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A tiny town in France is officially named "Death to the Jews"

King John II ennobling some knights.
King John II ennobling some knights.
Bibliothèque National de France
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

A tiny hamlet, consisting of a farm and two houses, in a tiny village called Courtmaux, 60 miles south of Paris, goes by the name of "La-mort-aux-Juifs," which literally translates to "Death to the Jews." This, unsurprisingly, has some anti-Semitism watchdog groups concerned.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center's director of international affairs, according to Agence France-Presse, has sent a letter to France's interior minister demanding the name be changed. But Courtemaux's deputy mayor Marie-Elizabeth Secretand told AFP it's unlikely the municipal council would agree to a change. Anti-racism activists tried to change it in 1992, and came up short.

The closest thing to a reason for continuing to name a town "Death to the Jews" in the year 2014 that Secretand offers is that it "goes back to the Middle Ages or even further." It's not really clear how this supports her case, given that Middle Ages France was, like the rest of the Christian world at that time, extremely anti-Semitic.

But leaving that aside for a second, the question of where the name originated is actually pretty interesting. A search on Gallicia, a massive online library offered by the national library of France, reveals references to the town going back to the 19th century, including two documents that tell the same story of how it originated. Here's the Memoirs of the Archaeological Society of Orléans from 1884:

Le 18 juillet 1353, le roi Jean-le-Bon…était aussi à Chantecoq, et il y décrétait de sévères mesures contre les Juifs et Lombards, qui ruinaient ses peuples par l'usure. A une lieue du château royal de Chantecoq, où Jean II signait ces ordonnances, se trouve une ferme qui porte encore le nom de la Mort-aux-Juifs!

This translates, roughly, to: "On July 18, 1353, King John the Good was also in Chantecoq, and there decreed severe measures against the Jews and Lombards, who were bringing his people to ruin through usury. A league [around 4 kilometers] from the Royal Castle at Chantecoq, where John II signed these orders, is a farm that still bears the name of 'Death to the Jews'!" (Chantecoq is a commune bordering Courtemaux, and "Lombard" refers to a type of pawn broker in the medieval period.)

A report the previous year in the Bulletin of the Archaeological and Historical Society of Orléans is more circumspect about the story: "Is there a historical connection between this name and an order of King John the Good, dated to Chantecoq, and directed against the Jews, Lombards, and other moneylenders, who were oppressing the populace? We can only ask without resolving the issue." (The claim that Jews "oppressed the populace" and the other article's allegation that they "brought people to ruin" are good reminders that 19th century, Dreyfus-era France was deeply anti-Semitic as well.)

It's hard to verify this version of events without an actual copy of King John II's — a king most famous for being kidnapped by the English during the Hundred Years' War — edict, which could very well be lost to history. But if it's legit, it's an even more powerful reason to change the name: not only is it anti-Semitic on its face, the name actually derives from an attempt by the French government to persecute Jews.

Thanks to Justin Miller for the pointer to the AFP story, to Ian Kumekawa for research help, and to Vox's resident French speakers Matt Yglesias and Libby Nelson for translation assistance.

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