On May 18, 576, more than 500 Jews in the city of Clermont, France, requested to be baptized. The request was a response to an ultimatum given to the town’s Jews by Avitus, the bishop of Clermont: either convert or be expelled.
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The Auvergne region of southern France was at the time part of the Frankish kingdom. The first reference to the presence of Jews in France is in 470 C.E. in Clermont – found in letters of the Gallo-Roman churchman Sidonius Apollinaris.
Avitus was appointed bishop of Clermont by King Sigebert in 571, succeeding Bishop Cautinus. The historian Gregory of Tours writes with disapproval of the overly warm relations that Cautinus had with the Jews of his town: “He was dear to the Jews and was much attached to them.” Another historian, Audigier, even suggests that his comfortable relationship with the Jews derived not with the goal of “enlightening them, but in order to buy his furniture and jewels cheap from them.”
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Avitus had a different approach to the Jews from the start of his tenure as bishop, making overtures to them to convert. They did not. Rather, the general atmosphere was one of tolerance, with Jews serving as doctors, judges and military men, and even intermarrying with Christians.
Avitus made his move after the death of Sigebert, in 576. On Easter Day, April 5, he succeeded in converting a single Jew. When the convert, dressed in white robes, participated in a procession around Clermont, he had rancid oil spilled upon him by another Jew. According to the histories of the period, the townspeople wanted to avenge this insulting act by stoning the Jews. Avitus stepped in to calm tempers.
The other shoe was soon to drop, however. Forty days later, on Ascension Day – May 14 – Avitus issued his ultimatum to Clermont’s Jewish population: Convert or leave. To assist the Jews in making up their minds, they were subjected to violence. As quoted in “Reckless Rites,” by historian Elliott Horowitz, “when the bishop [Avitus] processed with psalm singing from the cathedral to the basilica [of St. Illidius], the entire crowd following fell upon the synagogue of the Jews and leveled it to the ground, so that the spot resembled a bare field.”
Thus, on May 18, most of the Jews of Clermont requested to be received into the church. Those who were unwilling to undergo baptism apparently did leave the town for Marseille, to the south.
The historian Venantius Fortunatus wrote a poem praising, if not vindicating, Avitus for the episode. In it, he suggests that the Jews decided to convert only when they realized they were not in a position to fight. According to Venantius, Avitus acted out of a desire to see the people of his town united, addressing the Jews with the words: “You are the sheep of one God, also, why do you not go in unity? As there is one shepherd, so I urge, let there be one flock.
“The shepherd gained his wish,” Venantius continued, “for he united them in one sheepfold and he found joy in his flock of snow-white sheep.”