The Earliest Swiss – The Lake-Dwellers

To her lakes rather than to her mountains Switzerland owed the beginnings of civilization. Nowadays, as the curtains of mist are rolled away from the past by geologist and anthropologist, we are coming to a clearer idea of the origins of this wonderful civilisation of ours, which makes the common routine of a plain citizen to-day more full of wonders than any legend told of an ancient god. Science, fossicking in the tunnels of the excavators and scanning closely what they bring up to the surface light, is inclined now to tell us that the beginnings of organised community life were on the lake shores of some ancient age.

The idea would be reasonable in theory even if it had no facts to support it. A lake means shelter, water, fish : it suggests—in this unlike a river—settling down. In a lake the fish teem thick and become big and fat and slothful. (Note how the little fighting trout of the rapid streams grow to the big, stupid, inert things of the New Zealand lakes, fish that come and ask to be caught, fish that a family can feed upon.) It was natural that a lake should stimulate into activity those microbes of civilisation which had infected the primitive nomads. In the Antipodes you may see to-day, in an anthropological record which is contemporary with us in time but with the Neolithic Age in development, the working of what one may call the lake forces, towards civilisation. The Australian aborigines—poor nomads almost without law, architecture, or clothing—when they won to a good steady fishing-ground managed to advance a little towards a higher civilisation. When a coast lagoon gave good supply of crustaceans and other fish, you may note at the old aboriginal camping-grounds timid ventures towards art, certain rock drawings, effective if crude. Stomachs being regularly filled, the minds of these primitives began to work. A step higher in the ascent of man—the Papuans have their most advanced communities in villages built on piles over the beaches of the sea or of the coral lagoons. The surrounding water gives some protection against prowling marauders. Draw up the bridge which makes a way to the hut, and the water at once serves it in the office of a wall. Further, the water is a source of food supply and an easier means of communication than the jungle to other sources of food supply. Finally, the water gives the little community a good drainage system without trouble : rubbish can just be cast down and it is carried away.

The early European, feeling a call to settle down and form a village, thus found in a lake the best of prompting to community life. It offered some security and so appealed to his dawning sense of property. It offered some steadiness of food supply and so appealed to his dawning sense of stability. It appealed also to the new sense of cleanliness which we must credit him with, a very primitive sense truly and many thousands of years behind ideas of modern sanitation, but still a beginning.

Recent discoveries of the remains of lake dwellings in England have established the fact that in many parts of Europe, and perhaps indeed all over the Continent, man in the Neolithic time formed the habit of living in villages built on piles over the shores of lakes, and that he kept this habit during the Bronze Age, and had not wholly abandoned it at the dawn of the Iron Age. But it was probably in Switzerland, the area richest in suitable lakes of all Europe, that the primitive lake-dwellers flourished most strongly. A whole chain of lake settlements have been discovered around Lake Zurich, and recently, when Mr. Ritter, famous for the gigantic scheme to supply Paris with water from the Swiss lakes, ” corrected ” the meanderings of the river Thiele which conducts the waters of Lake Neuchatel to Bienne, his engineering feat, besides gaining huge tracts of fertile land, lowered the level of Lake Neuchatel and led to some further valuable discoveries regarding the lake-dwellers. It seems clear that every Swiss lake was a centre for a thick population in the later Stone Age and the Bronze Age.

The first important discoveries regarding these Swiss lake-dwellers were made in 1853, when the waters of Zurich lake sank so low that a stretch of land was laid bare along the shores. The people of Meilen, twelve miles from Zurich, took advantage of this to carry out some public works, and during the operations the workmen encountered obstacles, which proved to be wooden piles. These piles, the tops of which were but a few inches below the surface of the mud, were found to be planted in rows and squares, in great number. There were picked out of the mud bones, antlers, weapons and implements of various kinds. Dr. Ferdinand Keller was sent from Zurich to examine the workings, and he pronounced them to be the site of a lake settlement, probably of some very ancient Celtic tribe. Many marks of a prehistoric occupation had been found before 1853, but no traces of dwellings. The discovery caused a sensation, and gave a great impulse to archaeological studies. Dr. Keller called these early settlers Pfahl-bauer, or pile-builders. Since then over two hundred of these villages have been discovered—on the shores of the lakes of Constance, Leman, Zurich, Neuchatel, Bienne, Morat, and other smaller lakes, and on rivers and swampy spots which had once been lakes. The strictly Alpine lakes, however, with their steep inaccessible banks, show no trace of these settlements.

The early lake dwellings were built on piles driven into the bed of the lake, and as many as thirty or forty thousand of these piles have been found in a single village. The houses were made of hurdlework, and thatched with straw or rushes. Layers of wattle and daub alternating formed the floors, and the walls had a covering of clay, or else of bulrushes or straw. A fence of wickerwork ran round each but. Light bridges, easily moved, connected the huts with each other and with the shore. Each house contained two rooms at least, and some of the dwellings measured as much as 27 feet by 22 feet. Hearthstones blackened by fire in some huts remain to show where the kitchens had been. Mats of straw and reeds were found, and proofs of an organised worship of some gods.

The lake-dwellers hunted with weapons of bronze. They tilled the ground and had flocks of horses, cattle, and sheep. They wove the wool of animals, and also a fibre of flax, and made a coarse pottery. Men and women wore ornaments of metal, of glass, of leather, of carved stones. Probably the later generations of lake-dwellers were contemporary with the Homeric period in Greece, though their state of culture was inferior to that of the people of the Grecian peninsula.

Some idea, then, we may form of the people of Switzerland in prehistoric times, those times when the fair-haired Achaens were settling in the Hellenic peninsula the issue between them-selves and an earlier Canaanitish race, and giving prompting to the stories of the Homeric legends. Celtic migrants, making their way along the great watercourses of Europe, had come to these Swiss lakes resting at the feet of the Alps, and had found there prompting to settle and to begin to cultivate a community life. Seemingly there were three different epochs in the age of the lake-dwellers, of which two were of the later Stone Age and one of the Bronze Age. Switzerland had then, probably, as thick a population as most parts of Europe, and at the earliest stage of the lake-dwellings that population was almost as advanced in culture as were the forefathers of the Grecian and Roman civilisations. But later it was not so. Those nomadic peoples who found places in the Mediterranean sun ; and who there came into contact with the civilisations which had grown up on the shores of the Levant, in the valley of the Nile, and on the north coast of Africa ; after mingling their blood with the Mediterranean peoples and acquiring their culture, were capable of creating great communities which unmeasurably outstripped the little primitive states of their cousins who had settled at the base of the Alps.

It is probable that, fairly close on the heels of the lake – dwellers, there came other Celtic immigrants to Switzerland, dispossessing the aboriginal peoples of the mountains, fighting with the lake-dwellers, and coming in time to as high a standard of civilisation as they. With the Iron Age the lake-dwellings seem to have been abandoned and the lake-dwellers merged into the general body of the Helvetians. What we know as Switzerland today was then occupied by Celts, Rhaetians, and Alamanni. Helvetia, as it was known to the Romans, took its name from the Helvetians, a tribe of Celts who had been pushed out of their own territories by the advancing tide of the Teutonic invasion and had colonised lower Switzerland.

Just as the lake-dwellers had set up a higher standard of civilisation than the mountain-dwellers in their age, so the Helvetians, occupying the lower ground of Switzerland, showed much more culture than any of their neighbours. They had adopted the Greek alphabet and kept written records of their doings. Their weapons and armour were good ; their cultivation of the soil was skilful, and they had a knowledge of architecture, their fortifications in particular being praised by Roman writers as excellent. Local traditions said that Hercules had once visited Helvetia and taught the Helvetians arts and laws. That was the picturesque way of stating that their ideas of civilisation had come from Greece. These Helvetians were the easily traceable ancestors of the present Swiss, and many Swiss cities of today occupy the sites and keep close to the names of the old Helvetian centres—Geneva, Lausanne, Soleure, and Zurich, for examples. But the Helvetians were not strictly an Alpine race. They left the great mountains to wilder people and settled on the foothills and around the lakes.

The method of government of the Helvetians was closely modelled on the aristocratic republicanism of the Greek states. Wealthy nobles owned the land, and the rest of the population was made up of their vassals and slaves. But no one could aspire to be king. The chief Orcitrix, it is told, aspiring to kingly power, was burned to death. The Swiss do not seem to have copied the Grecian religious system, adhering to their ancient Druidical worship. Perhaps the gloomy and savage form which Protestantism was to take in after years among the Swiss, was in part due to the fact that their ancient form of worship seems to have been a particularly fierce kind of Druidism, and was very little subjected to the moderating influence of the pagan culture.

The mountain barriers kept the Helvetii for a long time from hostile encounters with the Roman power. But there is evidence that they got in touch with the Etruscans for purposes of trade through the Alpine passes from a very early age. Their chief warlike trouble came from the north, where the German population was constantly pressing down seeking fresh outlets. The first conflict between the Helvetii and the Romans was when the Tigurini tribe of Switzerland joined with the Cimbri in an attack upon Roman Gaul and defeated a Roman army under Cassius and Piso. That was 107 B.C. The Romans did not make any serious attempt to avenge that humiliation. The next meeting of the Helvetii with the Romans was not until the days of Caesar (58 B.C.). Then the Helvetii, hemmed in on one side by Roman Gaul and on the other by the swelling floods of the German migration, resolved on a mass move, abandoning their own country completely and seizing some of the rich lands of Gaul.

It was a strange design and was carried out with strange persistency. Two years were devoted to the organisation of the great move, and on the appointed day practically all the Helvetii, men, women, and children, with all their beasts and their property assembled at Geneva. Their old homes were given to the torch, burned so that there would be no temptation for the people to turn back. Julius Caesar (who followed Thucydides in the ranks of great war correspondents) tells the story : and it was Cesar who set himself to the breaking up of this great plan. At Geneva the Helvetii found the bridge over the Rhone broken up by Caesar’s order. After useless attempts to cross the river, they turned towards the Jura Mountains, and whilst they were toiling over the steep and rugged Pas de 1’Ecluse, Cesar returned to Italy to gather his legions. Returning to Gaul, he arrived in time to see the Helvetians cross the Arar (Saone). The Tigurini were the last to cross. On them Caesar fell and almost exterminated them, thus wiping out the old stain on the Roman arms. The Roman legions had crossed the Saone in twenty-four hours, and this feat so excited the admiration of the Helvetians, who had themselves taken twenty days to cross, that they sent legates to treat with Caesar for a free passage. They promised him that they would do no harm to any one if he would comply with their request, but threatened the full rage of their arms if he should intercept them. Caesar asked them to give hostages to confirm their promise. ” The Helvetians are not accustomed to give hostages ; they have been taught by their fathers to receive hostages, and this the Romans must well remember,” was the reply;

The Helvetians continued their march, Caesar watching for an opportunity of attacking them. At Bibracte, west of Autun in Burgundy, Caesar seized a hill, posted his troops there, and charged the enemy with his cavalry. The Helvetians fiercely repulsed the attack, and poured on the Roman front, but were quite unable to stand against the steady discipline of the legions. They lust the battle but won the respect of Caesar, and the remnant of this nation on trek ” were helped by him to return to their homes and were allowed to become allies of Rome, with the task assigned to them of guarding the Rhine frontier against the Germans. But the Helvetii found this vassalage irksome, rebelled, were punished, and their country subjugated by the Roman roads as well as the Roman legions.

The Helvetia thus brought under Roman sway was not all of the Switzerland of to-day. Some of the Swiss cantons were comprised in the old province of Rhaetia, which was not subdued by the Roman arms until the days of the first Augustus. Then, however, the Rhaetians, who were kindred with the Italian Etruscans, came so completely under Roman influence that to this day in the valleys of the Engadine a corrupted Latin tongue is spoken, somewhat similar to that of the Roumanians of the Balkan Peninsula. Under Augustus western Switzerland was incorporated with the Roman province of Gaul, having its capital at Lyons ; eastern Switzerland was joined with Rhaetia, having its capital at Augsburg. Thus early in history the difference between Gallic Switzerland and Teutonic Switzer-land begins to show itself.

Helvetia was much favoured by the Romans and became in effect the frontier province for the defence of the empire against the Germans. After a time the Helvetians were but little distinguishable from the Romans, adopting their manners and their faith. Wealthy Romans loved to make their summer resorts along the lake of Geneva, and Aventicum, the Helvetian capital, became a great Roman city.

At Avenches (which was the Roman Aventicum) there are today but 2000 people, but there can be seen remains of a Roman wall four miles long and in some places 15 feet high. In the day of Vespasian the city was as big as Canterbury is today, and with its walls, theatre, and aqueduct could look down upon the miserable contemporary village of Londinium. Helvetia, under the Romans, followed, in fine, very much the same course as Britain under the Romans.

With the decay of the Roman power Helvetia, like Britain, was made to feel at the hands of the barbarians a harsh punishment for its acceptance of the Italian civilisation. In the third century of the Christian era the Alamanni swept over the country, looting and devastating and retiring. In the fourth century they came again and took possession of all the east. The Burgundians followed, and, to a greater degree than most of the civilised world, Switzerland had to face the horrors that followed the disruption of the Roman Empire. Gradually there emerged from the welter the beginnings of the Switzerland of today, in part representing the old Gallic Helvetians and Etruscan Raetians, in part the Alamanni (Germans) and the Burgundians. With the coming of the northern invaders Christianity, which had supplanted Paganism in Helvetia as it had in Rome, was almost stamped out. But as the power of the Burgundians grew over that of the Alamanni the country began to turn again towards Christianity.

In the sixth century missionaries from Ireland did much to spread the Christian faith in Switzer-land. The most famous of these was St. Columban, who established a monastery at Luxeuil, of which he soon made a storm centre, involving himself in constant troubles with the Gallic clergy and with the Italian Pope. There is extant a famous letter of his to Pope Boniface IV. It is addressed by him to ” the most beautiful head of all the churches of entire Europe. The most sweet Pope, the most high President, the most reverent investigator.” After that flood of ” blarney ” St. Columban goes on to complain of the infamia in which the Papal Seat is steeped. Out of that remonstrance nothing seems to have come, but when St. Columban joined issue with the masterful Queen Brunhilde of Burgundy he met a spirit as imperious as his own. To guard her own power in the Court of Burgundy the famous Brunhilde encouraged her grandson, the reigning king, to keep mistresses rather than to marry a queen. St. Columban referred to the children of these mistresses as a ” brothel brood.” Shortly after he was exiled by force from Luxeuil, and is next heard of at Nantes, ready, it seemed, to embark for Ireland, his native land. But he changed his mind, turned back on his tracks, and established himself on the lake of Constance, where he preached successfully to the heathen and threw their idols into the lake. Next St. Columban went over to Northern Italy, abusing his disciple St. Gall who was too sick to accompany him. St. Gall remained in Switzerland and founded the famous monastery of St. Gall, visited by Charlemagne in 883.

Charlemagne was particularly fond of Switzerland and the Swiss, and founded many monasteries and schools in the country. Often he resided in Switzerland, and it is from Switzerland that comes the story which tells that his justice and mercy were so well renowned as to be known even to the animals. There was, the story runs, near his palace at Zurich a chapel on the river-side where he had placed a bell for people to ring if they wished to appeal for justice. One day as he was at dinner this bell began to ring. None could inform him what was the matter. The bell rang a second time, and then a third. On this the emperor rose from the table, saying, ” I am sure there is some poor man you do not wish me to see.” He walked down the hill to the chapel, where, hanging to the bell rope, he found a snake. The snake led Charlemagne to a tuft of nettles, and examining the spot he found a large toad sitting on the eggs in the serpent’s nest. At once, grasping the meaning of the appeal, Charlemagne passed sentence that the toad should be killed. The next day the snake entered the dining-hall of the emperor, climbed on the table, and, beckoning the emperor to remove the lid of his golden goblet, dropped into it a beautiful jewel.

With the death of Charlemagne his empire was broken up and Switzerland was doomed to centuries of struggle in the vindication of her independence. The story of that struggle is one of the most fascinating of the national records of the Middle Ages.