European scholars have studied the ancient world for centuries, learning about the culture and the history of the antiquarian period. The civilizations commonly researched were ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, but there was a movement to understand the Far East and everything in between. Claude Fleury (1640-1723), a French scholar, academic, and jurist, wrote multiple history books, but one in particular was different: his book on the ancient Israelites, Les moeurs des Israelites (1683). This book focuses on the culture, history, and the religion of the ancient Israelites, and their presence in contemporary society. Fleury wrote this book to historicize the Jewish community, not as a means to attack the Jewish population in seventeenth-century Europe.
Fleury started his career as a lawyer; he trained at the Collège de Clermont, which was the foremost Jesuit college of France and praised by Louis XIV.He trained under Father Cossart, a Jesuit lawyer, and was received as an attorney for Parliament at age 17, well before he finished his studies. At the age of 32, Fleury became the tutor of Louis-Armand de Bourbon (1661-1685), Prince de Conti, and François-Louis de Bourbon (1664-1709), Prince de la Roche-Sur-Yon, princes du sang. He would remain their tutor for eight years, until both the boys moved on in their lives. Fleury was then assigned tutorship of Louis de Bourbon, Comte de Vermandois, who was the third child of Louis XIV. This tutorship helped to establish Fleury not only as a respectable teacher, but also helped create connections with Louis XIV.
Fleury became the royal tutor for the court, and later became the head of the Cistercian abbey of Loc-Dieu, as a gift from Louis XIV. While tutoring the Enfants de France, the official title of the royal children, Fleury followed his passion for writing history books. He wrote multiple books, all focusing on telling the history of particular subjects that reflected the enlightened ideas surrounding France at this time.
Fleury wrote this book to document the culture, religion, and history of the ancient Israelites. Les moeurs des Israelites examined how the ancient Jews lived, and challenged how they had been portrayed in the New Testament. Fleury outlined his actions as follows:
To put aside the ideas which belong to our country and our time, looking at the Israelites according to the circumstances related to the times and places in which they lived, comparing them with the peoples closest to them, and thus entering their minds and their principles.
This quote by Fleury illustrates his standpoint on writing history in general. He wrote the book as a historical account of the Israelites, but also compared the ancients to the ‘modern’ day Jews in France. Fleury borrowed this idea from the Venetian rabbi, Leone Modena (1571-1648), and used this notion of being a “simple, neutral narrator,” when writing not only this book, but his other history books as well.His approach was to focus mainly on the cultural changes and tendencies that can be seen from past to present, and to not dilute the scholarly tone with his own voice. By doing this, he created a more objective book on the history of the ancient Israelites.
This book was very different for its time, not only for the approach of the narration, but also the subject. This book focuses on ancient Israelites, and the ‘modern’ day Jews that inhabited France. It was first published in Paris, 1681, with subsequent copies being released per year (Worth’s edition was printed at The Hague in 1683). In 1685, Louis XIV made his infamous decision to revoke the Edict of Nantes, making all non-Catholic religions illegal. This allowed for the persecution of Jews, Huguenots, and many others by the Catholic population in France, driving many out of the country. Fleury’s book was written to illuminate to Christians that Jews were not different than them, and that they were not barbaric like their predecessors.
The customs of ancient Israelites are so different from ours that we are shocked by them…their bloody sacrifices are disgusting…we are easily persuaded that those people were brutal and ignorant, and their customs more despicable than admirable. But our prejudice disappears as soon as we compare the customs of the Israelites with those of the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the other ancient populations we praise most highly.
The quote here by Fleury is interesting, because he states the academic paradigm that existed during this time period. He took the information about the Israelites from the Bible, and presented it in an antiquarian format, causing readers to reassess the content of his message by changing its context. Fleury showed how the Israelites were not different from the Greeks, Romans, or the Egyptians with their civilizations. Each civilization performed barbaric rituals such as animal sacrifices, but whereas the latter civilizations were projected as exemplary utopias to strive towards, the Israelites were seen in a more negative light. This book is important today, because it shows the movement away from unenlightened prejudices, towards the ideals of the Enlightenment. As the anonymous annotation on the flyleaf of Worth’s copy states: “Let us [looke] ourselves in this glasse and see how farre shorte wee come of the true Israeli.”
Church, William F. “The Decline of the French Jurists as Political Theorists, 1660-1789,” Society for French Historical Studies 5 no. 1 (Spring, 1967): 1- 40.
Fleury, Claude. Les moeurs des Israelites. The Hague: 1683.
Ginzburg, Carlo. “Provincializing the world: Europeans, Indians, Jews (1704),” Postcolonial Studies, 14 no. 2 (2011): 135-150.
Wanner, Raymond E. “Claude Fleury and his Career.” In Claude Fleury (1640-1723) As An Educational Historiographer and Thinker, 1-23. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975.
Text: Mr Zach Ghodsi, Fourth-Year Student from Chapman University, California.
Raymond E. Wanner, “Claude Fleury and his Career,” in Claude Fleury (1640-1723) As An Educational Historiographer and Thinker (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975) 2.
Wanner, Claude Fleury (1640-1723), 18.
William F. Church, “The Decline of the French Jurists as Political Theorists, 1660-1789,” Society for French Historical Studies 5 no. 1 (Spring, 1967).
Carlo Ginzburg, “Provincializing the world: Europeans, Indians, Jews (1704),” Postcolonial Studies, 14 no. 2 (2011): 139.