The Swiss in the Middle Ages

THROUGHOUT the Middle Ages Switzerland and the Swiss were always in the eye of Europe. Sometimes the spectacle they presented was that of a patriot people pushing back the tyrant and the invader with an unearthly courage, and luck more unearthly still. Sometimes it was that of a martial clan, safe in a great mountain fastness, offering venal swords to the highest bidder, and giving in return for their mercenary pay as high a courage and as stubborn a fidelity as was ever inspired by love of country. No court but knew the Swiss in some capacity. A great London palace, part of which survives today as the Royal Chapel of the Savoy, was built by Peter of Savoy, Prince of West Switzerland, who built also the Castle of Chillon sung by Byron, and kept great affairs going in both those far-apart countries. There is on record a prediction of Machiavelli of Florence that the Swiss were destined to be ” masters of all Italy “—a pre-diction which time has not justified, but which was reasonable enough then in the light of the wonderful military virtue and the unscrupulousness of the Swiss. Almost every European nation felt their prowess as enemies or allies.

A very curious and contradictory-seeming picture — this Swiss character in the Middle Ages, so stubborn in defence of its own poor little home-patch, so cynical in its readiness to do a patriot’s service for the pay of a mercenary. The stubborn defence of an essentially poor country was not in itself strange. It is human nature that the man who has little defends it more savagely than the owner of vast possessions. There is false reasoning in that story of the four robbers who attacked a Boeotian in order to rob him, and having subdued him after a very fierce fight in which they were almost vanquished, and having found that he had but ten coppers, said in astonishment, ” If he had had silver money he would have killed us all.” The Swiss followed the ordinary course of human character in their fierce defence of a small and poor country.

But they followed it in an heroic degree. How can one, however, reconcile with that noble patriotism the readiness—suggesting an inherited survival of the desperate migratory spirit of the Helvetii of Caesar’s time—to go abroad and bear arms for any country rich enough to offer good pay ? It is easier to record than to explain the facts. But they are of a piece with the Swiss spirit of today, which mingles with a high patriotism and a sturdy pride a willingness to take servile occupation in exile abroad for the sake of gain, and finds in that no sacrifice of dignity.

In a previous chapter a very slight sketch of the history of Switzerland was given to the time of Charlemagne. In the confusion which followed his death Switzerland was divided up, the Treaty of Verdun (843) assigning West Switzerland and East Switzerland to different kingdoms. West Switzerland was part of the Burgundian Kingdom, and after Charlemagne their national pride centred chiefly in Bertha, ” the spinning Queen,” who fortified the country against the Saracens and the Hungarians. By the eleventh century Switzerland was united again, but when the dispute between Pope Gregory VII. and the Emperor Henry IV. (it was the time when the Popes claimed, and to an extent enforced, a temporal and spiritual over-lordship over Europe) plunged the whole continent into a series of wars, Switzerland suffered with the rest of Europe. The twelfth century saw an important development for the Swiss national character when Berne and other Free Cities ” were founded by Bertold V. of the House of Zaeringer. These Free Cities ” acted as a counterpoise to the growing power of the Swiss feudal nobles of the country districts, and helped much to shape the country towards its future of a Federal Republic. This was the time of the Crusades and, needless to say, the Swiss did not miss that opportunity for martial service.

With the thirteenth century comes the first beginning of the Swiss Republic, the story of which is bound up with the rise of the House of Habsburg, a house from which was to spring one of the proudest monarchies of Europe, but which kept no foothold in Switzerland, the land which was the first seat of its power. Habsburg Castle still dominates the canton Aargau, but it is a monument of Swiss independence rather than of Austrian Empire. It is not certain whether the Habsburgs were of Swiss or of Swabian birth, but certainly their early history is most intimately bound up with the Swiss canton. It is the story that one of their ancestors, Radbot, hunting in the Aargau, lost his favourite hawk, and found it sitting on the ridge of the Wulpelsberg. Delighted with the view, Radbot built a castle there, and called it Hawk Castle, Habichtsburg, which became ” Habsburg.

In a book which is designed to give only so much of the history of Switzerland as will make interesting its monuments and its people, it would be tedious to attempt to detail all the circumstances which led up to the birth of the Swiss Republic. But the leading facts are these. During the reign of King Albrecht (1298-1308), son of the famous Habsburger Rudolf, the Eastern Cantons of Switzerland, which were under the Habsburg House but had certain liberties which they closely cherished, were ill-governed. Albrecht had set governors over the cantons, who were oppressive in their taxation and cruel in their methods of enforcing payment. So much was their oppression and cruelty resented in the Forest Cantons—Unterwalden, Schwyz, and Uri-that there was formed by three patriots, Attinghausen, Stauffacher, and Melchthal, a conspiracy of protest. These patriots, explaining their plans to their friends, arranged nightly meetings on the Rutli, a secluded Alpine meadow above the Mytenstein, on Uri lake. This became the Runnymede of Swiss freedom. Records, more or less trust-worthy, tell that in 1307 the Swiss patriots decided on definite action. Then at a meeting attended by thirty-three men on the Rutli rebellion was agreed upon.

How far one may accept the story of William Tell as giving a correct account of the final incident leading to the revolt of the Forest Cantons I cannot say. There certainly was a Hapsburg governor, Gessler, in charge of the canton Uri about this time (1307). Certainly, too, he was of a cruel and tyrannical disposition. But the story of Tell is thought by later historians to have been of much earlier origin as regards its main details. Muller, however, accepts it.

Kopp, who has subjected historical legends to a very searching analysis, rejects it on grounds which appear clear. But, very wisely, the Swiss keep to a story which conveys so valuable a lesson of patriotism. In the national history of Switzerland Tell’s defiance of the tyrant is the first paragraph.

To come back to the region of ascertained fact, it seems clear that the first union for liberty of the Forest Cantons was formed in 1291. The battle of Morgarten, which set the seal of success on their ‘revolt, was fought in 1315. There a great Hapsburg force under Duke Leopold was defeated by a far inferior band of Swiss peasants. The story of the battle illustrated once again the triumph of novelty in military strategy and tactics. The Swiss had prepared on a hillside a great artificial avalanche of stones and trees. This was let loose on the Austrians as they passed by, killed many, filled the rest with dread and confusion, and made the finish of the battle a mere slaughter.

Morgarten made the name of Switzerland respected all over Europe and set the foundations of the liberty of the Swiss people. After the battle the allied Forest Cantons went to Brunnen, to renew by oath and enlarge the league of 1291. This for nearly five hundred years remained the fundamental law of union between the three States. The Forest Cantons, as three independent republics, claimed autonomy in their local affairs. Only for national purposes was there to be a central authority. Thus was the ” Federal ” idea, which had been much favoured by the Greek States, revived in Europe. It was the first of the modern Federations. The Swiss Federal plan was followed later, to a greater or less extent, in the constitutions of the United States, Germany, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. It is suggested today by some optimists as the basis of a possible far-off European combination to end the wars of the world.

Around the nucleus of the three Forest Cantons other Swiss States gathered. After a while the three States had become eight, Lucerne (1332) and Zurich (1352) being the first of the recruits. There was during this time a state of almost constant war with Austria, in which sometimes the Swiss cantons were strong enough to take the offensive. The year 1386 saw the great battle of Sempach, of which Arnold Winkelried was the hero. Campbell, among many others, has sung of his fame :

Inspiring and romantic Switzers’ land, Though mark’d with majesty by Nature’s hand, What charm ennobles most thy landscape’s face ? Th’ heroic memory of thy native race, Who forced tyrannic hosts to bleed or flee, And made their rocks the ramparts of the free ! Their fastnesses roll’d back th’ invading tide Of conquest, and their mountains taught them pride. Hence they have patriot names,—in fancy’s eye— Bright as their glaciers glittering in the sky :

Patriots who make the pageantries of Kings Like shadows seem, and unsubstantial things. Their guiltless glory mocks oblivion’s rust— Imperishable, for their cause was just. Heroes of old ! to whom the Nine have strung Their lyres, and spirit-stirring anthems sung : Heroes of chivalry ! whose banners grace The aisles of many a consecrated place,— Confess how few of you can match in fame The martyr Winkelried’s immortal name !

Duke Leopold III. marching towards Lucerne with a great army for those days (some say 12,000, others 24,000 men) encountered at Sempach the Swiss force (said to have been only 1500 men). The Austrian force formed a phalanx bristling on every side with lances. In the first stages the fight went badly for the brave mountaineers ; sixty of them were slain before a single Austrian fell. They could not pass the hedge of lances.

Then said Arnold of Winkelried, ” I’ll make a way for you, comrades ; take care of my wife and children ! ” He sprang upon the enemy with arms widely outspread, and gathered into his body the points of all the lances within his reach. Thus a gap was formed in the line, and into this gap leapt the Swiss, and came to close quarters with their enemy, who fell into con-fusion. Victory for the Swiss, a dreadful carnage of the Austrians followed. All Europe was astounded. The name of Swiss came to be associated with heroic courage and invincible might in battle. That the result was no mere ” fluke ” was proved a little later at Naefels, when an Austrian army suffered another disastrous defeat at the hands of the Swiss patriots. On the first Thursday of April each year Naefels celebrates that victory, and in 1888 all the people of Switzerland assembled there, in person or in spirit, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the victory.

The battle of Naefels, establishing as it did on an unquestioned preeminence the military virtues of the Swiss, inaugurated, too, that strange system of foreign service on the part of Swiss soldiers which would be shameful if it were not lighted up by so many deeds of high chivalry and noble fidelity. The Swiss Republic was now safe in its own house against aggression. The terrible prowess of its peasantry had been announced to every possible foe. But it felt the need of a foreign policy to secure an extension of territory, and it was this need which brought it into the orbit of general European diplomacy and into the temptation of mercenary service. By the next century, when the Swiss prowess had won new laurels at the battles of Grandson, Morat, and Nancy, the little patch of mountain and valley which is Switzerland had become a great diplomatic centre for Europe, its Republican leaders courted by France, the Italian States, Hungary, Germany, and England. Internecine trouble between the Swiss themselves was not uncommon, but throughout, despite differences of language, and later differences of religion, a Swiss idea of nationality lived constantly. In 1499 the Swiss League separated definitely from all vassalage to the German Empire. In 1513 the ” League of the Thirteen Cantons,” which represented the Swiss nationality until the days of Napoleon, was constituted. A severe defeat of the Swiss forces in 1515 by France left the French with the highest opinion of Swiss courage, and eager to take under their patronage the little Republic. An alliance in 1516 between France and Switzerland began a close friendship between the two countries, which continued with but little interruption until the French Revolution, when modern Switzerland may be said to have come into the arena of history.