823 - The fisc of Columbarium
The first traces of Colmar date back to 823, when Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, drew up an act of donation in Frankfurt on 12 June. The Carolingian monarch gave part of the forest located within the Columbarium, a vast domain that he owned in the region, to the abbey of Munster.
The name "Colmar" is of Roman origin. It actually means dovecote, the place where doves are bred and raised. There are a lot of towns and villages in France with the same etymology, such as Colombes and Coulommiers. Roman villas are almost certainly to be found around the Colmar area. The mosaic from the Gallo-Roman villa in Bergheim , which was discovered in the 19th century, actually led to the creation of the Unterlinden Museum.
The nearest town in the Roman era was Argentovaria, a fortified camp built by the Emperor Valentinian in the 4th century a.d. in an unsuccessful attempt to stop German raids. In the Frankish period, the economic centre shifted west-wards and there was frequent flooding as the unpredictable river Ill spillt over the surrounding countryside. The Barbarians knew the fortified camp as Horbourg, the fortress of mud, and preferred to settle along the drier, fertile lands running along the Ill.
When the Franks conquered Gaul in the 5th and 6th centuries, they kept aside great swathes of land, including the area around Colmar, to provide food. Nobody can actually state whether Colmar was founded in the Merovingian or Carolingian period.
What was it like in its earliest days? According to French historian Charles Wilsdorf, it would have been made up of "a set of large wooden and cobwork buildings, with a more sophisticated construction in the centre, built with a vast storeroom, that would shelter the sovereign and his court when they stayed there. The settlement would also include various outhouses, such as barns, stables, a press, the kitchen, a bakery, a farmyard, a dovecote and the gynaeceum for the womenfolk."
The Emperors of the time were constantly on the move, riding from one part of their territory to another, feeding off the produce of each domain. The Empire was a vast area and the Emperor would often go far afield, depending on the mood of the time or the political situation. There was a whole network of tracks and settlements for him to travel through, and Colmar was part of the great itinerary.