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Haley Bowen Looks at Assimilation in Alsace

This past summer, with the support of a MEMS grant, Haley Bowen (History) spent several weeks conducting archival work and carrying out exploratory dissertation research in Paris and Strasbourg. Relying primarily on the correspondence and administrative documents of Cardinal Mazarin and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, she explored how the Paris government administered the recently acquired territory of Alsace in the late seventeenth century.

When it was seized from German princes, Alsace was viewed by Parisian elites as a war-torn and utterly backwards region, and its enthusiastic new duke went to great lengths to introduce French morals and customs into the territory. This included, for example, the chaste requirement that brothers and sisters no longer sleep in the same bed (incest among the Alsatians being of great concern!) and that local Alsatian elites adopt French modes of dressing. Her research this summer allowed her to place these peculiar assimilation projects in the broader context of French territorial expansion during the seventeenth century. The documents hint that such assertions of soft power were part of an overall strategy to eliminate foreign influence within the region and cement claims that the German-speaking territory did truly belong to France.

Two weeks at the municipal archives in Strasbourg and the departmental archives in Bas-Rhin provided tantalizing evidence of the strategies local Alsatian elites used to circumvent French authority, especially the government's 1685 demand that Protestants convert to Catholicism or leave France permanently. Strasbourg, long a hotbed of Protestantism, managed to gain special exemptions from expulsion through both negotiations with Parisian officials and a careful strategy of calculated avoidance. She hopes to use this research in a forthcoming article that explores questions of local autonomy and assimilation in French borderlands. The trip also allowed her to spend significant time in Strasbourg, a city whose dual identity persists in striking forms even today.