Thursday, July 14, 2016


You may know the term Decapolis (ten cities) from the New Testament: Again Jesus went out from the region of Tyre, and came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, within the region of Decapolis (Mark 7:31). However, in this blog I shall refer to another Decapolis, a league of Imperial Cities, formed in Alsace at the time of the outgoing Middle Ages.

Here is a map of the region showing the cities forming the Decapolis in Alsace. You will actually count more than ten but do not blame me. This is due to the fact that in the course of history some members left the league while new cities joined.

Last Saturday I listened to a lecture by Olivier Richard: Die Dekapolis im Elsass - Reichsstädtische Vergangenheit (The Decapolis in Alsace - the past as Imperial Cities) but I did not learn anything dramatically new. In fact, five years ago I read the monograph La Decapolis, ten cities in Alsace allied for their liberty compiled by Bernard Vogler. He pointed out that the league came quite naturally, for the Imperial Cities concerned were small with a maximum of 5000 inhabitants. It was better to defend their liberty from ruling princes or bishops by forming a league. Liberty, a topic fitting to the 14th of July.

When Emperor Charles VI visited the Alsace in 1354 he was entirely happy to consent to the formation of a league for Imperial Cities paid their taxes directly to the emperor. Charles, however, cleverly granted those cities exemption from all taxes and thus gained fierce supporters in defense of imperial authority against local princes in a region so far away from Habsburg's metropolises Vienna and Prague.

The first blow to the unity of the Decapolis came with the Reformation, for six cities stayed Catholic while the rest adhered to the new faith, be it Lutheran or Calvinist. There were tensions but it turned out that the urge to remain in a common Schutz und Trutz Bündnis (defensive and offensive alliance) was bigger than religious differences. A second blow came during the Thirty Years' War when in the absence of an imperial protection against marauding soldiers, a couple of Alsatian cities looked to the French king for protection.

Writing about the result of the Westphalian Peace Treaty French historians beat around the bush: En 1648 l'Alsace n'est pas devenue française par sa propre volonté; on ne le lui a pas demandé. Mais elle n'a pas non plus été prise par violence par le roi de France. C'est plutôt l'Empire qui l'a abandonnée au roi de France qui y vient en 1635 à l'appel des villes et des seigneurs alsaciens protestant (In 1684 the Alsace did not become French on its own initiative, it was not asked. Nor did it become French because the French King took it by violence. It was the (German) Empire that had abandoned the Alsace to the French King who came in 1635 when the Protestant cities and princes had called for him). Well, there is always somebody to blame. The Westphalian Peace Treaty stipulated that the Alsace became French territory including the Imperial Cities. However they, adhering to the German emperor, continued to send their representatives to the Perpetual Imperial Diet. There in Regensburg members of the Diet used to address members of the Decapolis as Unsere Städte im Elsass (Our cities in Alsace).

Such a situation was unacceptable to the Sun King, Louis XIV, but initially domestic issues (the Fronde uprising) did not allow him to take any action. In 1673 however the worm had turned when Prince Condé wrote: Les dix villes impériales, loin d’être soumises au roi comme elles le devraient être, sont presque ennemies … je crois que le roi devrait prendre le temps qu’il jugerait à propos pour mettre Colmar et Haguenau à la raison. Ce serait chose facile; les autres suivraient sans contredit! (The ten Imperial Cities far from submitting to the king as it should be are nearly enemies ... I think the king should take his appropriate time to bring Colmar and Haguenau to their senses. This should be easy; the others will follow without objection!).

Already at the end of August 1673 the French army moved into Alsace. The king's historian wrote about Colmar: C’est peu de chose, quant à ces fortifications … (With respect to its fortification, that is nothing to speak of ...). Eventually in January 1675 Louis' war minister Louvois' troops had occupied all ten Imperial Cities and bloodily brought them to their senses.

More than 340 years have passed but memories are made of this. We read in the Dictionnaire historique de Colmar in 2006: Toutes les villes qui en firent partie revendiquent aujourd'hui encore cette appartenance avec force. On évoque la Décapole avec nostalgie (Still today all cities that had once formed the league invoke vociferously their affiliation. They remember the Decapolis with nostalgia).

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