Friday, March 16, 2018

France, Jews and the Monarchy

In the recent history of monarchism in France, one of the major problems was the persistent accusation of anti-Semitism. Once upon a time, such an accusation did not mean much as no one expected anyone in France to be pro-Semitic, only pro-French and so the accusation of being anti-Semitic would have been met with as much of a yawn as that of being anti-Anglo or anti-Teutonic. However, as anti-Semitism came to be seen as uniquely despicable, the accusation became much more problematic and it has been consistently applied against the Catholic right in France, most of which was, increasingly so the farther back one looks, royalist. The current narrative tends to stem from the infamous “Dreyfus Affair” in which a Jewish artillery officer was convicted of treason and sent to Devil’s Island in French Guiana for passing military secrets to Imperial Germany. Subsequent evidence came forward that another man had been the spy but, in a retrial, Dreyfus was again found guilty but given a pardon and released. In 1906 Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French army.

Charles Maurras
This case was the center of the great political divide in France with the left-wing, secularist republicans supporting Dreyfus and claiming that he had been the victim of anti-Semitic bigotry by the right-wing, Catholic and royalist officer corps of the French military. So, the leftist republicans claimed that Dreyfus was innocent, the rightist royalists claimed he was guilty and the eventual exoneration of Dreyfus is widely pointed to as the decisive factor in bringing the radical left to power in France. The division remained and one of the most effective rhetorical weapons used against the growing power of Action fran├žaise, the royalist movement led by Charles Maurras, was the charge of anti-Semitism. Maurras himself had been prominent during the Dreyfus affair, referring to the French government as the “Jewish republic”. It was an accusation that fell equally on both of the feuding royalist factions in France (Maurras being a supporter of the Duke of Orleans) and, particularly in light of subsequent events in World War II, helped to marginalize the royalist movement.

Maurras had plenty of criticism for the Jews, no doubt about it, however, while this is sufficient for the mainstream to condemn him today, any thoughtful person can easily see that there is more to the story. He had just as much negative things to say about French Protestants, the Germans or Freemasons, yet no one seems to mind any of that so much. He also condemned the racist policies of Adolf Hitler which serves to illustrate where his opposition to the Jews came from. The goal of Maurras was a restored Catholic Kingdom of France, though he himself appreciated the Church more than he believed in it, and the Jews, like the Protestants or any non-French people, were not what he wanted for his Kingdom of France as they would always be a source of division and internal discord. In 1926 the Catholic Church condemned Action fran├žaise and its periodical even gained the distinction of being the first newspaper placed on the Index of Forbidden Works. Later, Pope Pius XII lifted the condemnation but this did little good as it allowed the members to claim that the previous prohibition had been politically motivated, simply opposition to a nationalist movement, while also allowing critics of Pius XII another bit of propaganda to portray him as being soft on anti-Semites (the ridiculous “Hitler’s Pope” canard).

French Action
The efforts of Maurras were really the last time, to date, that a French royalist movement was a major force in politics and had the potential to achieve victory and bring about a restoration of the monarchy. It is a terrible thing that they were undercut and were not successful, however, the anti-Semitic label is still used against them to this day and while, again, it was not so significant in the past, today it is front and center in vilifying and marginalizing this French royalist movement. To the extent to which it is talked about at all today, the main points hammered home are Maurras and the French royalists are anti-Semitic, they are untouchable, move along. That being so, it is worth taking a deeper look into the history behind all of this, because the position of Maurras and the French royalists of the early Twentieth Century was not out of step with the cause their ancestors had upheld and fought for over the many centuries previous. The Kingdom of France was and had always been an officially and explicitly Catholic monarchy and thus, inherently, the Jews were never going to be seen, indeed could not be seen, as no different from everyone else.

Some number of Jews had been present in France since the time of the Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire became Christian, Emperor Valentinian III put restrictions on them from holding any positions of influence but, it is often omitted, these restrictions applied to pagans as well. It was not a specifically anti-Jewish ordinance but rather part of a recognition that Rome was a Christian empire and non-Christians would not be allowed to rule over Christian people within it. This was the earliest example of the sort of problem that the Kingdom of France would have in dealing with the Jews. The barbarian tribes who conquered the Western Roman Empire took little notice of them but later they gained a sort of a special status under Charlemagne, elevated to the rank of emperor by the Pope in 800. They had some restrictions placed on them in so far as their interaction with Christians went, but Charlemagne protected them and they became quite prosperous as merchants and traders with the near east. Charlemagne, as well as his son Emperor Louis the Pious, believed that, in time, they would convert to Christianity though we know from the accounts of bishops at the time that there were concerns about their presence being at odds with the nature of a Catholic empire.

The baptism of Clovis
Undoubtedly some will be wondering why the mere presence of Jews should be a cause of concern or disunity in the Kingdom of France (since 987 under the House of Capet) but this is to fail to grasp the entire concept of what France was. It was a specifically Catholic kingdom and to be French was to be Catholic and to be Catholic was to be in communion with the body of Christ, the Church, and all other Catholics everywhere. This was the foundation of the kingdom and the highest purpose of the Catholic monarchs was to safeguard the souls of their subjects by ensuring that they were all good Catholics. Obviously, with such a foundation, it is going to be a problem to have a majority of the population which is French and who believe Jesus Christ is God, alongside a minority of people who are not French and who believe Jesus Christ was a criminal deserving of death. That is a pretty stark contrast, not a lot of room for compromise between those two viewpoints. It would inevitably cause tension and problems when a French peasant would be subject to severe punishments for denying the divinity of Christ, whereas Jews were primarily differentiated solely for this same denial.

King Robert II of France tried to solve this problem by trying to basically intimidate the Jews into conversion. He was also just as hard on heretical Christians if it matters as his goal was to have his kingdom united in one faith. The situation became worse over a correspondence between the Jews in the west with the Jews in the east concerning an upcoming Islamic offensive which resulted in the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This produced such a backlash against the Jewish population that Pope Alexander II wrote to the local Church authorities condemning any acts of violence and any efforts to convert the Jews by force. These were, however, localized events and Jews in the unaffected parts of France continued to thrive and prosper. An upsurge did come about with the launching of the Crusades and it is not difficult to understand some of the reasons why. It made little sense to a considerable number of people to be fighting so hard against a religion that considered Christ a prophet while tolerating at home another religion which considered Christ a criminal. In 1182 King Philip Augustus of France ordered the expulsion of all Jews from royal lands, allowing a grace period for them to sell the goods they could not take with them and make arrangements to move, though this did not remove them from the whole of France, simply from lands belonging to the Crown. However, in 1198, the same king allowed them to return.

King St Louis IX
This would not be the last time this sort of thing would happen. Another growing concern was financial, a topic which invariably comes up in dealing with this subject. Jewish law prohibited Jews from charging interest on loans to other Jews whereas it was permissible to charge interest, even exorbitant interest, on loans to non-Jews (like French Catholics for example). At the same time, the Catholic Church tended to frown on money lending in general which all created the perfect conditions for Jews to loan money to Christians at very high interest rates and, let us be honest, even under the best of circumstances, no one who lends money is ever popular when the loan comes due. This not only caused tension between the two communities, it also highlighted the ‘different laws for different people’ nature of the situation as well as upsetting the stability of the French economy with so many in debt to so few. King St Louis IX of France determined to do something about this situation and, as a man devoted to having a truly Catholic kingdom, was compelled to address the Jews in France on a number of fronts.

First of all, on the economic front, he tried to persuade the nobility of France to stop allowing Jews to loan money in their lands and he forbid the nobility and the Crown of France itself from borrowing money from Jews. Given the system of government that existed at the time, in which every lord was practically an autonomous ruler of his own lands, this was about all the king could do as, despite what many people think about the Middle Ages, the king could not tell a noble lord what he could or could not do on his own lands arbitrarily. He forgave the debts of about 1/3 of Christians who owed to Jews and decreed that no Christian could be imprisoned for failing to pay back a loan from a Jew. Finally, he ordered all Jews engaged in usury to be expelled from France though, it seems, this order was not entirely carried out, probably due, again, to the decentralized nature of countries at that time. Most controversially today, he also ordered the mass burning of all copies of the Talmud and Jewish holy books in Paris in 1243.

Burning offensive books
This, of course, is a very prickly subject today because of “optics”. Because everything touching on this issue has been tainted by World War II, whenever people hear about Jews and Jewish books being burned they immediately start thinking of men in brown shirts with strains of the Horst Wessel Lied drifting through the air. So be it, that cannot be helped. The fact of the matter is that works such as the Talmud were contradictory, on their face, to the Christian foundations of the Kingdom of France. When your entire society is based on Christianity, on a sacred line of Christian monarchs ruling over a country known as the “Eldest Daughter” of the Catholic Church, there will be no getting around the problem of having a religious minority whose holy book describes Jesus Christ being boiled in excrement in Hell. There really is not a great deal of room for compromise or ‘agreeing to disagree’ on something like that. King St Louis IX considered having all the Jews arrested but ultimately decided against it, instead following the instructions of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 to have Jews wear badges on the front and back of their clothing to clearly mark them as a people apart. This also, today, has negative connotations but it was simply illustrating a fact which the Jews themselves clung to. They saw themselves as a people apart, not the same as everyone else and were adamant about remaining so.

King St Louis IX was also a supporter of the efforts by the Church to maintain Catholic orthodoxy throughout Christendom. France was, in fact, to become “ground zero” for what would be formalized as the Holy Office of the Inquisition after the outbreak of the Albigensian heresy in the south of France and the formation of the Dominican Order to combat it. Jews were often brought before the French Inquisition though, as the Inquisition only had authority over Catholics, it was only in cases of Jews who had converted and were either insincere (false converts) or who apostatized and returned to Judaism. This comes to the nub of the issue which is one of identity. The Jews could have, at any time, converted to Catholicism and would have been treated the same as every other Catholic in France, however, if they refused to do so, choosing to remain separate, they had little room to complain about being treated differently. The problem that the Inquisition had to deal with (as it later would more famously in Spain) was that many Jews converted, not because they believed in the teachings of the Catholic Church, but in order to improve their standard of living. Today the Church might applaud them for that but, at the time, the faith was taken more seriously and basically lying about the most important question of all was seen as a heinous crime and so a false convert or someone who converted and relapsed into Judaism was treated no differently than any other heretic. If the case was proven, they would be given the chance to repent and be forgiven but, if they persisted, they would be turned over to the secular authorities for execution.

King Philip the Fair
The actions taken by King St Louis IX were those of a monarch the Church upheld as a model Christian sovereign and an example for all others to follow. He was easily one of the greatest western monarchs of all time. However, not every monarch was a saint and while the problems caused by Jews for monarchs like St Louis cannot be denied, neither can it be denied that there were monarchs who caused problems for the Jews, not out of any desire for protecting the Christian foundations of his state but simply to enrich himself. This was the case with King Philip IV, better known as King Philip the Fair. He found himself destitute of funds and saw how well the Jews were doing and decided he could get rich quick by expelling them and seizing all their assets, which he did in 1306. However, he quickly found out that much of this “wealth” was loaned out and when his own agents tried to collect on these loans, his royal agents became just as unpopular as the Jews had been and an uproar ensued. His true motives are further revealed by the fact that, after the expulsion of the Jews failed to solve his money problems, he went after the Knights Templar in the same way, accusing them of all sorts of fantastic misdeeds as a justification for suppressing them and seizing their wealth. King Philip the Fair (meaning “handsome”) might more appropriately be known as Philip the unfair.

In 1315 King Louis X allowed the Jews to return to France with certain restrictions in place. In their absence, there had been essentially no money lending at all and so the King finally decided to have them back again but with the restriction that the interest they charged could not be excessive, that they had to wear the identification badges, could not discuss religion with French people and so on. He also stated that they were under his special protection and could not be attacked or have their property taken from them. However, the restrictions put in place were fairly quickly flouted and all of the old problems soon resurfaced. There was the people being shackled in debt, bribery, influence peddling and the civil disturbances that erupted, inevitably, from having society divided in this way. Once again, it was determined that something had to be done and so King Charles VI (perhaps best known for coming to believe he was made of glass) investigated the situation and found the Jews to be guilty of numerous and widespread outrages against their Christian neighbors and so, in 1394, ordered them expelled from France. The Jews were removed from the country and all debts owed to them forgiven.

King Louis XIV
In the following centuries, some did begin to come back to France, keeping as a low a profile as possible, however, by this point, the monarchy was well fed up with the subject and to associate with or give shelter to Jews was made a capital crime. King Louis XIV did tolerate their presence in the newly acquired provinces of Alsace-Lorraine but not elsewhere, just as he famously revoked the Edict of Nantes which had granted toleration to Protestants. The “Sun King” was very firm, despite being fairly consistently opposed by the popes throughout his reign, that France was a Catholic kingdom for French Catholics, end of story. Some still came in, some always managed to remain and as the era of the “Enlightenment” came to France, the Jews began to emerge in greater numbers and to be more vocal, usually in opposition to the existing state of affairs. King Louis XVI took a more tolerant attitude toward them than his predecessors had done, yet this was not enough to prevent the Jews from being ardent supporters of the emerging French Revolution.

In 1789 the first call for Jewish emancipation came up, with the full-throated support of the arch-criminal Robespierre, but the issue was postponed. In 1790 some Jews were emancipated and in 1791, to great applause by the revolutionary assembly, Jews were granted full citizenship as with “Muslims and men of all sects”, setting the stage for the free for all France has become now. Many were persecuted during the Reign of Terror but such was the case with many others as the Revolution began to devour its own. On the whole, they remained staunchly supportive of the Revolution and the military efforts to spread the Revolution abroad, raising large sums of money to support the war effort. Later, under Napoleon, Judaism was given recognition by the state along with Catholics and Protestants, though their clerics did not receive government support. As had been the case in England, when King Louis XVIII was restored to the throne, things had come to such a point that these changes were not undone. It was a touchy subject given that, as the Jews had been so supportive of the Revolution, they had naturally attracted the ire of the royalist counter-revolutionaries.

Revolutionary "Brotherhood"
This, then, should explain why Jews fall where they do in the context of French politics. The division carried on through episodes such as the Dreyfus Affair and the controversy surrounding the royalists of Charles Maurras. Under the best of circumstances, the Jews never fit in with the concept of a Catholic Kingdom of France and under the worst of circumstances were injurious to it. At the moment of greatest crisis, the most significant turning point in French history, the Revolution, they firmly cast their lot with the republicans and thus could not but incur the opposition of the French royalists. Today there has been some evidence that at least some have come to regret this history but, so far as I can tell, it has resulted in no dramatic political shift on the part of the Jewish community. As such, it should be no surprise, nor any great outrage, that many French royalists still oppose them. In fact, the only thing that is surprising is those who advocate for the restoration of a Catholic Kingdom of France should have no qualms about voicing their opposition to Protestants or Muslims but who often remain silent on the subject of the Jews who would, presumably, be regarded as just as unacceptable. I leave it to the readers to ponder why that may be.


  1. First time visiting your blog, excellent article, very well written and most of all very factual (being french i know some stuff on this subject).
    Well i'm in for hours and hours of great reads.
    Thanks for your work.

    1. You are fortunate to be here on Mad Monarchist, i've been on this blog for years, it just gets better.

  2. Great article, MM! Specially the part concerning the Talmud.


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