestors to the Jews of Pamiers and all the county of Foix, and sealed the document with his own seal. After 1306, when documents deal with properties confiscated from Jews, seals of the Christian despoilers are sometimes used. Despite Saige’s remark that Jews made use of seals, he fails to offer any supporting documentary evidence. The standard formula is that the parties swear, the witnesses affirm, the official notary signs, and occasionally a Jew buttresses his position by signing his signature below in Hebrew. Even the mention of these few Christian seals is unusual; as far as the writer could follow the 148 Latin documents reproduced by Emery in his study of Perpignan, no seal of any kind is added.

Apart from the early thirteenth-century royal seals for Jewish debt documents, such as those of Paris and Pontoise (see Nos. 35 and 37), personal Jewish seals in France with very few exceptions are the original matrices or casts therefrom; we do not have seal impressions appended to actual documents. This is also the case for Spanish seals of Jews. In contrast, English seals are known from the documents to which they are affixed, while the original matrices are lost.* In Germany too, in most cases, the seals are known only from the documents. Brigitte Bedos has expressed the opinion to this writer that in France the royal prohibition of Jewish seals referred only to debt documents, and that in the thirteenth and fourteenth century private Jewish seals were used to stamp letters and papers not involving monies lent at interest. This attractive theory does explain why there are so few seal impressions on French documents, given the rather large number of seal matrices known. In its support, it should be noted that when Louis VIII in 1223 suppressed the royal seal for the Jews, his prohibition only covered the use of a seal to seal Jewish obligations made as creditors.

It seems apparent, at least insofar as Jewish medieval seals are concerned, that the function of the seal—and its degree of legal validity—was entirely different in the areas that still retained the forms of the old Roman law and in those that followed Germanic custom. If we may generalize from a relatively small sample, legal validity was established under Latin usage (and thus prevailed in the provinces or principalities of that part of Europe which later became Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the French Midi) by registry before the town notary, and no seal was juridically necessary, while areas following Germanic custom often required a seal, depending on the time and place. Bernhard Blumenkranz, whose opinion on this matter was requested by the writer, shied away from expressing an opinion as to the legal aspect but agreed that in the Midi one went to a notary, while in the north of France an individual action with sealing on the part of the respective parties would be required; he adds that this would have been equally true when both parties were Christian.

The bourgeois seal in the south of Europe would thus seem to have been, at least in debt matters, a status symbol, complementing, or in imitation of, the feudal lord’s escutcheon. The legal importance of the seal was of less significance than its psychological aspect. And this was probably even more true of rich Jewish burghers, with their built-in insecurities, than of their Christian counterparts. It is no accident that the one seal from Languedoc we can identifiy without question as to ownership, that of Kalonymos bar Todros, belonged to the richest landowner of the most powerful Jewish community in the region.


*Robert Chazan, in Medieval Jewry in Northern France (1973), does refer wherever possible to documentary records, but his study is based on literary rather than archival sources.

*The name indicates that Savourey probably came originally from Sauve in Languedoc, well known for its Jewish community.

*The members of the Cathor Church and the Waldensians, though their doctrines differed somewhat, are here, for the sake of simplicity, grouped with the Albigenses.

*Technically the city of Perpignan was the capital of Roussillon, a separate area, but the traditions and customs of Perpignan were bound up with and similar to those of the much larger and neighboring Languedoc.

*That is, to the Jews of southern France in general rather than only Languedoc.

*The two Jewish seal matrices known from England are not actually English seals.

“Judaei de caetero sigilla non habebunt ad sigillandum debita sua” (De Laurière, 1723, p. 48, Item 4).

*Robert Chazan, in Medieval Jewry in Northern France (1973), does refer wherever possible to documentary records, but his study is based on literary rather than archival sources.

*The name indicates that Savourey probably came originally from Sauve in Languedoc, well known for its Jewish community.

*The members of the Cathor Church and the Waldensians, though their doctrines differed somewhat, are here, for the sake of simplicity, grouped with the Albigenses.

*Technically the city of Perpignan was the capital of Roussillon, a separate area, but the traditions and customs of Perpignan were bound up with and similar to those of the much larger and neighboring Languedoc.

*That is, to the Jews of southern France in general rather than only Languedoc.

*The two Jewish seal matrices known from England are not actually English seals.

“Judaei de caetero sigilla non habebunt ad sigillandum debita sua” (De Laurière, 1723, p. 48, Item 4).

Our knowledge concerning medieval documents sealed by Jews in the royal domain of France is weak. The writer has not encountered any definitive work dealing with Île-de-France, the traditional heart of France, containing the city of Paris. Such studies that do exist are a product of Christian research; no Jewish scholars seem to have penetrated deeply into the archives of northern France in search of this information, as they have done for England and Germany.* Lacking documentary evidence, we are not in a position to state whether there were any Jewish personal seals before the 1182 expulsion or whether, if they did exist, they had legal validity and to what degree. We cannot even state that the Jewish personal seals known from northern France were attached to documents dealing with legal matters requiring seals, as distinct from those concerning private affairs.

The result of this mixed background is Roman law superimposed on Germanic custom. In the former, notarial registration with witnesses was sufficient to validate documents. In the latter, a seal was required and sealing followed a ritualized formula. Burgundian documents indicate the use of seals, though there does not seem to be a specific formula related to the sealing. The use of Jewish seals is ambiguous. Léon Gauthier in 1914 published a study of thirty-three documents involving Jews, almost all from the thirteenth century. Seals were commonly employed, but Jews did not seal. To cite a few typical examples, Gauthier’s document 12, of 1283, involves a quittance indicating the repayment of a sum of money borrowed by Gauthier de Montfaucon from one Savourey,* a Jew from Pontarlier. At Savourey’s request the castellan of Lord Montfaucon sealed to acknowledge return of the money, while the castellan of Pontarlier, where Savourey lived, sealed as his representative. Document 24, of 1298, is similar. There, one Mossé of Pontarlier requests in the same fashion the seal of the representative of Gauthier de Montfaucon to validate a partial payment of debt. Document 26 from 1301 involves Savourey’s widow, the Jewess Bien Venue, who is arranging to adjust a debt owed to her late husband. To honor the agreement, she swears by giving her word on “the law of God given by Moses,” and then requires that the Christian lord seal with his seal.

The pope’s crusade was launched to wipe out the Albigenses,* a heretical sect whose base was in this area and who had adherents among the highest feudal lords. The Albigenses, who loathed Rome, not only tolerated Jews but regarded them as fellow-sufferers. They were such an important element in Languedoc that the counts of Toulouse, though Catholic, refused to start a civil war by suppressing them. Tolerance was good policy, and the Jews blossomed in this unique medieval atmosphere, particularly in the great commercial cities of Narbonne, Toulouse, and Montpellier.

It is in this center of Jewish power and influence that most of the seals analyzed here had their origin, and only by putting them in a sociocultural context can we establish their meaning. There have been several important and carefully documented studies of the Jews of Languedoc in the medieval period. The oldest, published in 1881 by Gustave Saige, is based on contracts dealing with land sales and leasing ranging from the years 955 to 1281. Salamon Kahn published a series of articles from 1889 to 1894 dealing with Montpellier archival material. These unedited documents came mainly from the town’s two oldest notarial registers. The city of Narbonne was the focus for a similar series by Jean Regné, published in 1908 to 1912, covering the fifth to the fourteenth centuries. Since the notarial registers of Narbonne had disappeared and the records of the surviving archives dealt mainly with land transactions, Regné, like Saige, concentrated on such contracts. The most recent study, one of Perpignan,* is by Richard W. Emery. Emery used seventeen notarial registers, dating from 1261 to 1287, and some material from the early fourteenth century.

Gustave Saige, who showed an unusual interest in Jewish seals in his Les juifs de Languedoc, has a short chapter entitled “Hebrew Signatures, Jewish Seals.” There he writes that Jews often signed the Latin documents in Hebrew as a guarantee against falsifications. He continues, “the Jews made use of seals as well.… It can be said that many relate to the Jews of the Midi.”* He mentions the seal of Kalonymos bar Todros, and coneludes, “Kalonymos was thus ranked together with a Christian lord since it was lawful for him to seal public acts with a shield,” by which he means the representation of a shield on Kalonymos’ seal. In this disappointing analysis, Saige refers only to this seal and makes no mention of acts or documents to which it or other Jewish seals were appended or to the legal value of such sealing. In fact, the only seals mentioned in the documents studied by Saige are a few belonging to Christians. On March 8, 1217, Aymeri, viscount of Narbonne, and his wife leased property to the Jews of Narbonne. The notary for Aymeri signed and sealed the documents. On March 10, 1297, the inquisitor of Pamiers specifically granted permission for the Jews to maintain their privileges as of old in the province of Narbonne. The inquisitorial seal is appended to this document. On March 27, 1301, Gaston, count of Foix, confirmed the privileges accorded by his ancestors to the Jews of Pamiers and all the county of Foix, and sealed the document with his own seal. After 1306, when documents deal with properties confiscated from Jews, seals of the Christian despoilers are sometimes used. Despite Saige’s remark that Jews made use of seals, he fails to offer any supporting documentary evidence. The standard formula is that the parties swear, the witnesses affirm, the official notary signs, and occasionally a Jew buttresses his position by signing his signature below in Hebrew. Even the mention of these few Christian seals is unusual; as far as the writer could follow the 148 Latin documents reproduced by Emery in his study of Perpignan, no seal of any kind is added.

Apart from the early thirteenth-century royal seals for Jewish debt documents, such as those of Paris and Pontoise (see Nos. 35 and 37), personal Jewish seals in France with very few exceptions are the original matrices or casts therefrom; we do not have seal impressions appended to actual documents. This is also the case for Spanish seals of Jews. In contrast, English seals are known from the documents to which they are affixed, while the original matrices are lost.* In Germany too, in most cases, the seals are known only from the documents. Brigitte Bedos has expressed the opinion to this writer that in France the royal prohibition of Jewish seals referred only to debt documents, and that in the thirteenth and fourteenth century private Jewish seals were used to stamp letters and papers not involving monies lent at interest. This attractive theory does explain why there are so few seal impressions on French documents, given the rather large number of seal matrices known. In its support, it should be noted that when Louis VIII in 1223 suppressed the royal seal for the Jews, his prohibition only covered the use of a seal to seal Jewish obligations made as creditors.

Apart from the early thirteenth-century royal seals for Jewish debt documents, such as those of Paris and Pontoise (see Nos. 35 and 37), personal Jewish seals in France with very few exceptions are the original matrices or casts therefrom; we do not have seal impressions appended to actual documents. This is also the case for Spanish seals of Jews. In contrast, English seals are known from the documents to which they are affixed, while the original matrices are lost.* In Germany too, in most cases, the seals are known only from the documents. Brigitte Bedos has expressed the opinion to this writer that in France the royal prohibition of Jewish seals referred only to debt documents, and that in the thirteenth and fourteenth century private Jewish seals were used to stamp letters and papers not involving monies lent at interest. This attractive theory does explain why there are so few seal impressions on French documents, given the rather large number of seal matrices known. In its support, it should be noted that when Louis VIII in 1223 suppressed the royal seal for the Jews, his prohibition only covered the use of a seal to seal Jewish obligations made as creditors.

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CHRISTIAN SPAIN

Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344859
MARC Record
OCLC
1055142843
Pages
115-119
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-SA
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