Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Alsace and the Rhenish Theater

I found an interesting article about cartography of Alsace, written by Franz Grenacher in the 1960s. It focuses especially on the early modern period (16th and 18th centuries), an era in which maps were strongly tied to defense and warfare: knowing the terrain was a tremendous advantage for any army.

Mapping of Alsace was linked to struggle over the region, and not just Alsace. At least four entities –France, Holy Roman Empire, Baden and Swabia–surveyed the river and the mountain range in preparation for warfare. Furthermore, the maps were part of larger warfare along the Rhine River. Almost every surveying effort from 1650 on moved on from Alsace to map areas farther north, including the Lower Palatinate (what is now the state of Rhineland-Palatinate). These surveys, as mapping techniques became more sophisticated, recorded the topography of the river, not stopping at the borders between countries.

One interesting effort to survey Alsace came from Henri Sengre during the late seventeenth century. French knowledge of the new territories was slim. Other countries had better maps of Alsace than France. Indeed, the monarchy was threatened by Flemish and Dutch cartographers (who used maps effectively in many parts of the world to defend legal claims to territories.) Unable to produce a comprehensive survey quickly, the government went to the people for information:
Colbert and Le Tellier ... exhorted the authorities to seek out qualified local people and enlist their help. These local talents were asked to collect all available geographical information and to compile small maps ... according to simple geometric rules; they were also asked to prepare memoirs ...; to give itineraries marking the distances between various points.
All the information was sent back to Paris and compiled in order to produce general, but inaccurate, maps. It was unlikely that this was turned into some cartographic festival of patriotism. Nonetheless, France was desperate.

Sengre’s project was interesting because he abandoned much of the knowledge that had already been produced. Instead of bringing surveyors with him, he hired only local people: German speakers who were aware of the terrain and the history. But Sengre’s activities did not end in Alsace. He was asked to survey more of the Rhine in order to understand the entirety of the “Upper Rhenish Theater”. Sengre produced maps of areas as far north as Bonn.

Sengre’s maps served as a basis for more important works in the eighteenth century, when the Rhine was meant to be the frontier of France. His maps influenced other states as well. Habsburgs mapmakers, after obtaining copies of Sengre’s maps, attempted to understand the “Rhenish Theater” beyond Alsace itself. Warfare over one part of the river would only be approached with reference to the whole.


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