Jewish archives, French history

The Jews of France, excluded from the great national narrative? In fact, their archives are as rich as they are significant, testifying to a very ancient roots. Beyond that, they make it possible to write history as exterior thatinternal Jewish communities.

The work of Mathias Dreyfuss is part of a remarkable renewal of the historiography of French Judaism, both within France and abroad, illustrated by the recent publication of innovative works. His book marks an important milestone in terms of the scope of the research, but above all in terms of its originality.

Dreyfuss in fact proposes to call into question the too often accepted idea according to which French Judaism would be the subject of a large obscuration within the national narrative. For many historians, the Jewish fact is more or less evacuated from the national narrative, more or less hidden in textbooks which take little account of its centuries-old presence.; his memory would frequently be neglected, just like his places of memory, its emblems, its heroes, its monuments and even its streets. In short, the national myth would take little account of it.

Archives, memories and graffiti

In order to question this interpretation which he considers to be dominant, Mathias Dreyfuss proposes to take the archives not as historical sources, but as objects whose specific historicity must be studiedinspired by archival turn contemporary. It is, therefore, about move archives from source status to subject status.

In this sense, by a double movement, his book traces the path that led archivists and historians, Jewish and non-Jewish, to build throughout the XIXe century Latin, Romanesque and French sources, literary, archaeological and archival, in sources of Jewish historyin order to show how Jewish history was discreetly embedded in the folds of French historywhile searching for Jewish sources that are at the heart of French history.

To do this, Dreyfuss first returns to the competition of the Royal Society of Metz (1785-1787), the question of which was Are there ways to make Jews more useful and happier? It shows how the authors of the different memoirs use socio-economic administrative data other than the often approximate quotations from Christian Hebraists. These memories, such as Observations on the establishment of the Jews of Metz written by Abbe Grégoire, are based on socio-demographic data which trace the ages of marriages, the type of food, etc., all sources suitable for understanding the history of the Jews.

Dreyfuss then embarked on a considerable investigation which delved into the archives of the Treasury of Charters, into his little-known layettes, the parts of which he composed them were analyzed in detail through the centuries, also returning to the receipts or catalogs relating to the Jews. He examines their classification, their transfer from one place to another, focuses on the composition of a Hebrew-French glossary of XIIIe century and on its philological examination. He carried out research which led him to the manuscripts of the BnF, to the National Archives, to the Departmental Archives of Metz, Avignon, Dijon, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, but also to notarial archives, particularly in account books such as those d’Hliot de Vesoul, of which he describes each piece.

Through work of great rigor, he tracks the dissemination of these archives, their various codes, their varied classifications according to this or that logic. The reader, even informed, discovers the existence of numerous documents with wonder and follows Dreyfuss in these discoveries with their dimension sometimes not devoid of humor as in the reading, how perilous, of the graffiti of the White Tower of Issoudun, of the names and complaints of the Jewish prisoners of the XIIIe And XIVe centuries, which Grard Nahon describes as richest source of Hebrew graffiti found on French territory. He also delighted in the chance discovery, in 1887, of the Astrus ring dating from late Antiquity, during the Bordeaux earthworks.

Get out of the historiographical ghettoization

through this long journey within French society explored in its smallest corners, we take stock of the presence of so many archaeological remains, tombs, skulls, skeletons which dot the territory and testify to the distant anchoring of the Jewish presence , from Paris Rouen, from Nancy Marseille or Chteauroux, from Orange Montpellier, from Dijon Bziers.

The author of this fascinating journey was able to reconstruct the history of the interpretations of Hebrew manuscripts dating from the medieval period, their movement from one place to another, their rediscovery and their analysis by learned rabbis, from Derenbourg Franck and Munk, but also by a number of non-religious scholars. Jews, such as Gustave Saige, Sylvestre de Sacy or the Count of Guilhermy, who studied the Hebrew inscriptions of the Jewish colony of rue Pierre-Sarrazin Paris. Their scholarly and innovative work is frequently published in the Review of Jewish Studiessince its creation in 1880.

Likewise, the author highlights the essential contribution of the work of Abraham Cahen or Isidore Loeb (who denounces the colossal falsification of Jewish history) without neglecting those of Mose Schwab, Mose Ginsburger or Maurice Liber, as well as those of great contemporary historians specialists in palography and epigraphy, of Grard Nahon Colette Sirat, who manage to take Jewish archeology out of its historiographical ghettoization.

In doing so, Mathias Dreyfuss addresses an essential question that we would like to understand from the quote from Mose Ginsburger mentioned in relation to Roger Clement's work on the Jews of Metz. Ginsburger considers this classic book to be the external history of the Jewish community of Metz and he adds: To fully study the history of the Jews of Metz, it would also be necessary to study the interior history Jews from Metz leave, for example, Memorbchermemory books listing the famous dead and martyrs murdered since the Crusades, or throughout the pinkassimarchives of Jewish communities which trace their religious, economic, cultural, family activities, or even their relations with the non-Jewish world.

This quote is particularly interesting because it contrasts a story exteriorturned towards society, towards the role of the state, the administration and notables, often traced by non-Jewish scholars, a history internalwhich is based on strictly Jewish sources, whether written in Hebrew or not.

Dreyfuss, however, underlines the fragility of these internal archives, often defective copies, he adds that the French Revolution proceeded with the dissolution of religious corporations implying the abandonment of pinkassim, of which often only a few leaves survive. Apart from the example of Bordeaux where these deliberations have been preserved, the virtual absence of registers of Alsatian communities undermines the project of a history internalespecially since the reform of civil status in September 1792 led to an often radical change in surnames and first names.

A historian avenger?

The distinction between history internal and history external arises particularly in the context of French exceptionalism in the construction of a centralized nation-state. This logic could have found a more important place in this work, even if it somewhat contradicts the initial hypothesis because, from absolute monarchy to the revolutionary state (or the republican state), state centralization has undermined it, in the name of universalism, and more than in other states more sensitive to the maintenance of linguistic or religious particularisms, any institutional form of cultural specificity, in the name of citizenship strong.

From the French Revolution onwards, it seems to me that the question arises in very different terms, to the detriment of internal sources which persist in a more uneasy manner. Dreyfuss shows himself aware of this homogenizing logic, but it seems to me to have more serious consequences in the contemporary era which explain, more than he perhaps thinks, the very reduced Jewish part in the dominant historiography, as well as the frequent refusal to give its legitimacy the Jewish dimension of the French nation.

The thesis defense of Robert Anchel, a former student of the Ecole des Chartes, is itself a good example. Anchel, whose work Dreyfuss mentions, presented a doctoral thesis in 1928 entitled Napoleon and the Jews. Essay on the relationship between the French state and the Jewish cult from 1800 to 1813.

In his unpublished thesis report, Albert Mathiez, the great historian of the French Revolution, director of the thesis, defends the Emperor, then he ends his vehement criticism of a work that is nevertheless innovative based on unpublished archives, by declaring: Mr. Anchel probably has an excuse. He belongs to the race of the persecuted. He thought he did this by appointing himself not only their historian, but their avengera way of brutally dismissing research which for the first time concerned the specifically Jewish dimension of the Napoleonic moment which remains, even today, often neglected and illegitimate.

Other moments in recent history can be mentioned, which also testify to a relative persistent silence, from the Dreyfus affair (to which Stephen Wilson first drew attention) to Vichy where, apart from the work of Georges Wellers carried out from outside the university, it is necessary to wait for the works of Robert Paxton to take the properly anti-Semitic measure of black annes who was still unaware, in 1972, of the first major university conference organized on this theme.

Today, the history of the contemporary Jewish period is making great strides, even if, little by little, due to administrative centralization, external sources are becoming thinner, while the strictly internal traces of French Jewish history are slowly being erased.