John Martin Vincent.

Switzerland at the beginning of the sixteenth century online

. (page 1 of 5)
Online LibraryJohn Martin VincentSwitzerland at the beginning of the sixteenth century → online text (page 1 of 5)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

112 White Servitude in Maryland. [224

and its continuance was of interest only to those who were
engaged in the transportation. The abuses practiced by
these dealers in men at last became so flagrant that public
opinion was aroused against the institution and measures
were adopted which brought it to an end.



Copyright 1904, by















I. The Diet and Mercenary Enlistment 5 1

II. Extracts from the Statutes of the Synod of Basel.. 55



This study was originally written as an introduction to
the biography of Zwingli by Professor Samuel Macauley
Jackson, in his series of " Heroes of the Reformation." In
the preparation more materials were collected than could
be used in a chapter intended primarily for the general
reader, consequently it seemed to be advisable to bring for-
ward the subject again with additional citations of sources
and with further indications of the problems involved.

The courtesy of the former editor and publishers is grate-
fully acknowledged.



At the close of the fifteenth century the traveller in Swit-
zerland would have found the prevailing races and langua-
ges firmly established in the places which they occupy to-
day, but the people were not bound together by the same ties
of government. Germans in the north and east, French in
the west and south had long grown fast to the rocky soil,
but they were grouped in small independent States, and
lived under most diverse political conditions. For a long
time there had existed a Swiss Confederation, but this did
not include a considerable number of the present members.
Yet it must be said that most of the territory now known as
Switzerland was in some manner attached to it by friendly
alliances and by ties of common interest, so that in relation
to outside nations they all stood together. The distinguish-
ing feature of the Confederation was, however, the feeble-
ness of its unity within and the absolute independence of the
separate States in matters of law and government. This
fact had much to do with the history of the Reformation in
Switzerland. So also had the previous history of some of
the prominent States and cities.

The Swiss Confederation began in a union of three small
German cantons in the centre of the country, all of them
touching upon the Lake of Lucerne. At the outset this
was a league of pastoral republics, whose wild and moun-
tainous territory was not over thirty-five miles square. To


8 Switzerland at Beginning of i6th Century. [232

this nucleus, however, were soon added neighbouring dis-
tricts and cities, till, in the year 1353, they became the " Lea-
gue of Eight." For a century and a quarter this was the ex-
tent of the Confederation. Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug,
Glarus, Lucerne, Zurich, and Bern were the members of the
Union during the heroic struggle for freedom from the Ger-
man Empire. Although they enjoyed the friendly assistance
of others, this was also the extent of the Confederation in
the " glorious period " of the Burgundian wars, when Charles
the Bold was defeated in 1476, and when, for a time, these
mountaineers became the arbiters of Europe. Just at the
opening of the sixteenth century the number of confederated
cantons was increased to thirteen by the addition of Basel,
Schaffhausen, and Appenzell, while States like Geneva,
Neuchatel, and the Grisons remained in the position of
friendly allies.

Part of this Confederation consisted of rural democracies
engaged in pastoral or agricultural pursuits and governing
themselves with most complete democracy. The other mem-
bers were flourishing city States, like Bern, Lucerne, Zurich,
and Basel, whose municipal population followed commerce
and industry with varying intensity, and whose govern-
ments were more or less aristocratic. The original moun-
tain States enjoyed the proud distinction of having founded
Swiss freedom, but by this time the leadership in State policy
as well as in general civilisation lay with the cities. Among
these Zurich and Bern were pre-eminen f in political influence.

Toward the cities the rural cantons exhibited a jealousy
which had for a long time prevented any additions to the
Confederation and afterward caused trouble in federal poli-
tics. It was feared that the cities would endeavour to
absorb the powers of the rural States, or, by their votes in
the Diet, enact measures oppressive to the country people.
This suspicion was not without some foundation, for the
governments of the cities had been in the habit of treating
the rural population of their own territories with less con-
sideration. They often discriminated against the industry

233] Political Conditions. g

and productions of the people outside the walls of the towns
and gave the city dwellers superior rights.

On the other hand, the city States were greater in popula-
tion, wealth, and intelligence, but the great city of Bern had
no more votes in the Confederation than the tiny democracy
of Uri. Friction naturally followed, and occasionally there
were open hostilities, followed by armed conflict. At times
there were recriminations by means of duties on goods and
by shutting off routes of transportation. On both sides
great selfishness had been displayed, but the small cantons
had been, on the whole, more obstinate, for they had, at
times, nearly sacrificed the Confederation to maintain their
local interests. Hence we may expect to find great contrasts
between the actions of the various parts of Switzerland
when new doctrines of religion upheave the established
order of thinking.

The great arena of political action was the federal con-
gress, called the Diet, which met at stated intervals in the
various large cities alternately. This Diet was an assembly
of delegates from the various cantons, who came together to
deliberate and to pass resolutions on matters of common
interest. The passing of resolutions and recommendations
was in reality the limit of their legislative power, for the
delegations could not vote finally without the consent of
their home governments. No act could be passed without
the unanimous consent of all the cantons, and when a law
was enacted there was no central government to enforce it.
The execution of the laws was left to the cantonal govern-
ments, and there was no one to punish infraction except
the offenders themselves. Consequently federal laws were
obeyed in those States which saw fit to enforce them.

Federal government, therefore, was a system of treaties
and agreements chiefly touching foreign relations. The wel-
fare of the citizen lay in the hands of his canton. To that
he owed his allegiance and patriotic devotion, and from
that he obtained protection in the enjoyment of his liberties.
The history of the reformation in the Church revolves about

io Switzerland at Beginning of i6th Century. [234

the fact that each State determined for itself the form of
worship in its own territory. In spite of this independent
sovereignty, however, the political destiny of the nation lay,
in considerable measure, in the hands of the Diet, for agree-
ments with foreign Powers were made by that assembly. 1

1 " In the year of our Lord, 1478, there was a great Diet at Zurich
and to this Diet the king of France sent his excellent councillors.
There came also Duke Reinhard, of Lorraine, in person with thirty
horses. There came also Duke Sigmund's excellent councillors,
namely, Hildebrand Rasp, Marquart Von Schellenberg, kt, Antoine
Geissberg, Hans Lantz and Hans Bruchle with forty horses. There
came also the Burgundians with many horses, also the excellent
councillors of the Bishop and the City of Strasbourg and of the
Bishop and City of Basel, likewise came also the delegates from
Colmar and Schlettstadt. Likewise all the delegates of the con-
federates who belong to the great League. So also many honorable
people, princes and lords of lands and cities who were useful to the
Confederation sent their ambassadors hither so that it was a great
diet such as had never been before within the memory of man.
This same diet continued three weeks and began on Monday after the
twelfth day in that same year (during this time), a fresh bird cost
two shillings and something more and while all things were dear and
not easy to get, a measure of wine grown in the same year was
worth nine pounds in the keg, yet the authorities began to make
presents to the foreign visitors." Edilbach's Chronicle. Mittheil-
ungen der Antiq. Ges., in Zurich, Bd. 4.


At the beginning of the sixteenth century the Swiss were
much courted by foreign governments desiring mercenary
soldiers, and foreign ambassadors were constantly appear-
ing before the authorities with weighty requests. A meeting
of the Diet in 1512 at the city of Baden may serve as an ex-
ample. The minutes for August n inform us that on
that day in the hall of assembly the deputy of the Duke of
Lorraine read a message respecting the passage of soldiers
through that province. A representative of the Pope pre-
sented to the Confederation a sword, a hat, and two banners,
together with privileges contained in a Bull, as honourable
rewards for faithful services. An embassy from the King
of Spain requested that the Confederation should join in
the league which had been formed between the Pope, the
King of Spain, and the Republic of Venice. An embassy
from the duke of Savoy hoped that former agreements with
him would be maintained. Imperial ambassadors desired
the confederates to join in a campaign in Burgundy. A
motion was offered on the relations of the Confederation to
the Duchy of Milan. An embassy from the Republic of
Venice desired to negotiate a treaty with the Swiss, and re-
ceived answer that the conflict between the Emperor and the
Venetians must be smoothed over before the Diet could con-
sider the matter. On the following day further hearings
were given to these powers, and proposals were entertained
which involved cessions of territory and large pecuniary re-
wards for military services.

Thus we may see that the Swiss at the turning of the cen-
tury were not an obscure people, busied only with their own
affairs. They formed for the moment a European Power,

12 Switzerland at Beginning of i6th Century. [236

whose good-will and services were sedulously courted. The
soldiers of Switzerland fought in the armies of all the great
States, sometimes on one side and sometimes on another, and
were even found in opposing camps. The effects of this
upon politics and morality were far reaching, for the Swiss
at this time were not fighting for independence, nor in self-
defence, but for the mercenary rewards of the employing

The Diet was not the only authority brought in contact
with foreign monarchs. Its meeting was a convenient place
to negotiate with all Switzerland at once, but it was neces-
sary to deal with the cantonal governments also. Every little
capital or legislature was approached by foreign emissaries
on the subject of military aid. Enlistment was carried on by
the States themselves, and contracts were made with foreign
governments for the services of the companies required. In-
duced by the high pay and opportunities for plunder, the
hardy mountaineers eagerly ventured into any war. The de-
moralizing effects of this system appeared not alone among
the soldiery and in private life. Official corruption was uni-
versal, and was taken so much as a matter of course that it
brought no disgrace to public men.

In order to gain favour with these statesmen, foreign mon-
archs vied with each other in granting subsidies, pensions
and special bribes. Persons in authority even accepted gifts
from two or more Powers at the same time, and voted for the
side which appeared the more profitable. Patriotism sank to
a very low ebb, and statesmanship was busier with its re-
wards than with its duties. Money flowed into the country
through numerous channels. There was the bounty to the
State itself for its contingent, then the pensions to the states-
men for granting the same, followed by the pay of the sol-
diers themselves, and such plunder as they might have cap-
tured or ransomed while away. When the size and number
of the mercenary contingents are taken into consideration,
it will be seen that a large proportion of the population was
in greater or less degree dependent on the foreign subsidies.
The effect of this was not slow in coming.

237] Mercenary Service. 13

Even before the beginning of the sixteenth century the
lawmakers, both cantonal and federal, had been conscious
of the evil, and had been endeavouring to check enlistment
in foreign service. The Diet repeatedly passed resolutions
on the subject, but these were for the most part feeble at-
tempts to prevent irregular and unofficial enlistments. For
example, in 1479, ^ was resolved that every canton should
require its soldiers to take oath not to go privately into
foreign war. Some thought that offenders should be pun-
ished with death. The territorial governors were ordered to
capture and imprison all soldiers who had been fighting un-
der the German Emperor, and to hold them till they should
pay five pounds fine and should take oath not to enlist with-
out permission of the authorities. In 1488, the German Em-
peror, on his side, requested the confederates not to allow
their soldiers to enlist in France without permission. The
Governor of Baden was ordered to punish soldiers returning
from France with ten pounds fine or imprisonment. In
1492, another ordinance against unauthorized enlistment re-
commended a fine with imprisonment on bread and water. 2

From time to time complaints were brought against the
catonal governments because they did not suppress " run-
ning away to war," and, on the other hand, cantons asked
aid of the confederates to suppress the evil. Yet the anxiety
seems to have been caused more by the irregularities than by
the mercenary system itself. In 1498, a petition was re-
ceived from Swiss soldiers serving against France in the
armies in Burgundy requesting that no contingents from the
Confederation be allowed to fight against them. The same
Diet received an embassy from the Emperor of Germany
with a mission to disentangle other complications arising
from simultaneous enlistment in the service of that country.*

1 The acts of the Diet are to be found in the Amtliche Sammlung
der Eidgenossischen Abschiede, 1245-1798, in 8 vols., 4to, published
by the Swiss Federal Government. These documents are not ex-
actly minutes of the Diet, but instructions given to the delegates at
the adjournment of each meeting as to what they should refer to
their home governments. Citations may be traced by the dates.

* See Appendix I.

14 Switzerland at Beginning of i6th Century. [238

The root of the evil was discovered in due time, but it was
difficult to work any reform, for the lawmakers themselves
were entangled. The acceptance of pensions from foreign
governments was common among the statesmen of all coun-
tries at this time. Public sentiment did not appear to frown
on the practice unless in flagrant cases of disloyalty. Hence
it is not surprising that the evil consequences were not
immediately condemned in Switzerland. Furthermore, the
military profession was a welcome career to the hard-worked
peasantry of every canton, and offered rich and rapid re-
wards in place of the slow returns of ordinary labour.

The time came, however, when good citizens, observing
the moral effect of these things, endeavoured not only to
regulate enlistment but to suppress the pension system en-
tirely. Resolutions, offered from time to time, condemned
the practice and urged the States to prohibit the entrance of
pension money into their borders. A notable example of
this was an agreement brought forward in the Diet of July,
1503- The cantons were asked to enforce a law to this
effect :

" That no one in the Confederation, whether he be towns-
man, countryman, or subject peasant, clerical or layman,
noble or unnoble, rich or poor, of whatever rank or condi-
tion, shall from this day on receive from emperors, kings,
princes, lords, or cities, spiritual or temporal powers, or from
anyone whomsoever, any pension, service money, provision,
allowance, salary, or gifts, whether this come to himself or
through his wife, children, servants, or others, whereby it
come to his use, either secretly or openly."

Any person who shall be convicted of disobedience to this
order shall be

" forever removed from the honours and offices which he
may have, and shall not be employed in honourable affairs,
as in courts of justice, councils, embassies, and such matters,
but from that hour on he shall be arrested by the proper
authorities and punished in person and goods as they may
think best."

239] Mercenary Service. 15

Although this resolution was accepted by all the cantons,
it was not an easy matter to enforce, for the enlistment itself
was not stopped. According to the same act, recruiting
must be official, and only irregular running away to war was
to be punished. The pensions went on as before, and in a
few years the law was abrogated by a resolution to allow the
cantons to do as they pleased/

In the Italian campaigns of the first two decades of the
sixteenth century the Swiss suffered severe losses in men,
but the effect of this was to bring more money into the
country, for soldiers were harder to obtain. In consequence
of the treaties entered into between 1516 and 1521 Switzer-
land was deluged with coin. From France there were an-
nual subsidies of 3000 livres to each of the cantons, and to
the Confederation as a whole a sum of 700,000 crowns was
offered in one payment as indemnity for the wars of 1513
and 1515. At the same time the Duke of Milan agreed to
pay 150,000 ducats at once and 40,000 ducats annually. Be-
sides these sums there were subsidies from Austria and from
the Pope. Although these promises were not always punc-
tually fulfilled, nevertheless a constant stream of foreign
gold poured into the valleys of Helvetia. 5

* 1508, July 4. Eidg. Abschiede III, pt. 2, pp. 383, 385, 424, 425, 427,

The sums above mentioned have a present silver value of about
$1,871,600, but the purchase power was many times greater at the
beginning of the sixteenth century. See Hilty, Les Constitutions
Federates de la Suisse, 183 sq.


The opinions of certain foreign observers of the time are
not flattering. For instance, Balcus, an ambassador from
Milan, wrote between the years 1500 and 1504 a description
of the Confederation, in which the annoyances of a foreigner
are mingled with valuable impressions of the people. Com-
ing from the bright skies of Italy and from the higher civi-
lisation of the southern cities, it is not to be expected that the
Italians would be altogether pleased with their mountain

Says Balcus :

" Although the Swiss are altogether unhewn barbarians,
yet they live among themselves according to certain laws
which they consider so holy that no one dare to break or
overstep them, because it is a crime to have broken them
even in the slightest- Our civil law, however, our good
manners and honourable customs, and, what is worse, their
own laws and ordinances respecting other nations, they do
not themselves observe at all, because they are without
fidelity, uprightness, and humanity; but they seize rudely
everything before them, building upon obstinacy, not upon

" When they start out to war they swear a solemn oath
that every man who sees one of his comrades desert, or act
the coward in battle, will cut him down on the spot, for they
believe that the courage and persistency of warriors is
greater when they, out of fear of death, do not fear death."

" In peace, however, and when one citizen brings com-
plaints against another citizen, they bind themselves also by

8 Balcus, Descriptio Helvetia, edited by Bernouilli for Quellen zur
Schweizergeschichte, vi., 78. Oechsli, Quellenbuch, ii., 470.

241] Opinions of Foreigners. 17

an oath, for, if they have any business with one another and
fall into strife, as it often happens, and seize their weapons
or begin to curse each other, if then another party comes
forward, places himself in their midst, and begs them to lay
down the weapons and to talk over the matter in peace, and
commands them to be peaceful, and if one of the contending
parties will not hearken, the man who offers himself as a
peacemaker is bound by oath to kill him, and that without

" They begin a battle after they have formed their phalanx
according to the old methods of war, and steadfast and fear-
less, they are almost indifferent to life and death. In court
they judge not according to the written laws but according
to common custom, and believe that nothing is more favour-
able to justice than a quick judgment, wherefore they over-
throw the procedures and sentences of court. To curse God
and heavenly things is regarded by them as a crime worthy of
death, and if any one of them is prosecuted they do not allow
any pity to prevent him from being punished according to
the law."

" Although accustomed to robbery yet the people have an
extravagant generosity to the poor. The scholars in the
study of Latin, if there are any such, beg their living with
singing. Their stately but remarkably extravagant daily
meals they spin out to great length, so that they spend two
to three hours at table eating their many dishes and barbar-
ous spices with much noise and conversation. They show
ill-will against those who despise this kind of table pleasure."

" When princely ambassadors arrive, the heads of the city,
or certain ones from the council visit them immediately to
give them greeting. At breakfast or supper there is a con-
tinual crowd around them, including not only the invited or
important persons in office, but with these many insignificant
people. All these the ambassadors must receive in a friendly
way and feed them richly, otherwise they will be followed
with perpetual hate and ill-will. In among these will creep
also clowns and jugglers and whoever understands amusing

i8 Switzerland at Beginning of i6th Century. [242

arts, and one must receive this kind of people, admire their
wit, and before going away must leave them some kind of a
present or reward for their art. Furthermore the council is
accustomed to send to every ambassador, daily, several meas-
ures of wine at the hours for breakfast and supper. The
persons who bring these things are rewarded by the re-
ceiver of the gift with a small goldpiece, and at his departure
with at least one more goldpiece. Whereupon the whole
expense is charged to public good and advantage."

" Custom allows that women, who on account of the beauty
of their faces and the attraction of their persons are uncom-
monly lovable, may be embraced and kissed anywhere and by
anybody without distinction. 7 The cultivation of the intel-
lect is rare and the noble virtues receive no honour. This
low-born people, this lot of peasants, born in mountains and
woods and brought up in a narrow hole, have begun to play
the lord in Europe, and think nothing of enlarging the bor-
ders of their own dominion if anyone allows them the oppor-
tunity to do so. Moreover, there is no doubt that wars, peace,
the victories and the misfortunes of famous kings, depend
upon them. This little band of cowherds and shepherds,
who pass the day in the drawing and the thickening of milk ;
who are, so to speak, without law and ignorant of things
human and divine ; will prescribe laws for all others and sit
in judgment on the affairs of princes, as though the appeal
and the highest judgment belonged to them. For assump-
tion and violent passion, the diseases which are so near to
madness, they surpass all other mortal beings, but among
themselves they agree so well together that as a reward and
fruit of their unity they enjoy an undisturbed and contin-
uous freedom, to which indeed the quarrels of others have

1 3 4 5

Online LibraryJohn Martin VincentSwitzerland at the beginning of the sixteenth century → online text (page 1 of 5)