« Prev Switzerland before the Reformation Next »

§ 1. Switzerland before the Reformation.

Switzerland belongs to those countries whose historic significance stands in inverse proportion to their size. God often elects small things for great purposes. Palestine gave to the world the Christian religion. From little Greece proceeded philosophy and art. Switzerland is the cradle of the Reformed churches. The land of the snow-capped Alps is the source of mighty rivers, and of the Reformed faith, as Germany is the home of the Lutheran faith; and the principles of the Swiss Reformation, like the waters of the Rhine and the Rhone, travelled westward with the course of the sun to France, Holland, England, Scotland, and to a new continent, which Zwingli and Calvin knew only by name. Compared with intellectual and moral achievements, the conquests of the sword dwindle into insignificance. Ideas rule the world; ideas are immortal.

Before the sixteenth century, Switzerland exerted no influence in the affairs of Europe except by the bravery of its inhabitants in self-defence of their liberty and in foreign wars. But in the sixteenth century she stands next to Germany in that great religious renovation which has affected all modern history.77    "The affairs of Switzerland," says Hallam (Middle Ages, II. 108, Am. ed.), "occupy a very small space in the great chart of European history; but in some respects they are more interesting than the revolutions of mighty kingdoms. Nowhere besides do we find so many titles to our sympathy, or the union of so much virtue with so complete success.... Other nations displayed an insuperable resolution in the defence of walled towns; but the steadiness of the Swiss in the field of battle was without a parallel, unless we recall the memory of Lacedaemon."

The Republic of Switzerland, which has maintained itself in the midst of monarchies down to this day, was founded by "the eternal covenant" of the three "forest cantons," Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden, August 1, 1291, and grew from time to time by conquest, purchase, and free association. Lucerne (the fourth forest canton) joined the confederacy in 1332, Zurich in 1351, Glarus and Zug in 1352, Berne in 1353, Freiburg and Solothurn (Soleur) in 1481, Basle and Schaffhausen in 1501, Appenzell in 1513,—making in all thirteen cantons at the time of the Reformation. With them were connected by purchase, or conquest, or free consent, as common territories or free bailiwicks,88    They were called gemeine Herrschaften or Vogteien and zugewandte Orte. the adjoining lands of Aargau, Thurgau, Wallis, Geneva, Graubündten (Grisons, Rhätia), the princedom of Neuchatel and Valangin, and several cities (Biel, Mühlhausen, Rotweil, Locarno, etc.). Since 1798 the number of cantons has increased to twenty-two, with a population of nearly three millions (in 1890). The Republic of the United States started with thirteen States, and has grown likewise by purchase or conquest and the organization and incorporation of new territories, but more rapidly, and on a much larger scale.

The romantic story of William Tell, so charmingly told by Egidius Tschudi, the Swiss Herodotus,99    Or the father of Swiss historiography, as he is also called. His Chronicon Helveticum or Eidgenössische Chronik (1000-1470) was first edited by Professor Iselin, Basle, 1734 and ’36, in 2 vols. Aegidius Tschudi of Glarus (1505-1572) derived the Tell legend from the Weisse Buch of Sarnen, and Etterlin of Lucerne, and adorned it with his fancy, and masterly power of narration. He was a pupil of Zwingli, but remained in the old church. In a letter to Zwingli, February, 1517, he says, "Non cum aliquo docto libentius esse velim, quam tecum." Zw., Opera, VII. 21. The MS. of his Chronik is preserved in the city library of Zürich. It is carefully described, with a facsimile in the Neujahrsblatt of the Stadtbibliothek in Zürich auf das Jahr 1889 (Zürich, Orell Füssli & Co.). and by Johannes von Müller, the Swiss Tacitus, and embellished by the poetic genius of Friedrich Schiller, must be abandoned to the realm of popular fiction, like the cognate stories of Scandinavian and German mythology, but contains, nevertheless, an abiding element of truth as setting forth the spirit of those bold mountaineers who loved liberty and independence more than their lives, and expelled the foreign invaders from their soil. The glory of an individual belongs to the Swiss people. The sacred oath of the men of Grütli on the Lake of Lucerne, at the foot of Seelisberg (1306 or 1308?), and the more certain confederation of Dec. 9, 1315, at Brunnen, were renewals of the previous covenant of 1291.1010    On the origin of the Swiss Confederation and the Tell and Grütli legends, see the critical researches of Kopp, Urkunden zur Geschichte der eidgenössischen Bünde, Luzern, 1835, and Wien, 1851, 2 vols. Hisely, Recherches critiques sur Guillaume Tell, Lausanne, 1843. Kopp, Zur Tell-Sage, Luzern, 1854 and ’56. Karl Hagen, Die Politik der Kaiser Rudolf von Habsburg und Albrecht I. und die Entstehung der schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft, Bern, 1857. G. von Wyse, Die Gesch. der drei Lander Uri, Schwyz und Unterwalden,1212-1315, Zürich, 1858; Zürich am Ausgange des dreizehnten Jahrh., Zürich, 1876. A. Rilliet, Les origines de la confédération suisse, histoire et légende, 2d ed., Genève, 1869. Dierauer, Gesch. der Schweiz. Eidgenossenschaft, Gotha, 1887, vol. I. 81-151.

The Swiss successfully vindicated their independence against the attacks of the House of Habsburg in the memorable battles of Morgarten ("the Marathon of Switzerland" 1315), Sempach (1386), and Näfels (1388), against King Louis XI. of France at St. Jacob near Basle (the Thermopylae of Switzerland, 1444), and against Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy at Granson, Murten (Morat), and Nancy (1476 and 1477).

Nature and history made Switzerland a federative republic. This republic was originally a loose, aristocratic confederacy of independent cantons, ruled by a diet of one house where each canton had the same number of deputies and votes, so that a majority of the Diet could defeat a majority of the people. This state of things continued till 1848, when (after the defeat of the Sonderbund of the Roman Catholic cantons) the constitution was remodelled on democratic principles, after the American example, and the legislative power vested in two houses, one (the Ständerath or Senate) consisting of forty-four deputies of the twenty-two sovereign cantons (as in the old Diet), the other (the Nationalrath or House of Representatives) representing the people in proportion to their number (one to every twenty thousand souls); while the executive power was given to a council of seven members (the Bundesrath) elected for three years by both branches of the legislature. Thus the confederacy of cantons was changed into a federal state, with a central government elected by the people and acting directly on the people.1111    The Staatenbund became a Bundesstaat. The same difference exists between the American Confederacy during the Revolutionary War and the United States after the war, as also between the old German Bund and the new German Empire.

This difference in the constitution of the central authority must be kept in mind in order to understand why the Reformation triumphed in the most populous cantons, and yet was defeated in the Diet.1212    The numerical strength of Protestantism at the death of Zwingli was probably not far from two-thirds of the population. The relation of the two confessions has undergone no material change in Switzerland. In 1888 the Protestants numbered 1,724,257; the Roman Catholics, 1,190,008; the Jews, 8,386. The small forest cantons had each as many votes as the much larger cantons of Zurich and Berne, and kept out Protestantism from their borders till the year 1848. The loose character of the German Diet and the absence of centralization account in like manner for the victory of Protestantism in Saxony, Hesse, and other states and imperial cities, notwithstanding the hostile resolutions of the majority of the Diet, which again and again demanded the execution of the Edict of Worms.

The Christianization of Switzerland began in the fourth or third century under the Roman rule, and proceeded from France and Italy. Geneva, on the border of France and Savoy, is the seat of the oldest church and bishopric founded by two bishops of Vienne in Southern Gaul. The bishopric of Coire, in the south-eastern extremity, appears first in the acts of a Synod of Milan, 452. The northern and interior sections were Christianized in the seventh century by Irish missionaries, Columban and Gallus. The last founded the abbey of St. Gall, which became a famous centre of civilization for Alamannia. The first, and for a long time the only, university of Switzerland was that of Basle (1460), where one of the three reformatory Councils was held (1430). During the Middle Ages the whole country, like the rest of Europe, was subject to the Roman see, and no religion was tolerated but the Roman Catholic. It was divided into six episcopal dioceses,—Geneva, Coire, Constance, Basle, Lausanne, and Sion (Sitten). The Pope had several legates in Switzerland who acted as political and military agents, and treated the little republic like a great power. The most influential bishop, Schinner of Sion, who did substantial service to the warlike Julius II. and Leo X., attained even a cardinal’s hat. Zwingli, who knew him well, might have acquired the same dignity if he had followed his example.

« Prev Switzerland before the Reformation Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection