How was medieval France

Excursion France / Alsace

Text: Nele Hielscher Photos: Patrick Cassitti


The destination of the excursion, today's French administrative region Alsace, is an area that has a very eventful history. Since it belonged to the Franconian Empire as part of the Duchy of Alemannia in 496, it has changed its political classification several times. After the division of the Franconian Empire alone, Alsace changed its affiliation four times (842 Middle Franconian Empire, 870 Eastern Franconia, 913 Western Franconia, 925 Eastern Franconia again). It remained part of the Holy Roman Empire until the 17th century. Since the Thirty Years' War, Louis XIII gradually annexed parts of Alsace, so that it belonged to France until the Peace of Frankfurt in 1871. It then belonged to the German Empire until the end of the First World War and was then ceded to France again in accordance with the Versailles Treaty. During the Second World War, Alsace was once again occupied by the Germans, but since 1945 it has been under the French government again. This back and forth of the government can still be recognized in Alsace by the place names with German equivalents and by the mentality of the people who simply see themselves as Alsatians.

Since 1973 Alsace has been an administrative region of France, with the capital Strasbourg. It consists of the two departments of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin and, with 8,280 km², is the smallest region on the French mainland.

The excursion program included stations to various archaeological monuments and other sights. According to the chair, the focus here was on the Middle Ages and the modern era. On the subject of fortresses, castles from the Middle Ages as well as from the 17th century and the two world wars were visited. With Strasbourg and Colmar, medieval cities were approached, which in some areas still have their medieval cityscape. The ecclesiastical area was covered with a station at the Odilienberg Monastery and various places of worship. Mining in the Vosges, using the example of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, and the textile printing industry in Mühlhausen, which tells its story in the textile printing museum, formed the industrial stations of the excursion.

Monday, September 24th

After arriving on September 24th in Strasbourg we visited the archaeological museum there. It has been in the basement of the Rohan Castle since the end of the 19th century and, according to the curator, has one of the most extensive prehistoric collections in France. Unfortunately, only the last exhibits on the tour relate to the Merovingian era, among which weapons and jewelry were presented. The museum particularly highlights the Baldenheim helmet and the grave of the Hochfelden Hun princess. The form of exhibition, especially of the medieval pieces, is, however, quite dry. The impression of enthusiasm for the pieces that one gets from the homepage is not reflected in the presentation of the finds.

Tuesday, September 25th

On September 25th we first visited the Strasbourg cathedral. The Cathedral of Our Lady (French: Cathédrale Notre-Dame) was built from Vosges sandstone from 1176 to 1439. The foundations point to previous buildings, which are a Carolingian basilica that burned down in 1007 and its successor, the Wernher Minster. The renovation of this minster led to the current cathedral. It was first built in the Romanesque style and then continued in the Gothic style. The asymmetrical shape, which results from the fact that the south tower was never built, is characteristic.

In Rosheim we visited the St. Peter and Paul Basilica. It was built from 1145 as the successor to a Merovingian or Carolingian church in the Romanesque style. In 1385 the bell tower and the entablature were destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the Gothic style. Since the 18th century, the church has been changed according to the taste of the time: the windows of the aisle have been enlarged, the walls whitewashed and the furniture replaced. Extensive restoration work took place in 1969 in an attempt to restore the original church furnishings. Therefore the church of St. Peter and Paul appears almost completely Romanesque again today. However, the Gothic tower immediately stands out for its architecture and different color, as it was built from red sandstone, whereas the rest of the church is made from yellow sandstone.

During the visit to the Odilienberg it quickly became clear that the monastery of St. Odilien / Hohenburg was only of secondary importance to this place. In the oldest surviving part of the monastery, the cross chapel from the 11th century, there is a Merovingian sarcophagus, which is probably the grave of Ettichos and his wife Bereswinde. Outside the monastery building is an early medieval burial ground, which consists of several rock graves that were opened in 1930/1934 and archaeologically examined. The so-called Heidenmauer is located around the mountain. For a long time it was considered prehistoric, but studies (dendrochronological and C14 method) on oak clips with which the stones of the wall were connected, date it to the end of the 7th and beginning of the 8th century. Presumably the wooden clips come from a repair phase, so that a definitive date of the wall is still open.

Wednesday, September 26th

The 26.09. started with a tour of Fleckenstein Castle. An exact dating of the construction phases of this castle is usually not possible because the archives of Fleckenstein are not completely preserved. However, the construction of a filter cistern is set in the 12th century, which is the earliest dating of Fleckenstein Castle. The numerous rock chambers date to the late Middle Ages or early modern times. In 1680 the castle was blown up by French troops. Restoration work has been taking place since the beginning of the 1990s, during which excavations were carried out by R. Krill from 1996-2000.

In the afternoon our destination was the Maison de l’Archéologie in Niederbronn. With finds from prehistoric times to modern times, it offered a detailed overview of archaeological research in northern Alsace. Small finds from the excavations at Fleckenstein Castle were also exhibited.

A spontaneous decision was to visit the Maginot Line from the Second World War instead of the upper and lower wind stones due to the weather conditions. For this we got a tour of the Schoenebourg artillery factory. In the 2 ½ hour tour we only visited a small part of the facility, but one got an insight into the bedrooms, the medical and material care and the defensive strength of the building. Here one of the lowerable towers was activated for us, the effect of which on the outside view of the plant we could follow on a screen.

Thursday, 09/27

We visited the German counterpart to the Maginot Line from the First World War one day later, on September 27th: The fortress of Kaiser Wilhelm II. When it was built between 1893 and the beginning of the war, pioneering work was done in the field of steel and concrete construction as well as the use of electricity. When visiting the fortifications of the two world wars, one immediately noticed the prototype character that the fortress Wilhelm II had for the Maginot Line.

The visit to the humanist library in Schlettstadt later that day was a personal highlight. It consists of two library collections, one from the humanist school and the other from Beatus Rhenanus' private library. When he died in 1547, his collection comprised around 670 books and manuscripts, many of which were only available in limited editions and were therefore of great value. Today the library is housed in a former market hall near the Gothic church of St. George and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011.

Friday, 09/28

On 09/28 we drove to the middle Vosges, in one of the main mining areas of the mining industry of the Vosges 16-19. Century: Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines. Through C14 dating, mining activity could be established here as early as the 10th century. The focus, however, was in the period of the onset of silver mining, from the 16th century. 1961-1980 the 50 km long tunnel systems were researched and documented. With the St. Louis iron door we visited one of the most important of them. Silver was mined here from 1530 to the end of the 16th century, but mining continued into the 18th century. It was particularly impressive that one could recognize the different mining techniques: the layer-by-layer removal of the rock and the multi-stage removal, which was introduced later in order to be able to blast off the rock layers better.

In the afternoon we visited the Hohkönigsburg, a tourist magnet that serves the romantic idea of ​​a knight's castle. After the destruction in 1633, it was not rebuilt until 1901. The architect Bodo Ebhardt was criticized extensively by archaeologists, historians and scientists of his time during his reconstruction. During our inspection, too, we were able to identify many contradicting measures by Ebhardt. It is amazing to see how much people had forgotten about the construction of the castles at that time in around 260 years. Nevertheless, the reconstructed castle gives at least an impression of the size and mightiness of the building at that time.

Saturday, 09/29

Our goal on 09/29 was the city of Colmar and the Unterlinden Museum there. A short tour of the city on your own gave only a fleeting impression of the old town. One of the sights, the 16th century Maison Pfister, was also covered for renovation work. In the Unterlinden Museum we were given a tour that mainly dealt with the most important exhibit, the Isenheimar Altar. We were able to briefly take a look at the collections of prehistory, Roman and Merovingian times in the museum.

The next item on the program was the Neuf-Brisach fortress. The fortress from 1700 is in an impressive state despite constant settlement and war damage. The defenses and some parts of the interior are still almost completely preserved. Neuf-Brisach was built after the French king lost his defenses near the Rhine. The new fortress was supposed to protect central Alsace. With an octagonal core and a star-shaped moat that contained various bastions and protective works, the city was a very modern fortification for the time. It is a shame that the city suffers from a severe lack of money. The fortress is very impressive and it would be worthwhile to prepare a little more for tourism. As the last point of the day we visited the 11th century abbey church in Ottmarsheim. The peculiarity of this church is its architecture. The octagonal shape is strongly reminiscent of the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, the burial place of Charlemagne. This probably also served as a model for the builder, because the burial place of this man is in the middle of the church in Ottmarsheim.

Sunday, 09/30

Due to the flourishing textile industry in Mühlhausen in the 18th and 19th centuries, we visited the textile printing museum there on the last day. In addition to the various fabrics and the historical background to the rise of Mühlhausen to an industrial city, we were also introduced to the process of textile printing in the 18th and 19th centuries in a guided tour. The special exhibition shows the change in fabric and clothing in society: The development of scaled-down replicas of adult clothing to the first children's clothing and the formation of fabric motifs.


The excursion to Alsace gave a comprehensive insight into a region that has been a border area for centuries. Fortifications were a focus of the excursion destinations. On the one hand, one could feel the change in the type of defense in the castles and fortifications. With the introduction of firearms in particular, one can see a change in the fastening strategy. These can be seen from the renovation work on existing castles, such as Fleckenstein Castle, or are finding their way into new buildings, such as Neuf-Brisach, which even tank cannons from the Second World War could not harm. On the other hand, Alsace gives you the opportunity to visit French and German fortifications. In this way one can compare them and, if necessary, determine influences, as was the case with the Kaiser Wilhelm Feste and the Maginot Line.

But apart from the fortifications, the other excursion destinations gave new impressions. The St. Louis iron door, for example, gives an insight into the medieval and early modern mining activities. Mines I know in Germany were often used until the 19th or 20th century and expanded accordingly, so that the early phase of the coal and steel industry could no longer be recognized. In addition, I was also impressed by the church in Ottmarsheim with its peculiar octagonal shape and, above all, the heath wall, the dating of which is still not entirely certain.

The different topics of the goals made the excursion very interesting and ensured that there was a highlight for each of the participants.