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Besalu Jewish Quarter

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Basic Information

Location Besalú, Girona, Spain
Country Spain
City Girona

General Information

Open to visitors yes
Need appointment no
Handicap accessibility yes
Website http://www.redjuderias.org/google/google_maps_print/besalu-en.html
Geographical Coordinates 42.19956,2.70336


It is commonly accepted that the Jews arrived in Catalonia in the Early Middle Ages with the first contingent comprising between ten and twelve thousand people, in other words, between four and seven per cent of the Catalan population at that time. Alongside the large aljamas of Catalonia, like those of Barcelona (with over four thousand people) and Girona (with around a thousand), Besalú constitutes a small community of around one hundred to one hundred and fifty people but this didn't stop its Jewish quarter from becoming one of the major ones in the Middle Ages.

History and time period

The Jews set up in the county of Besalú as from the 9th century but we are unable to find any written documentation of their presence until the 13th century. The oldest documents date back to 1229 when King Jaime I the Conqueror informed the Jews of Besalú and Girona that at the behest of the papal legate of Gregory IX and at the requests of the Bishop of Girona Guillem de Cabanelles, notaries were forbidden from issuing loan contracts with interest at twenty per cent, failing which they would be subject to a fine of twice the contractual sum whilst simultaneously forbidding Jews from cohabiting with Christians. From that juncture, we can find continuous references to the Jews of Besalú, the synagogue, the mayors and the Jewish functionaries. The Jews held official posts in the city and in the Jewish quarter in particular such as bailiffs and secretaries of the aljama: in 1274 this was held by Cresques Perfet and ten years later by Belshom Leví, Benveniste Zabarra and Vidal Tauler.

Until the 14th century the Jewish quarter of Besalú was represented by the secretaries of the Girona aljama, though sometimes a specific secretary would represent them such as in 1326 when the secretaries of the aljama of Besalú are mentioned without giving out their names, although many of the names of members of their community were stated such as Caravita de Porta, Caracuasa Mair, Isjaq Astruc, Vidal de Moneéis, Vertzelay Benvenist, Salomó Graciaà, Astruc Zarc, Bonjuha Cavaller, the son of Astruc Maimó and Biona Bonjuha who undertake before the porter of Prince don Alfonso to pay the aljama of Besalú whatever they were due to settle.

The names of the Jews of Besalú are so characteristic that they seem to have their own identity: its Jewish quarter was made up of families with a long trajectory and tradition in the neighbouring counties since the 13th century. Jewish surnames in Besalú can still be traced today in Israel: Balmanya, Moses Besalú, Carcassona, Vides Durán... In the first half of the 14th century the surnames Benet, Alatzar, Pairusa, Salomó Abraham, Piera and Goer were frequent and in particular Benvenist and Bonastruc Vital, Bonastruch Mercadell or Bonsenyor and Bonfill Bondía.

On October 4th 1264, Jaime I the Conqueror granted a privilege to the Jewish community of Besalú to build the synagogue. In the documents found, the Besalú synagogue is continuously related with the plaça dels jueus or Jews' square and it is situated there or somewhere nearby. The synagogue was discovered in 2005 alongside the Mikvehin the current Pla dels Jueus.

The Jewish community of Besalú underwent major growth until the mid-14th century, a process further boosted by the immigration of Jews from Al Ándalus and France from where they were expelled in 1306. The population of the Jewish quarters was estimated at around 300 people. It was a well-structured community with ordinances and privileges similar to those of the Jews of Girona. This situation finally led Besalú to create its own collection in 1342. In this year King Pedro IV ordered that:

"La aljama dels jueus de Bisulda e los singulars daquella sien tots temps separats dela cullita dela dita aljama dels juheus de Girona."

In other words, the king granted the Jews of Besalú the right to unit as a specific independent entity of the Girona aljama. Before this date all matters in Girona impacted in Besalú. From this time, the cullita of Besalú would extend its influence to the Jewish population nuclei in the environs which, as they were small in number, did not have their own legal status. This was the time of greatest splendour and religious and civil dynamism in the city. The Jewish quarters of Besalú was in contact with all the Jews of Catalonia and even with aljamas in the rest of Europe. The city came to fame with the prestige of its Jewish doctors known not only as good physicians but also as people who were astute in their business dealings and in the lending activity. In actual fact, in Besalú medicine was a characteristic profession as can be gleaned from a list of Jews who practised it during the 14th century and whose reputation went beyond national frontiers.

This age of well-being and progress only lasted for fifty years. The persecutions of 1391 marked the beginning of the end for the Jews in Catalonia. Some communities survived the slaughters and destructions of the Jewish quarters, but they were never to regain their former status. In Besalú there are no traces of the slaughter of 1391. However, an age of unrest began which reduced the number of Jews living in Besalú.

The Jews of Besalú did not live separately from the rest of the population until 1415. In this year the bull Etsi doctores gentium by the antipope Benedict XIII completely set the Jews apart as it forced them to live in the Jewish quarters. October of this year saw the creation of the call around the synagogue in the area where the majority of the Jews had traditionally settled, but not necessarily all of them. Hence, before said date there were Jews residing in different streets of the Besalú old town, at Portal de Bell·lloc, Puente Street, Forn Street, Plaza Major (Main Square), Rocafort street etc. After the arrival of the papal bull they were given a week to move to the new site, a period which was subsequently extended by a further eight days. As from 1436 the Jewish presence dwindled until finally disappearance. This was the mercy blow as the Jewish community completely disappeared two decades later. Only a few families remained until the end such as Des Catllar, Carcassona or Belshom Ceravita. Other began to emigrate to other Jewish quarters like Granollers, Caldes de Montbui or Castelló d´Empúries.

The Jews set up in the county of Besalú as from the 9th century , but we are unable to find any written documentation until the 13th century . The oldest documentary evidence dated back to 1229 when King Jaime I the Conqueror restricted their lending activities. From that juncture, we can find continuous references to the Jews of Besalú, the synagogue, the mayors and the Jewish functionaries.

The Jewish community of Besalú was bound between 1300 and 1342 to the Girona collect.After becoming an independent collect thanks to the privilege of King Pedro IV, the Jewish quarter of Besalú experienced its most successful period between 1342 and 1391 when it formed its own collect along with Banyoles, Figueres, Camprodón, Olot and Sant Llorenç de la Muga.Although there are no references here to the slaughters of 1391, what is for sure is that as from this date the city's Jewish quarter went into free-fall with a string of conversions or exile, firstly to other Catalan settlements like Granollers or Castelló dʼEmpúries and then to France. The famous papal bull of Benedict XIII of 1415 which laid down the requirement to segregate the Jews in closed districts helped to exacerbate the situation further. In no time the decree of expulsion was issued by the Catholic Monarchs as in 1436 there were officially no Jews in Besalú. Only a few families remained until the end such as Des Catllar, Carcassona or Belshom Ceravita.

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