ALSACE   ELSASS (Ger), Alsatia (Lat).

Map of Alsace (France).

Map of Alsace (France). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Region between the Vosges and the Rhine:  (1) a Duchy in the Merovingian era;  (2) a region in the Holy Roman Empire;   (3) a gouvernement in 18th century France;  (4) the greater part of the German Reichsland of Elsass-Lothringen, 1871-1918;  and (5) a present-day region in eastern France.

Alsace was part of the Roman Empire, but in the early 5th century, the Alemanni, a confederation of German tribes who lived mainly between Rhine and Danube, occupied the region with the consequence that the boundary between the Germanic and Romance languages was pushed westward to the Vosges.  The Franks later subdued the Alemanni, and Alsace came under the control of Frankish Dukes, 670-740.  About the year 740 the title of Duke stopped being used.   The family of the Etichonen, who had held the Duchy, continued as Counts of the Sundgau and Nordgau, a division between southern and northern Alsace which has been a normal feature of Alsatian history.   Ecclesiastically Alsace was divided not merely between dioceses (Basle and Strasbourg) but between provinces (Besançon and Mainz), a partition which echoed the Roman division of the region between the provinces of Maxima Sequanorum and Germania Superior.   Politically the early division between the Sundgau and the Nordgau was followed in the 12th century by the appointment of Landgraves for Upper and Lower Alsace, and centuries later revolutionary France divided Alsace into two departments.

The Carolingians linked Alsace and Alemannia east of the Rhine until the great partition of their lands in 843, when Alsace became part of the Emperor Lothar’s territories.  In 855 it passed to his second son, Lothar II, who unavailingly tried to have his son, Hugh, whom he made ruler of Alsace in 867, legitimated.  In 870, the year after Lothar II’s death, his uncle, Louis the German, incorporated Alsace in his East Frankish Kingdom, and it again became linked with Alemannia, or Swabia as it became increasingly called in the 10th century.

The Etichonens continued to be the most powerful family in Alsace.   Their senior line died out c.1000;  they had bestowed much property upon the Church, including the Abbey of Murbach, their foundation in Upper Alsace.  The most powerful Counts in the 11th century were those of Egisheim, almost certainly members of the Etichonen family.  They too died out, having divided their lands along the way, and weakened themselves with family feuds.  (It is said that the three separate towers on a hill near Eguisheim were to protect the Counts not so much from their enemies as from one another).  In the later 11th century the Staufer or Hohenstaufen, a family from the vicinity of Stuttgart, acquired land in Alsace from marriage with an Egisheim relative, and in 1079 Frederick of Hohenstaufen became Duke of Swabia.

In 1125 Duke Frederick II, the son of the Emperor Henry V’s sister, failed as a contender for the German Crown.   His successful rival, Lothar III, sought to weaken Hohenstaufen power by appointing Landgraves in Upper and Lower Alsace, c.1135.   The new Landgrave in Upper Alsace belonged to a family possibly stemming from the Etichonen but by this time called Habsburg from their castle in the Aargau.   The Landgrave in Lower Alsace, the Count of Metz, came from the family of the Counts of Blieskastel in the valley of the Mosel.  The Hohenstaufen gained the Crown in 1138, became overstretched in the next century, and by the time the last nominal Duke, Conradin, was executed in 1268,  Alsace had long fragmented.

It had become a patchwork quilt of territories.  There were several ecclesiastical principalities, chief among them the Abbey of Murbach and the Bishopric of Strasbourg.  The Bishop’s prestige was further enhanced in 1359 when he became Landgrave in Lower Alsace, an office previously held by the Counts, first of Metz, then of Werd, and lastly of Oettingen, who were all descended in the female line from the Counts of Egisheim.   Among the lay lords, the breakdown of power allowed some very small lordships to survive.  A few, like Lichtenberg or Rappoltstein, were big enough to called small rather than tiny.   Only one principality was of significant size:  the Habsburgs’ original lands in the south, dignified by the Landgraviate of Upper Alsace, had been made more solid in 1325 when they had acquired the County of Ferrette (Pfirt) by marriage.   Their lands became known as the Sundgau.   For a short period, 1469-74, the Habsburg lands were held by Charles the Rash, Duke of Burgundy, but some of the Alsatian cities and the Swiss districts helped Sigismund of Tirol, who was always looking for money, to buy back his rights.

It was not simply that Alsace was a land of small lordships.   There were also miniscule ones.  As in Swabia, the Hohenstaufen had rewarded their ministerials (their unfree captains and administrators) with estates held directly of them as Kings.  It was in the Strasbourg region that clusters of the lands of the Imperial Knights, as the one-time ministerials became known, were to be found in Alsace.  Another, and subsequently more powerful, legacy was the Hohenstaufen encouragement of the towns.  A group of them in 1353-4 formed the association later known as the Decapolis;  they were under the superintendence of the Emperor’s representative, the Landvogt, who lived at Hagenau, but they were an important force in Alsace for several centuries.  One of them, Mulhouse, later left the Decapolis, and became an associate of the Swiss Confederation in 1515.    Strasbourg, having freed itself from control by the Bishop, was an Imperial Free City but never belonged the Decapolis.

Alsace suffered miserably in the Thirty Years’ War;  in the 1630s Swedish troops occupied it.  Their candidate to rule in Alsace, Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, died in 1639, with the consequence that the Swedes became willing for France to intervene there, something which Colmar, one of the principal cities of the Decapolis, had already sought in 1634.

In the Peace of Westphalia,1648, France acquired the Sundgau from Austria, the rights of protection over the towns of the Decapolis, and the titles and rights of the Landgraviates of Upper and Lower Alsace.    As there was no agreement as to what these rights were, they later caused much trouble.   Breisach (Brisach), on the right bank of the Rhine, was also ceded to France.

Later in the century France advanced from this base.  The Decapolis was annexed in 1672 (the actual submission came in 1673), and this was confirmed by the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678/9.   The ten cities that comprised the Decapolis, with their dependencies, were scattered the length of Alsace.   In the immediate aftermath of the peace at Nijmegen, the Chamber of Reunion, a special court attached to the Conseil souverain, meeting at Brisach, considered what those dependencies were, and also various other matters arising from the rights of the Landgraviates.   As a result of their judgements other parts of Alsace were added to the lands of France and the independent lords were obliged to acknowledge the overlordship of its King.   By one of the judgments of the Conseil souverain, the outlying villages of the Imperial City of Strasbourg were declared part of the Kingdom in 1680;  in the following year the city itself, to which there could be no clear legal claim arising from the Treaties of 1648 and 1678/9, yielded to the pressure of the French armies camped outside it and was incorporated in the Kingdom.   Though protests were raised against the réunions, no action was taken against these peaceful annexations, partly because the Emperor was preoccupied with what turned out to be the last Ottoman assault on Vienna.

In 1684 French possession was confirmed in the Treaty of Regensburg, and again in 1697 in the Treaty of Rijswick, when French control over all Alsace was acknowledged, though Breisach was returned to the Habsburgs and most of the réunions away from Alsace were handed back.   The various princes and lords within Alsace retained their  proprietorial rights, but had to accept that the King of France and not the Emperor was their suzerain.   The Dukes of Zweibrücken had territories in northern Alsace;  another cadet branch of the Electors Palatine had acquired Rappoltstein;  either the Dukes of Württemberg or the head of that branch of their family holding Montbéliard held Horbourg and Riquewihr (both near Colmar);  and the Counts of Hanau-Lichtenberg (from 1736 the Landgraves of Hesse-Darmstadt) owned Lichtenberg.

Alsace became a gouvernement in Ancien Régime France.   In civil affairs the principal officer was the Intendant for Alsace, the intendancy often being called the généralité of Strasbourg.   Alsace had its own Conseil souverain, though not a Parlement, as its highest court.   It sat at Ensisheim, the old Habsburg capital of the Sundgau, from 1658, then at Brisach from 1674, becoming settled at Colmar in 1698.   The Cour d’appel (the regional court of appeal) for Alsace still sits in Colmar.

The northernmost of the Decapolis towns, Landau, remained an exclave of France within Imperial territory until the 1790s when revolutionary victories absorbed the lands west of the Rhine.   The war of 1792, which made these victories possible, had been in part caused by the abolition of the feudal rights of the Imperial princes in Alsace.

In 1790 the province was divided into the departments of Haut- and Bas-Rhin.  Mulhouse, an ally of the Swiss Confederation was added to Haut-Rhin in 1798, as was part of the former Bishopric of Basle in 1800 (though only until 1814).   In 1814 France was allowed to keep Landau and the territory around it so that it remained physically joined to France but after the Hundred Days of Napoleon’s return, Landau was lost and the present boundary between Germany and France was established.

In 1870 Alsace was occupied, and in 1871 was annexed to Germany, except for Belfort, where French resistance had not been overcome.   Alsace became part of the Reichsland of Elsass-Lothringen, Bas-Rhin became Unter-Elsass  and Haut-Rhin (less Belfort) Ober-Elsass.

Alsace was recovered by France in 1918, re-absorbed by Germany in 1940 and liberated in the winter of 1944-5.

In 1960, when new regions were created for economic planning, the Departments of the Bas-Rhin and the Haut-Rhin formed the région of Alsace.

Strasbourg was once the residence of the Intendant and is now the headquarters of the region.   It has been the seat of a bishop since the Roman era;  since 1802, all Alsace has formed the diocese.   From the time of the transfer of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871 the Bishopric of Strasbourg was been directly under the supervision of the Holy See.

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