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History of Strassburg, Alsace, France

By Philippe Charles Edel, Strasbourg, Alsace, France

September, 1975


Founded by the Romans

The history of Strasburg begins a few decades before Jesus Christ., in the Rhenish Valley, between the Vosges Mountains and the Black Forest, with the establishment of a military camp by the Eighth Roman Legion, instructed to protect the annexed territories on the west side of the Rhine River against the Germanic tribes. Surrounding the military camp, was spread a civilian town of Celtic craftsmen and merchants, who acted as legion's commissary. The borough received the Roman name of "Argentoratum" (colloquially "Argentina"), because of the silver color of the Rhine's water.

About 250 years after Jesus Christ., the Allemans, a Germanic tribe and ancestors of the Alsatians, went through the Rhine valley and joined battle against the Roman troops. Near the end of the fourth century, the Romans had to surrender, as the Allemans firmly settled down at Argentoratum and entire Alsace. In the year 496, the Franks, another Germanic tribe, defeated the Alamans, who became their vassals.

During this era, Strassburg again became an important center and changed its Roman name of "Argentoratum" to the Allemanic name of "Strateburgum" (Street Borough), due to its location at the cross-ways of Europe, as the link between the Netherlands and Italy, between Paris and Vienna: on junction of two future important routes of commerce.

The Oldest German And French Treaty

At the dissolution of the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne, his grandsons Louis the Germanic, king of Germania (East Frankish Kingdom), and Charles the Bald, king of Francia (West Frankish Kingdom), promised each other mutual help against their brother Lothair, king of Lotharingia (Middle Frankish Kingdom); the solemn words were exchanged before Strassburg in 842 to the cheers of both armies. For the words of the oath, each of the two brothers employed the language of the other: the Germanic language and the Romanic language. Formula of this text was known as the Oath of Strassburg (Strassburger Eid), which is assuredly the oldest existing document in German and in French languages.

It is the result of that political rupture in the Carolingian unity of Europe, that Strasburg, with all Alsace, was linked to Louis the Germanic, heir to the imperial title of Charlemagne. Strassburg found itself incorporated in the Holy Roman-Germanic Empire. But this empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor even empire: it was a political mix of various Germanic domains, kingdoms, dukedoms, earldoms, republics, bishoprics, monastries, all of which were under the jurisdiction of the empire, but only for a few formalities of feudal origin.

A Free Republican City

Strassburg was one of those bishoprics which became one of those republics. As early as the fourth century, its first bishops, traditional "Defenders of the City", presided at its administration; but gradually Strassburg freed itself from their guardianship. In the early thirteenth century, the emperors granted to the town the privilege of direct dependence towards the empire. The already very independent mood of the inhabitants became still bolder, as the town council freed itself from the episcopal authority. Many incidents followed between the bishop and the Magistrate (town council) with many violent quarrels, even some armed fights.

Against Bishop Walther von Geroldseck, the Strassburgers went even as far as open revolt and engaged in a battle against him in 1262 at Oberhausbergen, not far from the town; a battle which is still today remembered by the "Steckelburjers" (100 percent Strasburg citizens). They defeated the episcopal army; and since then, the republic became independent of the bishopric and developed its own constitution.

Independent towards the emperor and the bishop, the Strasburg people wanted to eliminate the supremacy of the noblemen (Constofler) in town government. In 1332, the craftsmen (handwerker) presided over the Magistrate. Two years later, the "Schwoerbrief" (literally, "letter of oath") was created as a condensed constitution, in which all citizens took an oath of fidelity each year, in front of the Cathedral till 1789.

A democratic form of government was developed with a complex system of councils and elected officials representing the two main social groups: the commoners and the nobility. The main focus of power was with the twenty guilds, which were unions of craftsmen. Each guild named 15 "Schoeffen" (aldermen) for its own administration, and the all 300 aldermen composed the Town Senate.

The "Ammeister", a craftsman named by the Senate, was president of the small republic. He was assisted by four noblemen, called "Stettmeister". The Magistrate was structured with: (1) the "Dreizehnerstub" (Council of the thirteen) for defense and foreign affairs, (2) the "Fuenfzehnerstub" (Council of the fifteen) for finance and affairs of the interior, and (3) the "Zunftgericht" (Guildal law-court) for the judicial affairs. An important fact was that the Magistrate consisted of two craftsmen for every nobleman.

This constitution was one of the prides of Strassburg, while the famous Dutch humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam celebrated it in 1514 as the perfect realization of Plato's "Republic".

As A Cultural Center

It is during this era, that the Strassburgers erected their magnificent gothic cathedral, famous for a single steeple. Finished in 1439, it was the tallest building of the Christian world for 400 years.

It is in Strassburg too, that Johann Gutenberg invented movable-type printing, before he published his famous Bible at Mayence. In his wake, many prominent Strassburgers set up as printers, like Mentelin and Moscherosch. Because of its reputation for toleration, the town became a center for printing and distribution of all kind of religious, scientific and fictional literature. As the U.S. historian Cornelius J. Dyck writes, "When the Reformation began and its main ideas flooded the countries of Europe in the form of pamphlets and tracts, Strassburg was quickly in the middle of things". Thus, the town produced greater reformers such as Martin Bucer, Matthew Zell and Wolfgang Capito.

Many fundamental books were published during this period in Strassburg. For example:

1494: Sebastian Brant: "Das Narrenschiff" (The Crazy Ship), one of the most ancient satirical masterpieces of German literature;

1500: Hieronymus Brunschwig: the first Medical Dictionary;

1501: Jacob Wimpfeling: the first History of Germany;

1507: Matthias Philesius: the "Cosmographia", which first cited the New World by the name "America" in honor of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci;

1515: Thomas Murner: "The Adventures of Till Eulenspiegel", the world famous satirical masterpieces;

1589: Daniel Speclin: the first European book about military architecture.

All authors of these books were Alsatian.

The tradition of tolerance made possible seven Anabaptist conferences to meet in Strassburg between 1554 and 1607. The University, founded in 1537 by the Stettmeister Jacob Sturmius von Sturmeck, attracted to Strassburg many distinguished students, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Clemens Metternich. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart gave several concerts in Strassburg. Gottfried Wolfram wrote his well-known poem: "O Strassburg, O Strassburg, Du wunderschoene Stadt!"

Between Germany And France

The Free City of Strassburg began to lose its glamour with the appearance of the national states. After the Thirty-Years War, during which the Strassburgers had much to suffer, the town was annexed to the Crown of France (1681). It lost all autonomy in 1789 with the French Revolution.

After the Napoleonic wars, Strassburg knew a peaceful life till 1870. With the Franco-Prussian war, there came a terrible siege by Germans and the west section of town was burned down. In the decades 1880 and 1890, Strassburg was enlarged and became a modern shipping port, after the canalization of the Rhine River.

In 1914, another war broke out when the French won back the city. In November 1918, a Bolshevik revolution shook up Strassburg, when the city government fell into control of a Workers' & Soldiers' Soviet for a month. During the Second World War, Strassburg had to be evacuated. When some of the city population returned to their city (1940), weeds were already growing wild in the streets. The Strassburgers knew the heavy rule of the military occupants, while two severe bombing attacks by the U.S. Air Force killed 1,500 people and destroyed 800 houses.

For The European Capital City

Chosen as the seat of the Council of Europe in 1949, of the European Parliament in 1957 and of the European Court of Human Rights in 1960, Strassburg is today one of the three capitals of the Old World, shared with Brussels and Luxemburg. With a population of 350,000 people, the city is also the capital of French province of Alsace and an important industrial and commercial center on the Rhine River. The Strassburg State University counts 25,000 students. Since 1973, the city has a small American private university, the Schiller College.

Strassburg has picturesque architecture with its ancient churches, palaces and overhanging gables along both rivers of Ill and Breusch. Perhaps the cathedral, which has witnessed the city's historical and economical evolutions, will continue to remain the symbol of Strassburgers' peaceable spirit.

Reprinted with permission of Philippe Charles Edel.

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