Description of the monumental synagogue
There was, until the XIXth century, near the south east corner of rue Massacre and rue aux Juifs, a building known as the synagogue of Rouen. In a talk to the Commission of Antiquities, historian Charles de Beaurepaire described the vestiges as follows:
Some years ago, when the house at no.55 rue aux Juifs was pulled down, it was possible to see, for a few days, an underground construction built with solid material, receiving light from the south through a window protected by iron bars. The bond of the walls and, what is more, the height of this crypt had something extraordinary about them, and it is to be regretted that the exact dimensions were not recorded and that no drawing of it was made for the album of the Commission d’Antiquités du département.
Although unsure of the purpose of the building, historian Eustache de la Quérière had already given a precise description of it in his Historical Description of the Monuments of Rouen:
Behind that house [at no.57], there exists an old monument inserted into modern constructions and which some tradition probably wrongly identifies as a synagogue. It consists of a room that is twenty-four and a half feet long [about 8 m.], sixteen and a half feet large [more than 5 m.] and nineteen and a half feet high [almost 6.5 m.]. This room, solidly built of freestone, is buried ten feet below ground level, and, it is noteworthy, the lower six feet of its surrounding wall are built of rough stone. The vault is made up of rubble. The walls have no openings other than two loopholes in the upper part of the south [wall]. Access to the second floor is provided by stairs located outside. Divided into several rooms, it has no noteworthy features. The vault that covers the building is separated from that floor only by a very low platform; it appears somewhat oval and is composed of ashlar; little fragments of fresco painting can still be seen.
The doubts as to the purpose of the building expressed by Eustache de la Quérière at the beginning of the nineteenth century are no longer viable. Historical and archeological research conducted thereafter enables us to assert that there was a synagogue in that location.
A building dating back to the romanesque era.
In his study on civil stone architecture in medieval Rouen, Dominique Pitte states that the building called the synagogue dates back to the romanesque period, without it being possible to say precisely if it was the twelfth or the thirteenth century. He mainly bases his analysis on the thickness of the walls, which Margaret Wood considers to be characteristic of that period.
Norman Golb is of the view that the synagogue must have been built at the beginning of the XIIth century, when the cultural Jewish buildings destroyed at the beginning of the First Crusade were being rebuilt. According to him, the increase in persecutions of the Jews in the XIIIth century makes it impossible to believe that the synagogue could have been built after the XIIth century.
A location clearly identified in the southern part of rue aux Juifs.
The location of the synagogue appears clearly in the Second Map of the City of Rouen executed in 1782 by Rondeaux de Sétry and representing Rouen from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries.
In the notes accompanying the map, Rondeaux de Sétry writes:
The Square [Place] of the Jews. The courtyard of the Palace of Justice occupies most of this square nowadays. The square, at the corner of which the synagogue of the Jews used to stand, was added to the domain when they were expelled from France by Philip-Augustus in 1181.
The Synagogue of the Jews. It can still be seen at the end of rue aux Juifs, on the right hand side when coming back from the New Market place [today’s place Foch].
Rondeaux de Sétry’s use of the definite article and of capitals probably shows that he wanted to clearly distinguish the communal synagogue from other buildings, sometimes also called synagogues, which could be used for prayer (some were notably located in the Rue aux Juifs).
The plan of the former Hôtel de Ville of Rouen (Rouen City Hall) and of the adjoining buildings, drawn in 1738 by R. Vernisse, a carpenter-draftsman, is even more precise. It provides a cadastral survey of the district with a clear indication of the location of the synagogue, as well as an overall plan showing an almost square building flanked by an exterior staircase whose design reminds one of a tower.
A superposition by an architect, Nelly Chaplain, of Vernisse’s plan, the Napoleonic cadastral register and today’s cadastral register makes it possible to delineate the location of the synagogue even more precisely, and also to give an estimate of the thickness of the walls (between 1.50 and 2 m thick).
The synagogue is mentioned in three leases (Poret Aîné, 7 September 1780 with an annexed plan drawn by an architect named Hardy; Nicolas Michel Vasseur, 4 January 1781; and Thomas Linant, 17 December 1782), and in building statements of sums paid in 1770 and 1771 by the Chapter of Notre Dame de la Ronde.
Relying on these documents, Jean Gosselin established an unambiguous cadastral survey.
A tower dominating the whole district
In northwestern Europe, the rabbinical authorities of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, following old precedents, stipulated that the communal synagogue ought to be the highest building in the Jewish district. One means of doing so was to flank the building with a tower, as Rabbi Jacob Tam is described having done in Troyes in the twelfth century. This architectural design has its parallel in that frequently found in medieval Christian architecture.
In the nineteenth century, such a tower could still be seen in the medieval synagogue of Sens. In documentation concerning Rouen, the synagogal tower appears for the first time in a drawing of 1450 by John Rous representing the siege of Rouen of 1418.
Far more precise is a depiction in the Livre des fontaines de Rouen (Book of Fountains) published in 1525 by Jacques Le Lieur.
It shows a tower -circular and crowned with a pointed roof -standing higher than the square or rectangular houses bordering the Rue aux Juifs in its southern part.
The location of the tower is indeed the same as that described by Beaurepaire, la Quérière and Vernisse. From his cadastral survey of the district (see no.6 above) Jean Gosselin concluded that the drawing in Jacques Le Lieur’s Livre des Fontaines, which represents a tower situated almost at the same place, may indeed be faithful to the reality of the time.
Relying on the drawing by Le Lieur, which was re-edited by Daniel Duval in his annotated edition of Le Palais du Parlement en 1525, Nelly Chaplain places the Prosecutor’s room of the Palace of Justice almost exactly in line with the tower.
The archeological data support the same views. Founding his opinion on four elements -the almost square design, the impressive thickness of the walls, the important height, the existence of two vaulted stories, one above the other- Dominique Pitte lays down the hypothesis that this must have been a tower, built right up against the inner part of the city walls -the selfsame tower which already existed around the middle of the twelfth century.
Earl Rosenthal, an American professor specializing in Medieval and Renaissance art and architecture, notes that the tower appearing on the drawing by Le Lieur was built -like the building it buttressed- during the romanesque period, which also supports that hypothesis.
An exterior staircase enabling women to reach the upper floor
Vernisse’s plan depicts a straight staircase, going down to the main room of the synagogue (which was partially below ground level) and a spiral staircase outside the building. In accordance with the rabbinic practice that looked askance at the presence of women in the main prayer hall, the exterior staircase enabled women to have access to the first floor, undoubtedly reserved for them, without running the risk of disturbing the solemnity of the services.
The staircase may also have been part of the foundation of the above-mentioned tower.
The entrance to the synagogue was in the west wall
Vernisse’s plan indicates the entrance to the synagogue in the western wall, in accordance with the rabbinic rule, which stated that it had to be located opposite the wall of prayer. The prayer wall in European synagogues was the eastern one, oriented toward Jerusalem.
The apse in the eastern wall
Vernisse’s plan also indicates the presence, in the eastern wall of the synagogue, of an apse which housed the sacred rolls of the Torah. This custom was not specific to Rouen but can be observed in all the romanesque synagogues of northern Europe -judging from those that have survived and date from that period, that is, those located in Spire, Worms, Bamberg, Frankfurt, and Rouffach.
The fact that this apse was later on replaced by a well (mentioned in both the Linant lease and Hardy’s plan) is explained by the fact that the synagogue was used as a private dwelling after the expulsion of the Jews from Rouen in 1306. The eventual existence of this well does not contradict the original purpose of the apse.
A tall building
The solidity of the foundations and the thickness of the walls show that the synagogue was of great height, in accordance with the rabbinic rule prescribing that the synagogue ought to be the highest building in the vicus judaeorum. One can estimate the overall height of the building at around 13 meters when comparing it with the adjoining houses represented in the Livre des fontaines, and taking into consideration a drawing37 showing the elevation of the gable of the synagogue behind shorter buildings.
According to la Quérière, the ground-floor room was about 6.5 meters high and surmounted by two stories. The first floor included a mezzanine, clearly in order for the women to be able to attend the services. This particular design also made it possible to have a view from the ground floor of the frescoes decorating the ceiling.
The sketch drawn by Alain Gaspérini, head of the city-planning department of Rouen, offers a theoretical reconstruction of an elevated view of the building.
The monument discovered in 1976 beneath the courtyard of the Palace of Justice in Rouen can in no way be the communal synagogue of Rouen, whose location, it has been proved, was in the southern part of the Rue aux Juifs.
As to the short-lived theory that the monument discovered in 1976 would have been simply another monumental synagogue, built close by the former one (and more imposing yet !), it rests on no documentary proof whatsoever. It would also be in complete disagreement with the fact that, even in European cities where the Jews were numerous (e.g., Paris, Cologne, Reims, Troyes, and Mainz), there never existed more than a single monumental communal synagogue.
It is only in the Near East, where two rites coexisted, the Babylonian Rite and the Palestinian Rite, that two communal synagogues could sometimes be found in the larger cities.