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On the footsteps of our ancestors

Pernes les Fontaines

By Catherine Tomat

Pernes-les-Fontaines, also called the “Pearl of Comtat,” is a beautiful medieval town situated in Provence about 30 minutes from Avignon. It was formerly the capital of the Comtat Venaissin (Papal States).
The city was fortified and a great architectural heritage was preserved. After the discovery of St Roch spring, inhabitants brought water inside to different areas of the town. Pernes counts forty public fountains and about one hundred private fountains. We can visit them by way of a tour which includes ancient monuments, townhouses, art galleries, museums and exhibition rooms.
Twenty-two monuments are listed as ancient monuments. Frescoes from the 13th century are well preserved in the Ferrande Tower. The Horloge Tower, which is in the old dungeon of the castle of the earls of Toulouse, offers a splendid view of the valley. Numerous artisans display their crafts there: an upholsterer, a locksmith, a wrought-iron artist, a cabinetmaker, a fine bookbinder. There is also a. design studio where quilts are handmade.

The old Town  The Fontaine square

The old Town and The Fontaine square

During the 16th century, Pernes-les-Fontaines was home to a sizeable Jewish community. Today, an area which bears its name and a private ritual bath (mikvé) are the only traces remaining. During the lecture given by Rozine Anziani (see GenAmi 61), we met the guide of the tourism information office of Pernes and on July 12 she organized a tour to the only private ritual Jewish bath known in the department. It is located at 23 Place de la Juiverie, in the vaults of the de Cheylus family townhouse (16th-18th centuries). Some parts of the property are listed as ancient monuments. Our visit may have been the last opportunity to visit the bath as the house has been sold and we do not yet know if the new owners will allow visits. The Mikvé (listed as an ancient monument since September, 1996) is made up of an L-shaped pool, with eleven stone stairs. The water is clear and pure, fed by a spring whose level is stabilized at 1.45 meters. The place is cool and the guide explained to us that the room in front of the bath was used by the Jewish community for meetings or possibly as a synagogue. At the bottom of the vault, remains lead us to believe there was once a bakery, but as the access has been sealed up, researchers cannot gain more proof.



Entrance to the  Mikvé The Mikvé

Entrance to the Mikvé and The Mikvé

During this tour, the guide gave us a very beautiful surprise. She took us to the City Hall and showed us an original manuscript which is kept there. It is the agreement between the authorities of the town and the Jewish community, dated 1504. This deed laid down a very strict rule to the Jewish people, restricting them to Catte Street in order to separate them from Christians. They were allowed to go outside during the day but not at night and were required to wear a yellow hat. However, they were allowed to have a synagogue. This manuscript is badly damaged and it is hoped will be restored when the town of Pernes-les-Fontaines has the financial means.


Le Manuscrit


The Manuscrit agreement

Le Manuscrit

In 1569, the Jews were driven out of Pernes and their properties sold. In 1590, the townhouse, which sheltered the Mikvé, was sold to the de Cheylus family. In 1634, Jews from the Comtat were gathered in four carrières (ghettos): Avignon, Carpentras, Cavaillon and Isle sur la Sorgue.

Les photos sont de Gérard TOMAT.