A strange little rat ball


Sculptured above the Porte Juive in the Cathedral of Saint-Siffrein, Carpentras is a strange ball with a dozen rats running over it.

Taking the place of two earlier buildings (7th and 12th centuries), the cathedral was begun in 1405 under the Avignon papacy of Benoît XIII (Pedro de Luna), completed in 1519 and consecrated in 1531. The Southern Gothic cathedral has a side door in the flamboyant style known as the “Jewish Portal”. It was by this door, close to the ghetto, that Jews who wished to convert to Roman Catholicism had to enter. Remember that it was because Carpentras was papal territory that the Jews that were expelled from France in the 13th century were able to take refuge there and build one of the oldest and probably one of the most beautiful synagogues in France. The synagogue was built in 1367, ay which time there were 45 Jewish families in Carpentras. In 1779, they received authorization to extend the synagogue, but the bishop reproached them for wanting to build higher than his cathedral. Listed as a historic monument, the present synagogue dates from 1784 when some 750 Jewish families lived in Carpentras.

Located above the Porte Juive, the ‘boule aux rats’ has elicited any number of interpretations, from the most fantastic to the very likely. Thus, the etymology or topography of Carpentras is sometimes called upon: Latin carpere – browse, nibble; ras = rat…

Perhaps it also represents something to do with the plague, which claimed so many victims in Comtat (Venaissin), despite the Plague Wall (see another post); epidemics of typhus and plague killed 150,000 people in the region in the 14th century. The ‘ boulo di gari’  (Provençal for “rat ball”) would have been set up as a reminder that assiduous attendance at church was the best vaccine against the disease…

There are three other boules aux rats in France, at Saint-Germain-l’Auxer-rois in Paris, Le Mans cathedral, and the church of Saint-Jacques de Meulan in Yvelines département Île-de-France.

St Siffrein, patron saint of Carpentras to whom the cathedral is dedicated was bishop of the town in the 7th century. He was trained at Lerins and his life is studded with resounding miracles. His cult is still celebrated with great solemnity.

The relics of St Siffrein came to Carpentras around 1220, following the Crusades. He is “preserved” in a magnificent reliquary by the Lyon goldsmith Armand Calillat (1872).


(Adapted from Secret Provence by Jean-Pierre Cassidy)


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