Rashi's Home City, Troyes


rashi's synagogue
The Synagogue Troyes


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Rashi's Troyes

By Jon Catt

Rashi’s home town, Troyes, has completely disappeared except for parts of one church. There’s no trace left now of buildings from the former Jewish quarter. The civil and religious buildings from the 11th century have either been demolished or rebuilt. The last traces of the town’s earliest walls were demolished in the 17th century. We now need the help of historians and archaeologists if we want to discover what Troyes was like in Rashi’s time.


Troyes was a city already a 1,000 years old when Rashi was born in 1040 C.E. The Emperor Augustus founded an administrative centre here at the beginning of the 1st century C.E. called Augustobona, the gift of Augustus. Roman power in Gaul was in decline in the 4th century and the town changed its name to Civitas Tricassesium. The Tricasses were the local tribe and the name is said to mean nice people! It was over the next eight centuries that the name evolved into Troyes.

A Walled Town

The original town had no walls. In the second half of the 3rd century Gaul was invaded by the Franks. Many of the inhabitants decided to build a new town sheltered behind hastily built walls. They measured about 4,200 feet and enclosed an area of about 39 acres.

When you walk past the rear of the Hotel Dieu and up the Rue Linard Gontier you’ll see the remains of an earth embankment. It served either to strengthen the walls here or was used to heighten the parapets. The Rue Boucherat marks the site of one of the two main roads that crossed the town widthways from north to south. The gate that stood on the site now occupied partly by the Hotel du Petit Louvre faced a marshy area that protected this part of the town.

In 887 C.E. Vikings burnt the town and new walls had to be built. These were the walls that Rashi would have known. One of the last traces of these new fortifications to survive was the Tour Chapitre. (Angle Rue Linard Gontier and the Rue de l’Ev?ch?) It was nearly 40 feet tall. The tower was used in the Middle Ages as the Bishops’ prison. It was demolished in 1817. There is now an alley here that runs up to the cathedral.

The present cathedral is crowned by a series of radiating chapels. These were built at the beginning of the 13th century. Their construction required the demolition of part of the town’s walls. The Bishop’s Gate stood close by near the Hospital of S Nicolas. In Rashi’s time the waters of the Seine protected Troyes fortifications here.

In 1968 the Moulin de la Tour was demolished. The sluices still remain. There may have been a mill here in Rashi’s time. The mill race marks the site of the earliest moat. We are at the far end of the road that crossed the town widthways and there would have been a gate here.

Count Robert of Troyes detested the town’s bishop Anségise. He challenged his control of the town and, probably in 958 C.E. Anségise was sent into exile. The bishop returned with an army and besieged Troyes. A battle was fought close to this gate that was won by Robert. The counts were to control the town for almost four centuries.

The gallo-roman town is embedded in the town that developed in the 12th century and 13th century. We say that this has the shape of a champagne cork. The separation between the head and body of the cork is made by a now disused canal. The walls that stood here were protected by the waters of the Vienne. The Rue de la Cité marks the trace of the main road that crossed the town from east to west. The gate that stood on the site of the Rue de la Cité was located at the entrance to the Rue de Paon with one tower on the site of the chapel of the Hotel Dieu. Legend has it that an important event happened here which may have still been talked about in Rashi’s time.

In 451C.E. . Atilla lead the last great barbarian invasion of Gaul. He was defeated by an army that was composed of Roman soldiers and troops from tribes that had invaded and settled in the country. The site of the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields ,one of the great battles of history, has never been accurately located. When you stand in the Rue de la Cité with your back to the cathedral you’re facing in the direction of Sens. Local historians suggest that there were two possible sites along this former Roman road. There’s Montgueux and the plains beneath this hill and Estissac.

Shut behind their walls the inhabitants of Troyes and refugees must have followed the results of the invasion with mounting fear. Their protector was Bishop Lupus. Atilla and his retreating army had to pass Troyes. Legend has it that it was from the top of this gate that the bishop negotiated with Atilla. He offered to go as a hostage with the barbarian leader to the Rhine if he spared the town. Troyes was saved and the bishop was made a saint, S Loup, after his death in 479 C.E. (Twenty years later France became the oldest daughter of the catholic church with the baptism of the King of the Franks, Clovis, in the cathedral in Reims.)

Inside the Walls

The present Hotel Dieu was built in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first hospital was built on this site in 1157.The first Hotel Dieu in France dates to the 7th century. They were always in the cathedral quarter and under the control of the bishop. Was there one here in Rashi’s time or was the counts’ hospital the first?

The gate that stood here was known as the Jewery Gate because the Jewish quarter was situated between the Rue de Paon and the Rue Boucherat. The Jews had settled in the region in the gallo-roman period. The community here dated to the 10th century. Facing the gates of the former hospital is a passageway that leads to a former church, S Frobert.

Legend has it that S Frobert was born in a house on this site in the 7th century. He became a monk and eventually founded the abbey of Montier Le Celle. Monks built the village of S Andre les Vergers. It is now part of the suburbs of Troyes. The few remains of this once important abbey stand in front of a modern clinic.

A man who’d been a Prior at the abbey decided to fight against the corruption of the Benedictine Order. He became S Robert of Molesme as this was the place where he founded an abbey in 1074. A second abbey was founded at Citeaux near Dijon in 1097. A name was needed for S Robert’s new order and it’s from the Latin for Citeaux that we get Cistercian.

Was there a church here in Rashi’s time or was the church built on the site of the synagogue after the expulsion of the Jews in the C13th? We don’t know. The present building is from the 16th century. It was sold at the time of the French Revolution and was divided into flats.

Rashi lived during the reigns of two counts. Thibaud I who took part in the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and Hugues. He was the first to officially take the title of Count of Champagne and make Troyes his permanent residence. The Jews depended on the protection of the counts and their quarter stood in the shadow of the chateau.

This was probably built in the bottom right hand corner of the town in the 10th century. It was protected by its own walls and had an entrance through a single tower. The keep stood close to the town’s walls. It’s site is now partly occupied by a Protestant Church. It was abandoned by the counts when they built their new palace close to the Hotel Dieu in the 12th century. The last tower was demolished in 1862.The square is named after the keep that was known as the Tour du Roi.

On the far side of the Place de la Tour there’s a large 19th century building that served as an orphanage. It was on this site in the 9th century that monks from the nearby abbey of Montiéraimey built a church , S Jean en Châtel, at the end of the 9th century. There were vineyards behind S Jean at the end of the 12th century.

We know that Rashi had vines and that wine making was typical of Jewish communities at this time. France’s wine industry was started and developed by the different religious establishments. Here in Troyes large quantities of pips have been discovered during the excavation of wells. There is also documentary evidence for vines in the town and the suburbs during the Middle ages. We must remember that this was an important wine making region that rivalled Burgundy.

The buildings that stand on the corner of the Rue Mitantier are the much altered remains of the priory of S Quentin. A women’s abbey had been founded here in the 7th century. It was made a priory in 1089-90 and a new church was built. Parts of the walls probably date to the time of Rashi.

The central building of the Fine Arts Museum is all that’s left of the Abbey of S Loup. The first abbey built outside the walls on the site of a chapel near the tomb of S Loup had been pillaged by the Vikings in 887 C.E. They moved to the present site after this.

rashi's home town
Vaulis Building

Christians first worshiped in a house on the site of the present cathedral. It was situated close to the walls and thus made it easy for them to escaped during times when they were persecuted. A church was built here in around 425 C.E. It was modified several times and enlarged in the 9th century. All that’s now left of the cathedral Rashi would have known are three stones. You can see them in the present cathedral on the right after the right arm of the transept.

Two of the distinctive features of the cathedral and the town’s churches are their stained glass and gargoyles. There would have been little stained glass in the 11th century and the first gargoyles date only to the 12th century.

The former Bishop’s palace is now the Modern Art Museum. The first palace was built here in the years following Rashi’s death. It stands in part on the town’s walls. In the corridor leading to the lecture theatre there’s a tombstone with a chariot carved on it.

Outside the Walls

When it was decided to build the town’s first walls not all of the inhabitants re-established behind them. As the centuries passed the external population grew. Each community had its church.

On the side where we started our investigation of Rashi’s Troyes there’s the Place S Denis. A church was built here sometime between the 5th and the 10th.

The Seine was diverted in the 13th century when new fortifications were built. This is the reason why the site of the now demolished church of S Aventin stands close to the banks of the river. A church had been founded here probably to house the tomb of S Aventin. He had served as almoner to S Loup and died of natural causes in 563 C.E.

This site was chosen because it was next to the chapel of S Loup. As we’ ve seen an abbey stood on this site until pillaged by the Vikings at the end of the 9th century.The site remained abandoned throughout Rashi’s lifetime. The Abbey of S Martin ?s Aire was only constructed here in either 1104 or 1111.

If you follow the canal you’ll see shortly on your left S Rémy. Continue a little further along and you’ll come to the Theatre de Champagne. In front there’s the sculpture dedicated to Rashi. The Jewish cemetery was close by. St Jean au Marché dates to the 7th century. This church and S Rémy were the focal points for the Medieval Champagne fairs. Rashi mainly saw their local ancestors.

There were fairs in the town in the 5th century. In the 11th century they were attended by Jewish merchants from Reims. Cereals, salt, wine, leather, pepper and livestock were sold. It’s right at the end of Rashi’s life that an international component developed. This was the start of building on the marshy land near the church. In little more than a century it was covered by the streets we still walk down today.

The Viscount’s castle stood to the right of the present church of saint Nicolas. A motte and bailey castle probably existed here before the end of the 10th century. It stood between two important routes to Auxerre and Sens. In Marseille there were two Jewish communities one depended on the Bishops and the other on the viscounts; was there a similar situation in Troyes?

There’s the Rue de la Synagogue next to S Pantaleon. One author has suggested that the original church here replaced a synagogue. The records for this like the physical evidence of Troyes at the time of Rashi have disappeared.

The author, Jon Catt, offers tours of Troyes and throughout the Champagne region and may be contacted by email at Jon.Catt@wanadoo.fr


from the December 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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