04 Mar Goethe’s Teacher and His Love for Alsace
Published in Colmar, 1761
In 1714, the Treaty of Rastatt confirmed that Alsace was no longer part of the Holy Roman Empire, but belonged politically to France. Louis XIV did not affiliate the area economically, though. The customs barriers were still running along the edges of the Vosges, and many cities and communities continued to be rather independent, turning Alsace into an area where the German culture and the French culture came together and influenced each other.
People like Johann Daniel Schoepflin made this possible. We know him primarily because he was a teacher of Goethe at the time when he studied in Strasbourg and wrote his book “Die Leiden des jungen Werther” (“The Sorrows of the Young Werther”). Schoepflin’s reputation throughout Europe made many members of the nobility and the wealthy bourgeoisie come to Strasbourg. Goethe was just one out of many.
Since 1720, Schoepflin had taught history and rhetoric at Strasbourg University. He stayed in his beloved city of Strasbourg, despite all the tempting offers he received from every corner of the world: the universities of Frankfurt an der Oder, Uppsala in Sweden and Leiden, as well as the St. Petersburg Academy would have loved to adorn themselves with his fame. Maria Theresa offered him the position of a court librarian in Vienna and the teacher of Joseph II. Schoepflin declined.
It was Strasbourg that offered him the academic freedom he needed to publish his vast scientific oeuvre. It includes the Alsatia illustrata, a comprehensive illustrated history of Alsace that covered the chronological range from antiquity to his own time. It is divided into two volumes. In the first volume, published in 1751, he deals with Celtic, Roman and Franconian times. In the second volume, he focuses on the recent past, on the era when Alsace was first part of the German Empire and then of the French Empire. The lavishly illustrated volume is the one present here.
Schoepflin’s contemporaries considered his history exemplary and epoch-making. He had spent more than 20 years on assembling the material, and he accessed all the sources available to him. Although scientifically obsolete today, the first volume is based on archaeological finds. In the second volume, he processed the sources he had found in the archives. Because Schoepflin was so well-connected with both the French and the German aristocracy, he was granted free access to the archives. That enabled him to analyze sources that were to perish later, during the wars between Germany and France over the possession of Alsace. This is why his story is quoted up until the present day.
Schoepflin himself had a small MoneyMuseum. He possessed a library of more than 11,000 volumes and a unique collection of coins, medals and antiquities, which he made accessible to everybody interested. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was a keen collector himself, probably did not see it, for he commented on Europe’s then most famous historian in his “Dichtung und Wahrheit” (“Poetry and truth”) : “Even without closer intercourse, he had had an important influence upon me; for eminent contemporaries may be compared to the greater stars, towards which, so long as they stand above the horizon, our eye can turn, and feel strengthened and improved by the mere contemplation of such perfection”.