Europe – Natural Divisions And Mountains

Europe alluded to includes Franee, Germany, England, and the three Mediterranean peninsulas, and constitutes several natural divisions. The British Islands form one of these. The Iberian peninsula is separated scarcely less distinctly from the remainder of Europe, for between it and France rises a most formidable range of mountains, the most difficult to cross in all Europe ; and immediately to the north of it a depression, nowhere exceeding a height of (350 feet, extends from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean. The geographical unity of Europe is represented to the full extent only in the system of the Alps, and in the mountains of France, Germany, Italy, and the Balkan peninsula which are connected with it. It is there we must seek the framework of continental Europe.

The Alps, whose ancient Celtic name probably refers to the whiteness of their snowy summits, stretch in an immense curve, more than COO miles in length, from the shores of the Mediterranean to the plains of the Danube. They consist in reality of more than thirty mountain masses, representing as many geological groups, and joined to each other by elevated passes ; but their rocks, whether they be granite, slate, sandstone, or limestone, form one continuous rampart rising above the plains. In former ages the Alps were higher than they are now. This is proved by an examiDation of their detritus and of the strata disintegrated by natural agencies. But, whatever the extent of detrition, they still rise in hundreds of summits beyond the line of perennial snow, and vast rivers of ice descend from them into every upland valley. Looked at from the plains of Piedmont and Lombardy, these glaciers and snow-fields present the appearance of sparkling diadems encircling the mountain summits.

In the eastern portion of the Alpine system—that is to say, between the Mediterranean and Mont Blanc, the culminating point of Europe—the average height of the mountain groups gradually increases from 6,500 to more than I3,000 feet. To the east of Mont Blanc the Alps change in direction, and, beyond the vast citadels represented by Monte Rosa and the Bernese Oberland, they gradually decrease in height. To the east of Switzerland no summit exceeds a height of 13,000 feet, but this loss in elevation is fully made up by increase of breadth. And whilst the general direction of the principal axis of the Alps remains north-easterly, very considerable mountain chains, far exceeding the central mass in breadth, are thrown off towards the north, the east, and the south-east. A line drawn across the true Alps from Vienna has a length of no less than 250 miles.

In thus spreading out, the Alps lose their character and aspect. We no longer meet with grand mountain masses, glaciers, and snow-fields. Towards the north they gradually sink down into the valley of the Danube; towards the south they branch out into secondary chains, resting upon the arched plateau of Turkey. But, in spite of the vast contrasts offered by the true Alps and the mountains of Montenegro, the Haemus, the Rhodope, and the Pindus, all these mountain chains nevertheless belong to the same orographical system. The whole of the Balkan peninsula must be looked upon as a natural dependency of the Alps : and the same applies to Italy, for the chain of the Apennines is nothing but a continuation of the Maritime Alps, and we hardly know where to draw the line of separation between them. The Carpathians, too, must be included among the mountain chains forming part of the system of the Alps. They have been gradually separated from them through the continuous action of water, but there can be no doubt that, in former times, the semicircle of mountains known as the Little Carpathians, the Beskids, the Tatra, the Great Carpathians, and the Transylvanian Alps was joined, on the one hand, to the Austrian Alps, and on the other to spurs descending from the Balkan. The Danube has forced its way through these mountain ramparts, but the passages, or “gates,” are narrow: they are strewn with rocks. and commanded by what remains of the ancient partition ranges.

The configuration of the Alps, and of the labyrinthine mountain ranges branching off from them towards the east, could not fail to exercise a most powerful influence upon the history of Europe and of the entire world. The only high-roads known to b barbarians are those traced out by nature herself, and they were consequently able to penetrate into Europe only by sea, or through the vast plains of the north. Having penetrated to the westward of the -Black Sea, their progress was first stopped by the lakes and difficult swamps of the Danubian valley ; and, when they had surmounted these obstacles, they found themselves face to face with a barrier of high mountains, whose intricate wooded valleys and declivities led up to the inaccessible regions of eternal snow. The Alps, the Balkan, and all the other advanced chains of the Alpine system constituted an advaneed defensive barrier for Western Europe, and the conquering nomad tribes who threw them-selves against it did so at the risk of destruction. Aceustomed to the boundless horizon of the steppes, they did not venture to climb these steep hills—they turned to the northward, where the vast plains of Germania enabled successive swarms of immigrants to spread over the country with greater ease. And as to the invaders, whom blind rage of conquest impelled to engage in the defiles of these mountains, they found themselves caught as in a trap ; and this accounts for the variety of nations, and of fragments of nations, whose presence has converted the countries of the Danube into a sort of ethnological chaos. And as the débris carried along by the current is deposited in the eddy of a river, so were these fragments of nearly every nation of the East accumulated in motley disorder in this corner of the continent.

To the south of this great mountain barrier the migrations between Europe aDd Asia could take place only by sea—a high-road open to those nations alone who were sufficiently advanced in civilisation to have acquired the art of building ships. Whether pirates, merchants, or warriors, they had raised themselves loDg ago above a state of primitive barbarism, arid even their voyages of conquest added something to the stock of human knowledge. Moreover, ow ing to the difficulties of navigation, they migrated only in small bodies. At whatever point they settled they came into contact with populations of a different race from their ow-n, and this intercourse gave birth to a number of local civilisations, each bearing its own stamp, and nowhere did their influence preponderate. Every island of the Archipelago, and every valley of ancient Hellas, differed from its neighbours as regards social condition, dialect, and customs, but they all remained Greek, in spite of the Phoenician and other influences to which they had been subjected. It is thus ow ing to the configuration of the mountain chains and coast-lines that the civilazation which developed itself gradually in the Mediterranean countries to the south of the Alps was, upon the whole, more spontaneous in its nature, and offered more variety and greater contrasts, than the civilisation of the far less advanced nations of the north, who were moving from place to place on vast plains.

The wide rango of the Alps and of their advanced chains thus separated two distinct worlds, in which historical development went on at a different rate. At the sane time, the separation between the two slopes of the Alpine system was by no means complete. Nowhere in the Alps do we meet with cold and uninhabited plateaux, as in the Andes and in Tibet, whose enormous extent forms almost insurmountable barriers. The Alpine masses are cut up everywhere into mountains and valleys, and the climate of the latter is sufficiently mild to enable man to exist in them. The mountaineers, who easily maintained their independence, owing to the protection extended to them by nature, first served as intermediaries between the peoples inhabiting the opposite lowlands. It was they who effected the rare exchanges of produce which took place between the North and South, and who opened the first commercial high-roads between the summits of the mountains. The direction of the valleys and the deeply cut mountain passes even then indicated the grand routes by which the Alps would he crossed, at a future period, for the purposes of commerce or of’ war. That portion of the Alps which lies between the mountain masses of Savoy and of the Mediterranean would naturally cease first to form an obstacle to military expeditions. The Alps there are of great height, it is true, but they are narrower than anywhere else; besides which, the climate on the two opposite slopes is similar, and assimilates the mode of life and the customs of the people dwelling there. Far more formidable, as a natural barrier, are the Alps to the north-east of Mont Blanc, for they constitute a climatic boundary.

The other mountain ranges play but a secondary or local part in the history of Europe, when we compare them with the Alps. Still, the influence which they have exercised upon the destiny of nations is no less evident. The table-lands and snow-fields of the Scandinavian Alps form a wall of separation between Norwegians and Swedes. The quadrangular mountain fort of Bohemia, in the centre of Europe, which shelters the Chechians, is almost entirely enclosed by Germans, and resembles an island fretted by the waves of the ocean. The hills of Wales and of Scot-land have afforded a shelter to the Celtic race against the encroachments of Anglo-Saxons, Danes, and Normans. The Bretons, in France, are indebted to their rocks and Iandes for the fact of their not having yet become wholly French ; whilst the table-land of Limousin, the hills of Auvergne, and the Cevennes constitute the principal cause of the striking contrast which still exists between the inhabitants of Northern and of Southern France. The Pyrenees, next to the Alps, constitute the most formidable obstacle to the march of nations in Europe; they would have remained aD insurmountable rampart down to our own time, were it not easy to pass round them by their extremities abutting upon the sea.