A Brill Calendar: March 27
The Treaty of Amiens
Few historical subjects lack the faculty to fascinate a general audience or readership.
One that does however is the history of diplomatic and political conferences that lead up to the signing of a treaty; particularly if said treaty will expire before too long.
The Treaty of Amiens, signed on March 27 1802, is an example. Great-Britain, Spain, France and the ‘Batavian Republic’ – formerly known as ‘The Republic of the United Provinces’ – all agreed on a European peace lasting 14 months. At the time the international political situation was too fickle – and negotiations too ad-hoc – to warrant a more confident expression of peace. Bonaparte’s ‘grand éclat’ was still waiting in the wings and the socio-political remains of the merchant Republic were going from one maladroit ‘coup d’état’ to another.
Yet, within this less than exciting intergovernmental envelope there is a European civilization teeming with great changes. In Russia, Tsar Alexander Romanov appointed a committee to improve the quality of life of the Jewish population of his realm; perhaps 10% of its total. In England Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (December 12 1731 – April 18 1802), great lover of nature, poetry and learning has still three weeks to live. And in the German university-town of Göttingen a young school-teacher, Georg Grotefend (Münden, Hanover, June 9 1775 – Hannover, Hanover December 15 1853) wins a bet from his cronies in a local ‘Gasthaus’.
Blissfully innocent of knowledge about oriental languages, but clever at solving all kinds of puzzles, he had assured them earlier that he, Grotefend, could certainly decipher the still mysterious wedge-shaped lettering on clay tablets discovered some forty years before by his countryman Carsten Niebuhr in a quest for Babylonian Persepolis.
While diplomats were busy in Amiens, Grotefend identified 13 different symbols; the first mortal after more than twenty centuries to do so. Of these interpretations, 9 eventually proved to be correct. He published them in September of this same year: creating the launch of an entirely new scholarly discipline. It is seldom admitted that civilizations and cultures change and evolve invariably from within, not by regulations imposed on them by statesmen and politicians.