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might save his child, and shot the apple from the child's head.
The lord liked this well, and asked him what he meant by it
[that he had put an arrow in his quiver]. He answered him,
and would gladly have said no more [an obscure passage; the
original is hett es gem jm besten ver Rett\ The lord would
not leave off; he wanted to know what he meant by it. Tall
feared the lord, and was afraid he would kill him. The lord
imderstood his fear and spake: *Tell me the truth; I will
make thy life safe, and not kill thee.* Then spake Tall : * Since
you have promised me, I will tell you the truth, and it is true :
had the shot failed me, so that I had shot my child, I had shot
the arrow into you or one of your men.* Then spake the lord :
* Since now this is so, it is true I have promised thee not to
kill thee* ; and had him bound, and said he would put him into
a place where he would never more see sun or moon.*** The
account goes on to describe how Tall, in being taken down the
lake in a boat, makes his escape at the Tellsplatte, and later
shoots Gessler in the Hohle Gasse at Kiissnacht ; but he is not
mentioned as taking part in the league afterward made ; much
less does he figure as the founder of {he Confederation. ^

Now the question arises. How can we account for the sud-
den appearance of William Tell, both in the " Song of the Ori-
gin of the Confederation** and in "The White Book of Sar-
nen,*' after the writers of a century and a half had passed him
over in complete silence }

1 Root tUUen^ to act childishly.

1 Oechsli, W. Quellenbuch. pp. 64-70.

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As regards the simple story of the shot, apart altogether
from its historical application, there can be no doubt now, after
the investigations which have been made in all directions, that
we have to do here with a widespread household myth, belong-
ing equally to many branches of the Germanic family, but pre-
served with special tenacity in the retired and conservative
valley of Uri. The same legend occurs in various parts of
northern and central Europe, in Iceland, Norway, Denmark,
Holstein, on the Middle Rhine, and with another motive in the
English ballad of William of Cloudesly. There is always a
skillful archer who is punished by being made to shoot an
object from his child's head, and who in almost every case
reserves an arrow with which*to slay the tyrant in case of fail-
ure. The names of the men and places and the local coloring
of course vary in the different versions, but the structure of
the story remains the same in all. The one which bears prob-
ably the greatest resemblance to that of William Tell is to be
found in a Danish history, Gesta Danorutfty written by Saxo,
sumamed Grammaticus, in the twelfth century. Here the
anecdote is told of one Toko, or Toki, and King Harald Blue-
tooth (936-986). Making due allowance for the great differ-
ence between the style of this work, which is in pompous
Latin, and the rude and fresh dialect of "The White Book of
Sarnen," the resemblance is certainly very striking.

Says Saxo Grammaticus: "Nor ought what follows to be
enveloped in silence. Toko, who had for some time been in
the king's service, had by his deeds, surpassing those of his
comrades, made enemies of his virtues. One day, when he
had drunk too much, he boasted to those who sat at table with
him that his skill in archery was such that with the first
shot of an arrow he could hit the smallest apple set on the top
of a stick at a considerable distance. His detractors, hearing
this, lost no time in conveying what he had said to the king.
But the wickedness of this monarch soon transformed the con-
fidence of the father to the jeopardy of the son ; for he ordered
the dearest pledge of his life to stand in place of the stick.

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from whom if the utterer of the boast did not at his first shot
strike down the apple, he should with his head pay the penalty
of having made an idle boast The command of the king
urged the soldier to do this, which was so much more than he
had undertaken, the detracting artifices of the others having
taken advantage of words spoken when he was hardly sober.
As soon as the boy was led forward, Toko carefully admon-
ished him to receive the whir of the arrow as calmly as possi-
ble, with attentive ears, and without moving his bead, lest by
a slight motion of the body he should frustrate the experience
of his well-tried skill. He also made him stand with his back
toward him, lest he should be frightened at the sight of the
arrow. Then he drew three arrows from his quiver, and the
very first he shot struck the proposed mark. Toko being
asked by the king why he had so many more arrows out of his
quiver, when he was to make but one trial with his bow, 'That
I might avenge on thee,' he replied, *the error of the first by
the points of the others, lest my innocence might happen to
be aflBicted and thy injustice go unpunished.*"^ Afterward,
during a rebellion of the Danes against Harald, Toko slays
him with an arrow in a forest.

Observe, also, the truly remarkable likeness of the old Eng-
lish ballad of William of Cloudesly to the " Song of the Origin
of the Confederation," both as regards sense and style. I
quote a few of the more striking verses only, in order not to
weary the reader with continual repetitions :

** ' I haue a sonne is seuen yere olde ;
He is to me full deare ;
I wyll hym tye to a stake.
All shall see that be here ;

*< < And lay an apple vpon hys head,
And go syxe score paces hym fro»
And I my selfe, with a brode arow.
Shall deue the apple in two.*

^ Baring-Gould, S. Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. p. 113.

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<* And bound therto his eldest sonne,
And bad hym stande styll thereat,
And turned the childe*8 face fro him,
Because he shuld not sterte.

' Thus Clowdesle clefte the apple in two,

That many a man it se;
* Ouer goddes forbode,* sayed the kynge,
* That thou sholdest shote at me T " ^

Two explanations are possible in view of this similarity:
either the author of the ballad of Tell and the notary of Sar-
nen copied the account of Saxo Grammaticus, written three
centuries before, at the same time making them conform to
Swiss surroundings, or the Danish and Swiss writers simply
put down a legend current amongst their own people, derived
from some common, older source, from which proceeded also
the Icelandic, Norwegian and other versions. This latter solu-
tion seems to me preferable. Northern Switzerland was
invaded by the German tribe of the Alamanni at the fall of
the Roman Empire, and the present Cantons of Uri, Schwiz
and Unterwalden were colonized by them somewhat later.
William Tell is probably the Alamannian counterpart of Toko,
the Dane. Moreover, both- the ballad and The White Book
reveal the ring of genuine folk-lore; they do not betray the
touch of the copyist; so that we need not necessarily ques-
tion the good faith of the men who wrote them down. But
whatever explanation be accepted, it is now established that
William Tell is no more exclusively Swiss than he is Icelandic.

If, now, we examine the different parts of the legend itself,
to see if we cannot establish its historical value from internal
evidence, we shall find our task still more discouraging. All
the arguments put forward by the partisans of Tell have been
found to fail upon closer scrutiny.

Certainly it is not unreasonable to suppose that if the great
archer had once lived in the Forest Cantons his name would
be found in some of the ancient records, but the most minute

1 Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Part V., p. 29.

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search in the archives of the three cantons has failed to show
that such a man as Thall, Tall» or William Tell ever existed.
In the midst of the controversy upon this question which broke
out at the end of the last century, a Johann Imhof, vicar
of Schaddorf, a village adjoining Biirglen, the traditional
birthplace of Tell, searched diligently for proofs of his exist-
ence. He announced that he had discovered the name in two
places : in the burial register (Jahrzeitbucti) of his own parish,
and again in the parsonage book (jPfarrbuch) of the neighbor-
ing village of Attinghausen. Investigation has revealed that,
of these two entries, one had been wrongly read, the other had
been tampered with. In the first case de Tello was really de
TrullOf and in the second Tdll^ originally Nail} Imhof also
cited documents, as well as Balthazer in his Defense de Guil-
laume Tell ; but upon examination these supposed proofs failed
utterly, and only harmed the cause they were intended to sus-
tain. They consist of quotations from well-known chronicles,
which date from a time when the tradition was already fully
developed, or of documents bearing the strongest internal evi-
dence of forgery.

Nor can the pilgrimages which are held in his memory, the
Tell's Chapels, or other local features, which are shown to trav-
elers at Altdorf and Biirglen, be regarded as testifying to his
existence, since, like the chronicles, they either date from a
time when the tradition was fully developed, or .have been
found to be connected with altogether different circumstances.
The famous chapel on the Lake of Luzern seems to have
been originally designed for the use of fishermen ; the one at
the Hohle Gasse, near Kiissnacht, is first mentioned in 1570,
and the one at Biirglen in 1582, long after the chroniclers had
fixed the legend upon the hearts and minds of the people.

The supposed site of the William Tell episode at Altdorf is
in the centre of the village, not far from the market-place.

From this spot Tell is reported to have shot the arrow, while
his little son stood just beyond, under an ancient lime-tree.
This tree, having withered and died, was cut down in 1569 by

iRilliet,A. Origines. pp- 315-316.

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a certain Besler, magistrate of the village (Dorfvogt)^ and a
fountain erected in its stead, which now stands there sur-
mounted by a rude statue of Besler himself. As a matter of
fact, the lime-tree is historical, for we know that assizes were
held under it, and sentences signed as having been pronounced
"under the lime-tree at Altdorf"; but of course all this does
not bear upon the truth or falsity of the Tell tradition, since
chroniclers, if they chose to adorn their tale, would naturally
select genuine local features;

Near by rises a tower, at one time pronounced to be over
the place where the boy stood, but now known to be much
older than the period in which William Tell is said to have
lived ; that is, at the beginning of the fourteenth century. It
was probably the seat of a mayor who collected tithes for the
Abbey of Nuns (FraumUnster) in Zurich, to which institution
the greater part of the present Canton of Uri at one time
belonged. Even that highly picturesque incident, the setting
of a hat upon a pole, a feature peculiar to the Swiss version of
the legend, so far as is known is susceptible of a perfectly
natural historical explanation. The historian Meyer von Kno-
nau, noticing that a hat figures in his own family coat of arms,
and in those of many other families whose name is Meyer, has
come to the conclusion that the setting up of the mayor's hat
was a regular custom at the Altdorf assizes, and that what is
represented in the legend as the whim of a tyrant was in real-
ity a well-established official procedure.

Not to protract this argument to tedious length, I will
merely cite one more proof of the flimsiness of the structure
upon which the whole story rests. We now know that the
rdle ascribed to the bailiff Gessler is an historical impossibil-
ity. The history of the Gessler family has been written by
an untiring investigator, Rochholz, who has brought together
from every conceivable source the documents which bear upon
the subject. From his investigations it results that no mem-
ber of that family is mentioned as holding any office whatso-
ever in the three cantons, or as being murdered by a man

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Thall, Tall, or William Tell. It is contrary to all contempo-
rary documents to suppose that an Austrian bailiff ruled over
Uri after 1231, or that such a one would have owned the cas-
tle of Kiissnacht, the history of which property has been care-
fully traced, and which was in the hands of its true owners,
the Knights of Kiissinach, at the time when Gessler is reported
to have made it his residence.

The fact is, that in Gessler we are confronted by a curious
case of confusion in identity. At least three totally different
men seem to have been blended into one in the course of an
attempt to reconcile the different versions of the three can-
tons. Felix Hemmerlin, of Zurich, in 1450 tells of a Habs-
burg governor living on the little island of Schwanau, in the
Lake of Lowerz, who seduced a maid of Schwiz and was killed
by her brothers. Then there was another person, strictly his-
torical. Knight Eppo of Kiissinach (Kiissnacht), who, wTiile
acting as bailiff for the dukes of Austria, put down two revolts
of the inhabitants in his district, one in 1284 and another in
1302. Finally there was the tyrant bailiff mentioned in the
ballad of Tell, whom, by the way, a chronicler writing in 15 10
calls, not Gessler, but the Count of Seedorf. These three per-
sons were combined, and the result was named Gessler.

To trace the legend to a mythical source and to reveal its
inconsistencies is simple enough, but to explain the historical
application which has been made of it, is quite another matter.
If William Tell is a hero of a widespread Germanic myth, how
came be to be connected with the history of Switzerland at
all? Why has not tradition handed down as founder of the
Confederation one of those active patriots who are known to
have lived and labored for Swiss freedom — men like Stou-
pacher (Stauffacher) of Schwiz, or Attinghausen of Uri?
Here lies the main difficulty ; but an explanation even of this
is at hand, which on the whole satisfies the peculiar conditions
of the problem.

When the Song and The White Book appeared at the end
of the fifteenth century, the Swiss Confederates stood at the

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very apex of their military glory, having just completed a
series of great victories by defeating in three pitched battles
the richest prince in Europe, Charles the Bold of Burgundy.

Filled with a spirit of patriotic exaltation, they turned to
magnify their national origin, as is the wont of all nations
when they rise to importance. But each of the three districts
which had united to form the nucleus of the Confederation,
Uri, Schwiz, and Unterwalden, tried to secure for itself as
much credit as possible in the founding of it, thus giving rise
to a variety of versions. Schwiz supplied the story of a cer-
tain genuinely historical personage, Stoupacher; Unterwalden,
that of a youth designated as living in the Melchi, near Sarnen,
and arbitrarily named Melchthal by later writers; and Uri
attempted to turn to political account a legendary William
Tell, an old favorite amongst the people of that district. The
notary of Sarnen collected these stories, and did his best to
give each of the three lands an equal share in the founding of
the Confederation. In time the mythical hero distanced his
rivals in popular favor, perhaps for the very reason that he was
mythical and his family unknown in those parts, a sort of
"dark horse" upon whom the jealous claimants could unite.

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IT is somewhat strange that the legend of William Tell
should be the only one, amongst those surrounding the
origin of the Swiss Confederation, in which there does not
seem to be the faintest trace of historical truth. None of
the others contained in the "White Book of Sarnen/* can be re-
jected as absolutely devoid of probable facts. Taken together
they present a picture of the times which, though by no means
accurate, deserves to be considered in connection with the
study of mere matter-of-fact documents, for in the latter, what
we may term the human side of the question, is apt to receive
scanty justice.

These legends also have a certain literary quality of their
own. They are medieval, childlike and savor of the soil to a
remarkable degree. "Now at Sarnen a von Landenberg was
bailiff in the name of the empire. He beard that there was
one in the Melchi who had a fine yoke of oxen. Then the
lord went thither, and sent one of his servants, and had the
oxen unyoked and brought to him, and had the poor man told,
peasants must draw the plow [themselves], and he wanted to
have the oxen. The servant did as the lord had bid him, and
went thither, and wanted to unyoke the oxen, and drive them
to Sarnen. Now the poor man had a son who did not like
this, and would not let him have the oxen, and when the ser-
vant of the lord laid hands upon the yoke, and wanted to
unyoke the oxen, then he smote him with the oxgoad, and
broke a finger of the lord's servant. The servant was hurt,
and ran home, and complained to his lord of how he had fared.


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The lord was angry, and wanted to punish the other one. So
he had to flee; the lord sent for his father and had him
brought to Sarnen to his house, and put out his eyes and took
from him what he had and did him much harm.

" In those days there was an upright man in Alzellen who had
a pretty wife, and he who was lord there at the time wanted to
have the woman, whether she would or not. The lord came
to Alzellen into her house; the husband was in the forest.
The lord forced the woman to make ready a bath for him, and
said she must bathe with him. The woman prayed God to
keep her from shame, and thought to herself: God never
leaves his people who call upon Him in need. The husband
came in the meantime, and asked her what ailed her. She
spake: 'The lord is here and forced me to make ready a bath
for him.' The husband grew angry, and went in and smote
the lord to death in that hour with an axe, and delivered his
wife from shame.

" In those same days there was a man in Swiz [Schwiz], called
Stoupacher [Stauffacher] who lived at Steinen, this side the
bridge ; he had built a pretty stone house. Now at that time
a Gesler [Gessler] was bailiff there, in the name of the
empire; he came one day, and rode by there, and called to
Stoupacher, and asked him, whose the pretty dwelling was.
Stoupacher answered him and spake sadly : * Gracious lord, it
is yours and mine in fief,' and dared not say it was his, so
greatly did he fear the lord. The lord rode away. Now
Stoupacher was a wise man and well to do. He had also a
wise wife, and thought over the matter, and had great grief,
and was full of fear before the lord, lest he should take his life
and his goods from him. His wife, she noticed it and did as
women do, and would like to have known what was the mat-
ter with him, or why he was sad; but he denied her that.
At last she overwhelmed him with great entreaty, that he
might let her know his matter, and spake : « Be so good and
tell me thy need ; although it is said, women give cold coun-
sels, who knows what God will do.?' She begged him so

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often in her trusting way, that he told her what his grief was.
She went and strengthened him with words and spake:
* There'll be some good plan,' and asked him if he knew any
one in Ure [Uri] who was so trusted by him that he might
confide his need to him, and told him of the family of Furst
and of zer Fraowen [Zur Frauen], He answered her and
spake : * Yea, he knew them well, and thought about the coun-
sel of his wife, and went to Ure, and stayed there, until he
found one who had also a like grief. She had also bid him
ask in Unterwalden ; for she thought, there were people there
also, who did not like such tyranny.

"Now the poor man's son had fled from Unterwalden and
was nowhere safe, he who had smitten in twain the finger of
the servant of von Landenberg with the oxgoad ; for which his
father had been blinded by the lord, and he felt sorry for his
father, and he would have liked to avenge him. That one also
came to Stoupacher, and so there came three of them together,
Stoupacher of Schwitz [Schwiz], and one of the Fursts of Ure,
and he from Melche in Unterwalden, and each confided his
need and grief to the other, and took counsel, and they took
an oath together. And when the three had sworn to each
other, then they sought and found one from nid dent wald
[Nidwalden] he also swore with them, and they found now and
again secretly men whom they drew to themselves, and swore
to each other faith and truth, both to risk life and goods, and
to defend themselves against the lords, and when they wanted
to do and undertake anything, they went by the Myten Stein
at night to a place [which] is called yw Riidli (Riitli). There
they met together and each one of them brought men with
him, in whom they could trust, and continued that some time
and met nowhere else in those days, save in the Rudli."*

The White Book goes on to relate that Stoupacher's com-
pany grew so strong that they went about, destroying the
castles of the lords ; a tower below Amsteg, Twing Uren
(Zwing Uri) by name, Swandow (Schwandau) in Schwiz, Rotz-
berg in Nidwalden, and finally the castle at Sarnen in Obwal-

1 Dandliker, K. Geschicbte. Vol- I., p. 637. ^ Oechsli, W. Quellenbuch. p. 64.

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den, the storming of which is told in a graphic manner, with
many bits of local interest. When the bailiffs had been
expelled the three lands made a league and held their meet-
ings at Begkenriet (Beckenried). The account then passes
on to describe Luzern's entry into the Confederation without
mentioning the decisive battle of Morgarten.

The whole of this narrative cannot be mere invention.
There are great inaccuracies, but there are no irreconcilable
inconsistencies, as in the legend of William Tell

Two noblemen, vassals of Habsburg, both named Herrmann
von der hohen Landenburg, are known to have lived in the
reigns of Rudolf and Albrecht, although there is no record of
their having had any connection with the Forest States. As
for Stauffacher, that is the name of a family which was promi-
nent in the affairs of Schwiz for several generations, as will be
shown later. Fiirst and Zur Frauen were historical families of
Uri. There is no evidence either for or against the existence
of the peasant from the Melchi in Obwalden, or the virtuous
wife in Alzellen. Contemporary documents are also silent
concerning the castle of Zwing Uri, but judging from the
scanty ruins which may still be seen on a hillock near the
entrance to the Maderaner Thai, it must have been a simple
tower, similar to those of the Mayors of the nunnery of Zurich
situated at Altdorf, Biirglen, Silenen and Erstfeld. The same
uncertainty reigns in connection with the ruins on the island
in the lake of Lowerz; it has not yet been ascertained
whether they were those of a nobleman's castle, or formed
part of the fortifications, erected by the men of Schwiz before
the battle of Morgarten.

As regards the oath on the Riitli, there is no likelihood that
it took place in 1291, for there was at that time no motive for
secrecy. On the other hand, Swiss critical scholars are inclined
to relegate this midnight conspiracy, along with the story of
Stauffacher and of the storming of the castle at Samen, to an
earlier period. If there be any truth at all in the above men-
tioned incidents, they belong more properly to that early stage

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in the struggle for independence which took place about 1245,
when the Pope found it necessary to issue a warning to the
men of Schwiz and Sarnen to return to their allegiance to
Count Rudolf Habsburg. The very situation of the Riitli
marks it as the likely scene of secret meetings. For who that
has visited the spot can have failed to notice how wonderfully
it is adapted for such purposes? At once central for the
inhabitants of the Forest States, and yet secluded to a remark-
able degree, it possesses in reality all the requirements of an

Online LibraryWilliam Denison McCrackanThe rise of the Swiss republic: A history → online text (page 8 of 32)