Feudal taxes: the first sturgeon from the Rhône river by Janice Lert


The most important of the patron saints associated with the different professions must be Peter, the disciple of Christ. He was a fisherman and so the medieval guilds of fishermen took him as their protector. And there were plenty of fishermen in the Middle Ages in and around Arles because it was, and still is to a certain extent, surrounded by water: the Rhone River, perhaps branches of the Durance, marshes and of course the Mediterranean Sea. Islands were also sometimes placed under Peter’s protection, and this is the case of the little “island” to the east of the hill of Arles, Ile St. Pierre, where the ruins of Montmajour Abbey highlight the skyline today. The spot is no longer an island since the swampy land surrounding it was drained in the 17th century.

Feudal taxes

We can imagine that the ties between this old abbey and the fishermen must have been strong. And one story in particular has come down to us because it appears in so many medieval documents: a story of a special tax paid by fishermen to the Benedictine monks occupying Montmajour Abbey. Medieval taxes were often paid in kind, and for the fishermen that meant contributing fish to their feudal lord, in this case the monks, who had established their rights (at least partially) over the lower Rhone River in 1060. The custom of bringing the first female sturgeon (with eggs) fished in the Rhône River each year, to the monks in the Abbey has been traced back to at least 1162. The fishermen hated this tax, even though the monks, in compensation, promised to say mass for their souls... and so there was a lot of litigation about where, when and by whom this fish was taken. A sturgeon, by the way, was not just any fish: it could be up to three meters long, enough to feed the monastery and then some, and the eggs could be used for caviar.

To make it easier for the fishermen to accomplish their duty, the monks decided to add other compensations. In the 12th century, the four fishermen who brought the sturgeon to the abbey each year were invited to a banquet, were given loaves of bread and wine, and received the right to ask the first Jew that they met to give them 20 pennies. Later there were eight fishermen, they got less bread and wine, but the money to be collected from the first Jew increased to 25 pennies.

It is easy to imagine the impact of this practice on the Jewish community in Arles. Jews had been in Arles since the Roman period and there were probably about 200 Jews in Arles in the 12th century. They lived in close collaboration with the Christian church, and were protected by the archbishop. In Arles they lived mainly in the section of the city around the present day “rue du Dr. Fanton”, but there is no evidence remaining today of this presence. They paid taxes like everyone else, and in particular to the church because the church esteemed that Jews living in a diocese occupied land that would otherwise have been occupied by Christians who would give money to the church. We know that among these 'taxes' were 'duties' such as repairing bridges and roads, which could be accomplished by the entire community. But the money for Montmajour was to be contributed by one unlucky individual who happened to run into the fishermen at the beginning of the year.

The consequence of this practice was that no Jew dared to venture out at the beginning of the year. The whole community was thus stigmatized and no Jewish individual dared to undertake any initiative until these 25 pennies had been paid. However the Jews were not easily discouraged and had a habit of organizing themselves: in 1215 the archbishop, Michel de Mouriès, accepted that they choose three tax- collectors among themselves who would collect the necessary pennies from the entire community, then, when the first sturgeon had been fished out of the river, present the purse to the fishermen.

Thus a compromise was found that allowed everyone to pursue life normally. This is just one example of the complicated relationships between communities in the Middle Ages. The French Revolution in 1789 brought a theoretical end to such practices: habits that had sometimes been around for so long that no one really knew why. So many of our ‘traditions’ are based on ‘compromises’ that have thus evolved over the centuries...

Source : Bonnet, Marie-Rose, Le droit feudal de l’esturgeon dû à l’abbaye de Montmajour, in Bastié, Aldo, Abbaye Saint- Pierre de Montmajour, Editions les Amis du Vieil Arles, 1999.

If you wish to read more informative, well-researched English-language articles about Provence: towns, monuments, traditions, legends, history, ask Janice Lert, licenced guide- lecturer for a list of her titles: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Small fee applies.