by Greg Bryant
RAIN Magazine, Vol XIV, Number 1, Winter 1991
Today’s Swiss politics dimly reflects a very odd birth seven centuries
ago, in 1291. The beginnings of the radical Swiss Confederation are impossible
to unravel, without being struck by the political impact made on Europe by this
poor, tiny alliance.
The Swiss Example
The peasants tried to learn
This is 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, merchant 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 was a relative of 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
congregation they would serve. But they also sought to rule themselves politically,
and as former serfs they knew that this meant economic independence. They wanted
rights and ownership to be defined by the village, not by the empire and its
These communal ideals were about as far 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 Hapsburg leaders of the Holy Roman Empire tried vainly for two centuries,
from 1315, to defeat Swiss self-rule, while battling 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, city, peasant, merchant and church
interests. By 1525, joining the Swiss confederation meant withdrawal from the
Empire and certainty of self-rule.
Of course the German elite widely believed, without evidence, that the Swiss
gave more than just ideological support to the 1525 armed common revolts. This
rumor in part emerged from the Swiss historical propensity for setting free
the serfs and peasants from principalities along their growing borders. But
the rumor also reflected anxiety about Swiss military skill, sharpened during
centuries of battling Hapsburg knights, promoting independence, and renting
their infantry. The Swiss were widely recognized as the best soldiers in Europe,
and the sale of troops to their allies financially allowed them to keep free
of the Empire. It is important to note that it is often the poor that are forced
by circumstances into becoming mercenaries.
Because of their militant support for the commoner, the Swiss’s psychological
impact on medieval political discussion was completely out of proportion to
the country’s size. Niccolo Machiavelli, despite being chided by knowledgeable
friends, often related his fantasies starring the poor, leaderless Swiss Confederation
as the core of a new Empire along the lines of the ancient Roman Republic.
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." Yet this was an age when royal
and noble families were at the peak of their 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 this family. In 1499 the Hapsburgs organized the
entire Holy Roman Empire against the Swiss, but the Confederation gained new
members as a result. And the region where sits the very castle the Hapsburgs
were named after, itself turned Swiss a few years earlier.
How did a loose, divided 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? What made the Swiss so successful? What can be learned
The German revolutionaries of 1525 were reviving the values of the small, rural
communal associations pervading Europe since prehistoric times. But many of
their political demands can be traced back, in part through Switzerland, to
the popolo 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 German peasants of 1525, the Swiss alliance of 1291, and the Italian
artisans of 1198 all suffered from the conflict between nobility and the emerging
magnates of commerce.
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 they began producing for themselves.
In the area that is now Switzerland the population became more evenly distributed.
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 consume much more than they produce and have
to be fed in the winter. So a greater diversity of crops were raised instead.
This could have been a happier time, but these communities were relatively
isolated from one another, so their self-reliance didn’t add up to protection
from larger forces pushing through Europe. The majority of Europeans suffered
disruptions by wars, fighting, robbery and general bullying by the nobles: Knights,
Barons, Kings, Dukes, Lords, Bishops -- the well-armed upper crust.
Nobility can arise from subsistence communities if they are in a very large
and successful region. But most nobility in Medieval Europe were a consequence
of the Roman Empire: they were what was left of power and reactions to power
such as tribes that had fought Roman rule.
Nobles maintained themselves mostly by ganging up on people too busy surviving
to fight back. Ruling families were criminals in this very fundamental sense,
and when they grew more powerful their victims were called subjects, and their
gang members became Knights. Their occupation was to extort the peasant and
fight territorial wars with other Kings. Ennobled pejoratives such as "robber
baron" were applied quite literally throughout medieval times.
Roughly between the years 500 and 1000, trade routes and the blocks of stable
cash necessary for serious profit-making were steadily re-establishing themselves.
About 1000 A.D., two cities near the base of the Italian peninsula, Genoa and
Venice, joined the vanguard of those restoring commerce up and down the Mediterranean.
The money and goods that came through these ports brought quick change to Northern
In the next 150 years the Italian nobles, knights, Lords and Princes were overwhelmed
by the whirlwind of activity brought on by trade. Their lifestyles changed dramatically.
They lost interest in overseeing their lands, paid to have them managed, and
moved to the centers of activity in the wealthy commercial cities. The cash
necessary for collecting taxes in the countryside was now more profitably spent
collecting taxes in cities, or in expanding property holdings in the bustling
In the cities of northern Italy the newly arrived nobility melded politically
with the fattest of the merchants and took over the city government and the
church hierarchy. After the requisite power struggles, a type of city government
emerged called a commune, run by consuls elected by the merchant-noble elite.
These consuls brought major issues before their citizens: a wealthy, select,
powerful group tiny enough to fit in an assembly hall. They usually approved
of issues through acclamation, that is, clapping, pounding and yelling loudly.
These aristocrats brought to the communes their handy militarism, turning the
cities into tight clusters of heavily armed neighborhoods -- a condensed version
of the embattled and divided countryside, for which they were also responsible.
Noble families drew close into fortresses and towers just across the street
from one another.
The smaller merchants, artisans and others involved in trade became fed up
with these urban armed camps and the taxes exacted by the families within them.
The inevitable rebellion was organized by the recently founded guilds.
The Italian guild originally arose as a sort of sweatshop -- a means to organize
and educate artisans to modify raw materials so entrepreneurs could make a profit
off of them and keep an eye on their work.But soon guilds began to take up the
causes of the artisans themselves, and when that meant fighting nobles it was
easy to find allies among the newly rich merchants.
It was in the guild halls that independent, working class craftspeople and
small traders courageously organized against a noble ruling class that was extremely
wealthy, close-knit, entrenched and hyper-militarized. In the face of this opposition
the popolo decisively changed the structure of Italian society.
They built their revolution secretly, crucial given the regular militarism
of the nobles, and burst upon the scene fully organized. Pulling the workers
together came more easily in Milan, the biggest Italian manufacturing center,
though the popolo was troubled by breakdowns in communications across the large
A solution to the communications problem came in the form of an adaptation.
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 these militia to join with them, probably
because there was no strong, citywide leadership among the police. Scattered
across the city, with their ranks swelled with popolo members, these militia
could quickly alert and mobilize large sections of the city.
The Milan radicals, calling themselves the Credenza of Saint Ambrose, broke
to the surface in 1198. 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 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 rebels could get no official recognition in the establishment,
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 often a captain whose
main job was to get the crowd riled up. They refused tax payments, infiltrated
or created militia, and stood as a distinct popular opposition government claiming
the city as theirs. This helped the movement to grow in respectability and popularity,
and it generally disturbed the aristocracy.
It must be noted that the Italian popolo movement varied greatly from city
to city. In some, the middle class popolo ignored or even repressed the extremely
poor and destitute, especially when they had been paid to join with nobles.
And, unfortunately, within a century the gains of the popolo were coopted or
captured by the extremely wealthy interests in these mercantile regions.
The popolo movement arose during the clash between what was good for urban
based merchants and what was good for urban based nobility. In the city the
nobles taxed trade and manufacturing, and in the countryside they taxed traveling
merchants. They maintained the power to tax through force of arms, but the expense
to continue this was paid for by taxes. Merchants found this a trying economic
burden, and since they were too large a section of the population to join the
nobility, they fought them. Those who worked for the merchants fought alongside
them, radicalizing the movement somewhat.
Just north of Milan are the Alps, in particular the mountains of the Saint
Gotthard massif and a passable route over it constructed during this revolutionary
era. 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 somewhere
between 1140 and 1230 the devil’s bridge was built across the source of
Lake Lucerne. This bridge was part of a road boldly carved along the river gorge
leading north, a road that turned Saint Gotthard’s pass into the shortest
trade route between Italy and Germany. The reasons for the founding of the Confoederatio
Helvetica (the meaning of the acronym CH on plates attached to Swiss automobiles)
tumble out directly.
The small traders who dealt new wealth to the district of Uri, the Swiss side of the pass, were just the sort of Italians who resented nobility, and disliked taxation. These traders very much liked 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, since there just
was not that much excess to be extracted. A feudal lord in a mountain region
would have been as poor as his subjects.
When the pass was opened, the Hohenstaufen dynasty running the Holy Roman Empire
at the time took the ruling of Uri directly under the Empire’s wing, because
of its importance and the potential for tax revenue. This made it official --
noble princes were not allowed to own the district near the pass.
These opportunities were found in transit (guarding passes, providing lodging
and transport) and in trade -- the ancient Roman call for meat, wool and Swiss
cheese was being heard again. They traded a little of their real self-sufficiency
for a quick economic gain based on animal exploitation, a good return per pound
for transport costs, especially for cattle since they transport themselves.
This was a slow start to a decline of the Swiss natural economy that has left
modern Switzerland wholly dependent on the rest of the world.
In taking advantage of these new opportunities, the farmers dealt directly
with traders in the small rural cities, and were paid for their trouble. This
is in sharp contrast to peasant life in much of the rest of Europe, where the
only trade was extortion by knights on horseback.
The adaptation of the rural communal associations during the rise in commerce was crucial, because Swiss success later rested on their 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 strength than the cities. The balance was usually tipped in favor
of either the merchant cities or the country princes. But Switzerland found
a route between the two.
This meant that the countryside and the small cities were together supplied
by the commerce that normally drove cities, while at the same time they were
provoked to defend themselves from the powerful nobles in Germany. The Swiss
Confederation began in a rural area that was as familiar with trade as most
cities. This common ground between urban and rural people later allowed the
Swiss to resolve conflicts within their alliance.
As transalpine trade was emerging around Lake Lucerne, the Swiss were getting
an earful from the passing small merchants about broader participation in government
and self-rule in northern Italy. This was news that startled most Europeans.
Take for example the changes in legal matters. Europe’s center of legal
studies, Bologna, was completely run over 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. And the popolo did everything they could to undermine serfdom,
the stable economic base of the nobles.
While the Swiss were hearing of the 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 was built on the strength of
the local princes -- they elected the Emperor. The seat was one that could not
be inherited. This Emperor then acted as a mediator of disputes and a representative
of noble interests.
The Empire itself was a rather light structure that served the needs of a majority
of 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 interregnum, the people of the Waldstätten were even more on
their own than before. On top of this, 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 with St. Gotthard
pass, was under the direct administration of the Empire. But there was really
no Empire. This was certainly 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, gained 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 strategy for
accomplishing this would have severely changed the nature of the Empire. He
tried to use his position to make his family much richer than all the other
noble families, so that the throne would automatically 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 was apparently paid, in return for a continuance of relative self-rule.
But in 1291, Rudolf died. The Imperial electoral princes had their fill of
Hapsburg inheritance building, and 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 the right excuse to attack the district
of Schwyz, to which his family held claim. Together, the districts around Lake
Lucerne defeated Leopold soundly at a narrow mountain pass known as Morgarten.
All of Europe suddenly paid attention to what was happening in Switzerland.
This was the time that the Swiss legend of William Tell attempts to describe.
Tell personifies the violent Swiss reaction to foreign oppression.
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.
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 advertised by their growing continent-wide 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.
With small traders and peasants on their side they grew steadily against Hapsburg
pressure. South German cities joined the confederation to leverage their resources
against the robber barons 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, 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
and agreed upon. This created a decentralized politics still very much 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 these two forces, kept apart
and weakened by the mountains themselves, that the Swiss people found their