The Messiah of Septimania
By Lee Levin Copyright © 2011
There are times in history when a new discovery creates a firestorm of interest, like the discovery of the lost tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen. Other time a historical breakthrough is a fizzle, greeted with indifference. Such was the undeserved fate of the discovery of the Jewish Kingdom of Septimania. This medieval kingdom in southern France arose in the eighth century, thriving for 140 years under the rule of six extraordinarily competent Jewish kings. The story of Septimania was unearthed roughly forty years ago by Professor Arthur J. Zuckerman, by dint of extraordinary research into medieval documents written in French, German, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin. His book, published by Columbia University Press, promptly vanished into the black hole of dry academia, a true pity, for the astounding tale of Septimania deserves to be widely known, particularly in the Jewish community.
First things first. What was Septimania, and where in the world was it? Septimania. was a large land located in the French Midi, nestled just north of the Pyrenees, and given its name because veterans of the Roman Seventh Legion (Septimanii) settled there when they retired.
We are regaled from time to time with accounts of obscure Jewish communities in odd, unexpected places, like China or India or Afghanistan. But the only thing of interest about them is simply that they exist, or existed. The Jewish Kingdom of Septimania was nothing like that. It was quite large, encompassing the major cities of Narbonne, Toulouse, and Carcassonne, and it did a lot more than merely exist. It played a major role in the history of medieval France.
How on earth did it get there, and how could it have arisen, this Jewish kingdom nestled between hostile Catholic Franks to the north and hostile Islamic Moors to the south? Obviously, therein lies quite a tale.
For reasons lost to history, Septimania had a large Jewish population, particularly in the seaport city of Narbonne. When Pepin III, king of the Franks, decided to try to drive the Moors out of southern France and Spain, he found himself balked by the powerful walls of Narbonne which, after seven futile years of siege, he simply could not penetrate. Nor could he starve out Narbonne, for it was a seaport, being resupplied quite easily, since Pepin had no navy. He was getting desperate, out of money and facing catastrophic defeat, when he had a brilliant idea. He would offer the Jews of Narbonne 50,000 marks-an enormous sum, if they would contrive to open the gates of Narbonne for just a few minutes so his army could storm in. How could they refuse? Everyone knows how much the Jews love money.
They refused. The risk was far too high. If they failed, the Moors would massacre them, and from the point of view of the Moors, with good reason.
Shocked at their refusal, he re-thought the situation, then made them a second offer. Instead of money, he offered them Septimania-all of it--as an independent Jewish kingdom, with its own Jewish king and own Jewish army, in return for opening the gates. This time they accepted the risk. It was a Godfather-like offer they simply could not refuse. The Moors had never secured oaths of allegiance from the Jews, never even thinking about it, but in that era, this meant that the Jews of Narbonne were free to act in their own interests. The gates were opened. Narbonne fell. Pepin kept his word.
Now the Jews had their kingdom, but no king. Pepin had placed a very unusual condition on his offer. Whoever the Jews selected as their king had to be a direct lineal descendant of King David! Why? They would find out later, but they really didn't care. This was precisely who they would want in any case. There was no such man in Septimania, so they sent to Babylonia for their king, because Babylonia at the time was the heart of Judaism with its great academies of learning at Sura and Pumbeditha. Many there claimed descent from David. Thus they got their king, and what a king they got!
His name was Natronai ben Zabinai, a Persian name. He was a scholar of such renown that he had been elected Exilarch in his twenties, an unheard-of youthful age. The Exilarch was considered in essence to be King of the Jews in Exile; his word and his decisions were law. Natronai spoke eight languages fluently. He had an eidetic memory, bringing the entire Babylonian Talmud to the West entirely from memory.
Something astonishing happened. He was proclaimed the long-awaited, long-tarried Messiah! King, yes, because they had made him king, but Messiah? Why? What was that all about?
It had been precisely 700 years since the Temple in Jerusalem had fallen to the Romans. Since then, countless prophecies, gleaned from scholarly readings of the Torah, proclaimed that the Jewish people had been punished by God for their sins by the destruction of the Temple, and that precisely 700 years later the Messiah would arrive to establish God's kingdom on earth. Now, miraculously, out of the blue, comes word from the West that a Jewish kingdom has suddenly materialized out of nowhere, awaiting its king, awaiting the Messiah. The prophecies were fulfilled! A Jewish Kingdom was here! The Messiah was here! Exactly as prophecied!
That well might be, but Natronai had other pressing earthly concerns to deal with. Upon arriving in Septimania he immediately was faced with overwhelming demands-promulgating laws, levying taxes, establishing courts, raising an army-all the requirements of governance, all needing immediate imposition. Then, like a thunderbolt, came a message from King Charles, the successor of his father, Pepin III. As a part of the agreement to create Septimania, it was understand that, under the feudal system of the time, Natronai--who now took the Hebrew name of Machir-would give oaths of allegiance to the King of the Franks. King Charles requested that Machir marry his aunt Alda. A request from the King of the Franks was a command.
All now came clear. So this was why Pepin had required that the King of Septimania be a direct descendant of King David! The problem for Pepin, and for his son, King Charles, was that Pepin had usurped the throne of the Franks from the Merovingians, and thus there was no royal blood in their veins. This they desperately needed in order to establish the legitimacy of their dynasty. By this marriage of Alda to Machir, who was a direct lineal descendant of King David, they would not only have royal blood in the veins of their descendants, but the most royal blood possible, the blood of David himself!
But how could such a marriage take place? Alda was Catholic, and no Catholic priest would marry her to a Jew unless the Jew converted, which of course Machir absolutely could not do. On the other hand, no rabbi would marry Machir to a gentile unless she converted. An unsolvable dilemma? Apparently not, for marry they did, and had a legitimate son through whom Jewish blood now was intermingled with that of the Carolingian kings of France. How was this possible? History is silent. There was a way that perhaps it could be accomplished, based on the customs of the time. Whether in fact this way was used is purely speculative.
King Charles now called upon Machir to participate with him in his great campaign to drive the Moors from northern Spain. Have I mentioned that King Charles is better known as Charlemagne? No, I have not. But this is who he was, which means that Charlemagne had a Jewish uncle, and the Jewish kings of Septimania were related by blood to the Carolingian kings of France.
Machir proved to be an exceptional warrior-king, fighting with Charlemagne and in the process increasing the boundaries of Septimania fourfold, making it a true power in its own right. His successes doubtless were largely the result of his being hailed as Messiah by his Jewish subjects who fought valiantly following his Lion of Judah banner from victory to victory until in the year 793 Machir fell in battle in an insignificant skirmish on the banks of the River Weser in Pannoni.
Machir's successor-kings played significant roles in the subsequent history of France, the borders of Septimania waxing and waning depending on the vagaries of combat and alliances. After 140 years, the Jewish Kingdom of Septimania disappeared when the last king of the Machiri dynasty died without a male heir.
This is the bare-bones tale of the Jewish Kingdom of Septimania. Quite an amazing tale it is, and this relates just a few of the highlights. So why is Septimania unknown? An excellent question. Zuckerman's book-and I hope he will forgive me for saying this-is practically unreadable, written in the densest, most mind-numbing academic prose ever to see print. Published by a university press, it promptly disappeared into the black hole of unread scholarly treatises. Well, perhaps that's not quite true. Some read it, and it stirred a minor tempest in a teapot, as a few scholars criticized Zuckerman's research and his conclusions. This happens all the time. For example, when I was researching my own book on King Tut, there were three exceptionally well-recognized, well-credentialed scholars whose books I turned to. One proved beyond a doubt that Pharaoh Akhenaten was King Tut's father. Another proved he was King Tut's grandfather. The third proved that he was Tut's great-uncle. The same problem arises when researching the scanty surviving material from the end of the Dark Ages. Scholars draw different conclusions from the same material, for at times conclusions on some points can only be reached speculatively and by inference.
It is perfectly understandable that Septimania vanished from history for twelve centuries. There were no printing presses. Manuscripts were one-of-a-kind. With the collapse of Rome, the world fell into darkness. Ironically, much of the story of Septimania could only be unearthed from surviving Church documents in which clerics fulminated against the very existence of a Jewish state in Catholic Europe.
This story of the Jewish Kingdom of Septimania needs to be far more widely known, being a fascinating addition to our knowledge of what Jews accomplish when given the opportunity to pursue their own destinies.
Lee Levin is a historian, author and lecturer, and his historical novel, "The Messiah of Septimania," is available through Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or Kindle.
from the May 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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