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Medieval Movements and the Origins of Switzerland

by Greg Bryant
RAIN 14-1
Winter 1991 

The 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation will be celebrated in 1991. Here is the first in a RAIN series examining the past and present of decentralized, community-level politics in this country.

Among industrialized nations today, Switzerland is the most politically decentralized. The national administration is largely subordinate to community government, and popular referenda on National issues are common. Major problems confront the country, but local, direct democracy is better established there than in any other wealthy nation.

Within many countries today there are regions and peoples aching for independence. In other nations, too much political power is concentrated too far away from the populace to be responsive to their needs. Switzerland, where those in the national capital are not considered leaders as much as facilitators, offers an administrative model without the problems of unchecked power usually associated with big government.

The Swiss are citizens first of their communities, then of their cantons, and then of their nation. Local independence, maintained since the founding of the confederation, has left intact great diversity: four official languages, several major religions and many ethnic distinctions. Jingoistic nationalism has rarely had much force.


Switzerland is a pocket of small-scale politics left over from an age when most important decisions were made locally.


Unfortunately, Swiss history offers no model for converting a modern nation to a confederation. Switzerland's decentralist traditions come from a time before centralized nations. It is a pocket of small scale politics left over from the days of loose empires of small principalities, when most important decisions were made locally. It stands out today only because its political structure emerged seven centuries ago, and has been modified only slowly since then. The confederation stood out at the time of its origin not because regional independence was something new, but because self-rule by commoners was.

Though medieval Switzerland does not give modern activists an exact agenda, the Swiss example is hardly meaningless. The study of Swiss origins is vital for understanding modern Swiss cooperation and decentralization. For those interested in a future of decentralized communities, the Swiss rebellion highlights large scale change in the medieval world of small scale politics. The Confederation succeeded in seceding from the Holy Roman Empire, and in holding onto independence for centuries.

And Switzerland's success is not solely due to its unique geography. Many mountainous areas in the world do not have confederations in them. Switzerland does not stretch beyond the Alps and the Jura, but this is only because of the wealth and power entrenched in the surrounding fertile lowlands.

Today's Swiss Confederation operates in a way that dimly reflects its very odd birth in 1291. Whatever the usefulness of the Swiss model to modern times, there is little doubting what Switzerland stood for to the people of late medieval Europe. By the time Swiss secession was officially accepted, the Confederation was an example to revolutionaries throughout the continent.

The Swiss Example

The peasants tried to learn
Evil tricks from the Swiss
And become their own lords...

These lines are from a German song of 1525, written in the middle of a social upheaval among the peasants of eastern France, Germany, Bohemia and Austria. Fighting the abuses of nobility, early capitalism and church hierarchy these rebel armies, and the communities supporting them, constituted the greatest popular uprising on the European continent before the French Revolution.

The German revolution of 1525 came with the fever for church reform rising in the early 16th century. Many of the underprivileged demanded freedom from Roman doctrine and called for the election of village preachers by the congregations they would serve. But they also sought to rule themselves politically, and as former serfs they knew this was possible only with economic independence. They wanted rights and ownership to be defined by the village, not by the empire and its princes.

These communal ideals were as far removed as they could be from the interests of the very powerful in 16th century Europe. Yet the peasants felt that their cause was far from hopeless  they were much inspired by the radical and successful example of the Swiss Confederation.

The princes of the House of Hapsburg, who were rulers of Austria and occasionally Holy Roman Emperors, tried vainly for two centuries, from 1315, to defeat Swiss self-rule, and to keep a growing number of villages and districts from chucking their nobility and "turning Swiss". The Swiss Confederation had no single leader, and was held together loosely by regular negotiation among many small rural, town and church interests. By 1525, joining the Swiss confederation ensured self-rule and withdrawal from the Empire.

The German elites widely believed, with some justice, that the Swiss gave more than just ideological support to the 1525 armed common revolts. This suspicion reflected in part the Swiss historical propensity for setting free the serfs and peasants from principalities along their growing borders. But the suspicion also reflected anxiety about Swiss military skill, sharpened by wars against Austria and Burgundy, and by extensive service as mercenary infantry. The Swiss were counted among the best soldiers in Europe.

Because of their militant support for the commoner, the Swiss psychological impact on medieval political discussion was completely out of proportion to the country's size. Niccolo Machiavelli regularly cautioned political leaders about what he felt was an alarming Swiss potential for expansion.

In distaste for nobility, the Swiss had no equals. Machiavelli wrote: "To the lords and gentlemen who live in that region they are entirely hostile, and if by chance any come into their hands, they put them to death as the beginning of corruption and the causes of all evil." This was an age of royal and noble families solidifying power in Europe, especially the Hapsburgs, who long held a bitter dynastic grudge against the Swiss.

The Confederation, whose very existence was in part due to Hapsburg hostility, always won their battles with the family. Even the region with the castle the Hapsburgs were named after turned Swiss. In 1499 one Hapsburg Emperor, Maximilian, organized the entire Holy Roman Empire against the Swiss. The Confederation won that war, and even more cities and regions joined it as a result. 

How did a loose, uneasy alliance of small cities and rural districts come to win their freedom and maintain it decisively against the most powerful European dynasty of this millennium? The answer lies in part with a broadening of the ideology of independence.

The bulk of the German peasant revolutionaries of 1525 promoted the common values of small, rural village associations. But many of their political demands can be traced back, in part through Switzerland, to the popular movement in Italy  in particular to the first success of working and middle class interests in Milan, in 1198, on the Lombard plain of Northern Italy. The Swiss Confederation might have never formed but for the explosion of commerce South of the Alps, an explosion that was also responsible for the rise of the Italian popular city republics.

The Italian Popolo and
The Growth of Popular Dissent

When the ancient Roman Empire collapsed in 456 upon reaching the limits of its own expansion, its intercontinental system of trade collapsed with it. The next 500 years might be called Europe's Golden Age of Self-Reliance. Export-oriented regions could no longer rely on Roman commerce for basic needs, so after some severe hardship people began producing for themselves.

In the area that is now Switzerland the cities broke up and the people distributed themselves more evenly throughout the region. When Roman domination ended, so did most of the pastoral keeping of cattle for milk, cheese and meat. In areas of scarcity, cattle could not be raised without the Roman trade, since the animals consumed more than they produced and had to be fed in the winter. A greater diversity of crops were raised instead.

Near the year 1000, wide ranging trade routes were re-established as sources of investment capital grew more stable. At this time two cities near the base of the Italian peninsula, Genoa and Venice, were in the vanguard of those who restored commerce, sometimes by force, up and down the Mediterranean. The money, goods and power that gathered at these ports brought quick change to Northern Italy.

In the next 150 years Italian nobles, Knights, Lords and Princes became part of the whirlwind of activity brought on by trade. Their lifestyles changed dramatically. They lost interest in overseeing their lands, which they had maintained and protected by force for centuries. They paid to have them managed, and moved to the centers of activity in the wealthy commercial cities. The arms needed to collect taxes from serfs in the countryside were now more profitably used in collecting taxes from trade in cities, or in expanding property and influence in the bustling urban economy.

As the loosely-run towns and villages of Northern Italy became more valuable, struggle over their control became fierce. The larger and smaller Noble landholders fought with each other and with landed churches and merchants. After at least a hundred years of battles and negotiations, a firm, organized city government emerged: the commune, run in an orderly manner by consuls elected by the merchant-noble elite. The institution served to resolve regional conflicts and to protect local property from Kings and emperors.

Though hardly democratic in a modern sense, the commune's innovation in administrative form was significant. Instead of a ruler, the cities were run by elected consuls. These consuls brought major issues before their citizens: a wealthy, select and powerful minority, usually tiny enough to fit into an assembly hall.  They approved of issues through acclamation, that is, clapping, pounding and yelling loudly. With this institution, the elite created a model for the broader participation that came later. These city patricians then incited the underprivileged by indulging in greed and feuds.

In spite of the diplomacy on which the commune was founded, the aristocrats brought to town their habitual militarism, and turned the cities into tight clusters of heavily armed neighborhoods  a condensed version of the embattled and divided countryside. Noble families drew close into fortresses and towers right across the street from one another.

Less privileged nobles, smaller merchants, artisans and others involved in trade were no longer willing to provide urban battlefields to families that taxed their businesses relentlessly. They became the Popolo, rebels of the middle-class who were not involved in government, but who felt they should be. 

In Milan, recently formed guilds gathered support. As the biggest manufacturing center in Italy, Milan became the site of the first popolo uprising. They built their revolution secretly, in order to avoid the militant nobles, and later burst upon the scene fully organized. 


The less centralized a police force, the more responsible it is to the needs of the residents.


Because of the turf battles among the nobility, each neighborhood had established a separate militia to act as a police force responsible to the commune. Neighborhood popolo workers were able to convince members of the old communal militia to join with them, probably because there was no strong, centralized, citywide leadership among these police. Ties to various religious, guild and neighborhood organizations among the militia, whose members may have held several jobs, were stronger than weak orders from a elite communal leadership whose city was divided by noble quarrels. Scattered across the city, their ranks swelled with popolo members, these militia were able to quickly alert and mobilize large sections of the city. The lesson is clear: the less centralized a police force, the more responsive it is to the needs of the residents.

The most radical Milanese, calling themselves the Credenza of Saint Ambrose, broke to the surface in 1198. They worked alongside more moderate groups that supported them in their calls for change. The strength of the rebellion eventually forced the consul to give up half the city government to the popolo. Like their counterparts elsewhere in Northern Italy (except for Genoa and Venice, where the large shipping interests were powerful and the artisans few), they vastly broadened the political citizenship of the commune.

In Bologna, the popolo freed the serfs and took over the government completely. But in cities where the middle class could force no official recognition, they took to the strategy of creating popular counter governments.

Side by side with the stubborn governing body of the old guard they set up a council of elders, a huge people's assembly, and a captain whose main job was to get the crowd riled up. They refused tax payments, battled nobles with their militia, and stood as a distinct popular opposition government, claiming the city as theirs.

Unfortunately, the gains of the popolo were eventually captured by or lost to extremely wealthy interests in these mercantile regions. With their deeper resources and battle hardened knights, the nobility reacted successfully, and fiercely, in support of their way of life. By the 1350's, most Italian city states were ruled by despots.

The popolo movement arose during the clash of interests between urban middle class merchants and urban noble merchants. In the cities the nobles taxed trade and manufacturing, and in the countryside they taxed traveling merchants. The nobles' power to tax was maintained through force of arms, the expense of which was paid for by taxes. Merchants found this cycle a trying economic burden, and since the nobles would let very few into the power structure, the merchants rebelled. Those who worked for the merchants fought alongside them, broadening the movement.

The Alps lie just north of Milan, specifically the mountains of the Saint Gotthard massif and a passable route over it constructed during the era of the popolo. This route leads directly to the region where the successful story of the Swiss resistance begins.

The Origins of the Swiss Confederation

It was always difficult to travel across the massive continental swelling of St. Gotthard, the source for both the Rhine and Rhône rivers. But sometime between 1140 and 1230 the devil's bridge was built across a tributary of Lake Lucerne, part of a road boldly carved along the river gorge leading north. This road turned Saint Gotthard's pass into an important trade route between Italy and Germany. The reasons for the founding of the Confoederatio Helvetica (CH) follow directly.

The small traders who dealt new wealth to the district of Uri, on the Swiss side of the pass, were just the sort of Italians who resented entrenched nobility, disliked tax on trade, and favored broadening participation in politics. These traders took pleasure in doing business with the mountain and forest people of Uri, since there were basically no Lords in the region. Mountainous areas typically could not sustain aristocracy: there simply was not enough surplus to extract. Any Alpine feudal Lord would have been just as poor as his subjects.

When the pass was opened, the Hohenstaufen dynasty that ran the Holy Roman Empire at the time put Uri directly under the rule of the Empire. Because of the importance of the pass, and the potential for tax revenue, individual noble princes were not allowed to own the district.

Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, the Waldstätten or forest districts around Lake Lucerne, were self-governed in ways common to remote, highland, self-reliant communities in Europe. Typically, these were run by cooperative rural associations, which helped to organize and plan the use of community lands. In the Waldstätten, these rural associations adapted to the influx of trade, and organized their communities to take advantage of new opportunities.

Money could be made through transit (guarding passes, providing lodging and transporting goods) and in trade: the ancient Roman call for meat, wool and Swiss cheese was being heard again from diverse sources. They traded a little of their real self-sufficiency for quick economic gains based on accommodation and animal exploitation, the latter a good return per pound for transport costs since cattle transport themselves. This was the beginning of a decline in Swiss self-reliance in resources that has left modern Switzerland largely dependent on the rest of the world.

In taking advantage of these new opportunities, the farmers and the transit businesses dealt directly with traders travelling through the countryside and the small rural cities. The locals were paid for their trouble, something that would not have happened had strong princes been present. The facilitation of this direct interaction between traders and locals became one of the main functions of the modified rural organizations.

The new roles for the rural communal associations were crucial, because Swiss success later rested on an ability to hold together an alliance between rural and urban interests. In Italy, the cities drove the economy, and in Germany the rural nobility had more overall power than the patricians in the cities. The power balance usually tipped in favor of either the merchant cities or the country princes. But Switzerland found a third way.

The small towns and countryside together were supplied by the edge of the commercial frenzy of the age, and at the same time cooperated in defending themselves from powerful nobles in Germany. The rural people in this region became as familiar with trade as most urbanites. This common ground between  urban and rural people later allowed the Swiss to resolve conflicts within their alliance, and to fight for their mutual interests.

As transalpine trade was emerging around Lake Lucerne, the Swiss were hearing from passing small merchants about broader participation in government and self-rule in northern Italian city republics. The news of the popolo stirred many Europeans.

Take the changes in legal matters. Europe's center of legal studies, Bologna, had been overrun by the most radical of popolo groups. This drove legal thought towards a justification for broad popular participation in government, supporting the idea of a civil commune. Bologna began conducting law studies in Italian, rather than Latin, and boosted literacy and education in professions relating to commerce, undermining the clergy's strangle-hold on education. In addition, the Bologna popolo enacted broad measures to undermine serfdom, the stable economic base of the nobles.

While the Swiss were hearing of these developments in Italy, the Holy Roman Empire fell into a kind of disuse during The Great Interregnum, several decades when there was no German King. The Holy Roman Empire, which emerged along with the revolution in commerce, was built on the strength of local princes. These nobles elected the Emperor  the seat could not be inherited. Emperors acted as mediators of disputes and representatives of noble interests.

 The Empire itself was a rather light structure that served the needs of most noble families. Its purpose was to organize larger policy, stabilize noble claims to territory, and generally ensure that there were always plenty of wars for knights to get involved in (never a real problem). True power was exercised on a local level by princes  very different from the ancient Roman empire, and indeed much less centralized than most nation states today.

During the Great Interregnum in the 13th century, the people of the Waldstätten were not bothered by the Empire that had claimed them. The three districts around the lake were in three different states of official ownership: the Hapsburgs claimed Schwyz, Unterwalden was not clearly administered, and Uri, the district of St. Gotthard's pass, was under the direct administration of the Empire. But since there really was no Empire, this became a time that tested and enhanced the Swiss capacity for rural and village based self-rule.

The interregnum ended in 1273 with the election of Rudolf IV as the first Holy Roman Emperor from the Hapsburg dynasty. Prior to this, Rudolf spent much of his life violently and cleverly accumulating land for his family. The Hapsburgs held their possessions collectively, unlike other families that split their lands among their progeny, resulting often in the disappearance of both the family and its inheritance. Rudolf inherited seven lordships, and by the time of his death he had nearly 50, captured through marriage, purchase and pressure. The Bishop of Basle experienced this pressure  he was under siege by Hapsburg troops when he heard of Rudolf's Ascension to the throne, and then prayed out loud: 

Hold onto your seat Lord, or else Rudolf will surely grab it. 

Rudolf wanted to restore power to the German throne, though his particular strategy for accomplishing this would have severely changed the nature of the Empire. He planned to use his position to make his family so much richer than other noble families, that the throne would become a Hapsburg inheritance.

After his election Rudolf controlled all three of the Swiss forest cantons: Schwyz and Unterwalden through his family and Uri through direct Imperial rule. The Waldstätten were to him a stable source of needed tax revenue, and this tax was apparently paid willingly in return for the continued independence of the region.

In 1291, Rudolf died. The Imperial electoral princes, having had their fill of Hapsburg inheritance building, elected an Emperor from a different noble family. Reacting bitterly to the sudden decline in their fortune, the Hapsburgs began territorial battles with other families, and began to feud among themselves.

The Swiss Waldstätten braced themselves and signed a pact of mutual defense a few weeks after Rudolf's death. By 1315, Leopold, Duke of Austria and a senior in the Hapsburg dynasty, found some excuse to attack the district of Schwyz, to which his family held claim. Fighting together, the districts around Lake Lucerne soundly defeated Leopold at a narrow mountain pass known as Morgarten. Immediately, all of Europe was interested in what was happening in Switzerland.

This was the time that the Swiss legend of William Tell attempts to describe. The legend is of a Hapsburg governor who makes a Swiss man shoot an apple off of his own son's head. After escaping this ordeal, Tell personifies the violent Swiss reaction to this foreign intervention.

It was this Hapsburg oppression, along with the trickle of trade money coming into the region, that allowed the secretaries of the Waldstätten to organize the fight against the Hapsburgs. In the early critical period it was vital that many of the districts and cities that joined with the Swiss were relatively self-sufficient, in both food and especially water, for which the mountain glaciers were the source for much of Europe. This made them impossible to besiege, and the mountains made them militarily difficult to approach. Their success was resounding, and cities and rural districts all around the Waldstätten eagerly joined the new Confederation.

In the ensuing centuries, Switzerland was looked at as a poor country by Europeans, even though they were gradually relying more heavily on trade from their region. They introduced to this commerce a new product, well advertised by their growing reputation as invincible fighters: the mercenary. The Swiss professional soldiers were from the same armies used to help the always changing, mostly defensive goals of the leaderless Confederation. The export status of the mercenary made it easier to maintain cooperative military readiness among the diverse confederate members. Their military mindset, however, eventually made them rougher and more conservative, traits many Swiss are accused of to this day. Their militarism was vital for independence from the Empire, but it did not make them rich.

With small traders and peasants as allies, the confederation grew steadily against Hapsburg pressure. South German cities joined the confederation for help against the robber barons, the nobility running the countryside.  The Swiss armies became multi-ethnic with the joining of Italian, French and Romansch speaking Alpine districts. 

The original Waldstätten and especially the district of Schwyz, hence the name Swiss, fought hard to secure freedom from domination for all people within the member districts of the diverse alliance. The members of the Confederation, though, were independent of any central authority, and the group's goals had to be regularly discussed, fought over and agreed upon. This created a mechanism for decentralized politics still visible in Switzerland today.

The Swiss Confederation was able to secure a stable level of participatory democracy among its commonfolk impossible in the centers of merchant capitalism or the strongholds of aristocracy. It is between commerce and feudalism, both separated and weakened by the mountains themselves, that the Swiss people found a way to avoid the abuses of a centralized, modern nation state. 





Schwyz in 1548, Chronik Stumpf.


Below: Towns and Cantons in Switzerland have distinctive symbols and traditions. A new canton may even emerge from an old one if some differences are not resolved. Top: Poster of the successful Jura separatist movement of the 1970's. Bottom: Trademark from the Aargau. 




Below: Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, the three founding members of the Swiss Confederation. These were the three Cantons most sympathetic to the peasants' war, which broke out four years after Urs Graf made these woodcuts.



Below: A noble family with properties all over Europe, the Hapsburgs took their name from this castle, sitting in a particularly strategic spot overseeing rivers and valleys in what is today northern Switzerland. The Hapsburgs were humiliated by the loss of this property to the rebellious Swiss.



Below: Clusters of watchtowers, hundreds of feet high, were built in Italian cities by competing consortia of noble families. Making parts of cities impregnable, and unlivable, the towers and the vendettas carried out by their owners led to an uprising by the general population. These towers still stand today in San Gimignano. After Waley, The Italian City-Republics.


Below: Who needs a political party? Start a counter-government instead!  
Below: Lake Luzern, where is all began. The small city of Luzern, and the districts of Schwyz, Unterwalden and Uri all lie on this lake, their common interest. Beyond the Alps lies Italy, and Milan is at the other end of the mountain route that spills into this lake. From Sebastian Münster's"Cosmographia Universalis", 1544.


Below: from a relief on the tomb of a law professor (Cino de Pistoia (1270-1336/7)) who studied in Bologna. The relief suggests the origin of the word 'lecture' (Latin lectura, 'a reading'): Cino reads the text along with his pupils, making comments and answering questions. After Waley, The Italian City-Republics.


Below: Small country towns like Schwyz were both friendly with rural folk and familiar with traders. In the absence of nobility, this urban/rural alliance became the foundation for independence. Woodcut of Schwyz from Chronik Stumpf, 1548.


Below: Seals of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden from the "founding" document of the Swiss Confederation, written in 1291. The treaty, written to reaffirm an old alliance after Rudolf's death, is written in Latin and shows these rural folk to be quite canny.



Below: The Swiss hero, William Tell, is forced to shoot an apple off his own son's head. The tale is a euphemism for torture, a metaphor for colonialism, and an exhortation to resist. Chronik Etterlin, 1507.




Below: Maximilian: A formschneider engraving by Albrect Dürer.


Below: two woodcuts from The Book of Trades (Ständebuch) Jost Amman and Hans Sachs, 1568.