Switzerland’s earliest European role is as the heartland of the Celts. Various tribal groups, from whom the Celts evolve, share an origin in the early Iron Age culture of Hallstatt in Austria. But the metalwork and pottery found at La Tène, at the eastern end of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland, introduces the swirling and geometrical patterns which are associated specifically with the art of the Celts.
The earliest La Tène objects are from the 5th century BC.
Of the many Celtic tribes moving through or settling in the region now known as Switzerland, one in particular leaves its mark. Under pressure from Germans, the Helvetii migrate south into Switzerland in the 2nd century BC. They are the dominant tribe in the area when the Roman empire expands northwards and beyond them into Gaul. So the Roman name for Switzerland becomes Helvetia.
The link survives in modern international car registration. CH on a Swiss vehicle stands for Confederatio Helvetica.
In the 5th century AD German pressure southwards deprives the Helvetii of much of their territory. The Alamanni, a group of Germanic tribes occupying the triangle between the Rhine and the Danube, move into northern Switzerland. They too leave their name in European history. As the immediate neighbours of Gaul, and a permanent threat from just across the Rhine, they represent in the French mind all Germans (les Allemands).
The Alamanni bring the German language into Switzerland. Other neighbours bring French and Italian.
Knucklebone of Europe: from the 9th century AD
Seen on a relief map of western Europe, mountainous Switzerland stands out like a knucklebone between three great regions – France, Germany and Italy. The Alps are a watershed, an invitation, a barrier. Three groups of people, speaking three different languages, press against the Alps, trade through the mountain passes, squabble over possession of the valleys. Yet the difficulty of those passes, and the seclusion of the valleys, makes it almost impossible for outsiders to dominate or suppress these mountain people.
Switzerland’s history is implicit in its geography.
These considerations become apparent once there are developed communities on all sides. In the Roman period Switzerland has imperial order to the south and west, but tribal chaos (in varying degrees) to the north. The Franks, from the time of Clovis, undertake the long process of conquest which eventually creates an empire surrounding Switzerland.
In about AD 500 Clovis defeats the Alamanni (who have ventured west over the Rhine into Alsace). By the early 9th century Switzerland is within Charlemagne’s Frankish empire, which evolves into the Holy Roman empire. Another century later, after the division of the empire, Switzerland is in the east Frankish kingdom as part of the duchy of Swabia.
Waldstätte and Vogt: AD 853-1293
The feudal structures of the Middle Ages are confusing at the best of times, but the arrangements concerning three Waldstätte (forest districts) round the lake of Lucerne are unusually complex. The districts are Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden. Uri has from AD 853 the privilege of a special link to the German king, through a Vogt or ‘advocate’.
The role of Vogt, bringing with it the power of a local ruler, gradually becomes hereditary. By the early 13th century it is inherited within the Habsburg family, who are already holders of many other feudal rights in Schwyz and Unterwalden and around Zürich.
The overlord of these forest districts becomes exceptionally powerful in 1273 when the Habsburg duke Rudolf is elected German king. In 1291, a few months before his death, Rudolf purchases enhanced feudal powers around the lake of Lucerne.
The farmers of the Waldstätte feel that their independence is threatened. They band together in self-defence.
Landsgemeinde in Schwyz: AD 1294
The forest districts of Switzerland, smaller than other political units in the Middle Ages, adopt a form of government in the Athenian tradition of direct democracy.
These districts are like Athens, in that the community is small enough for every adult male to be able to walk to an assembly and cast a vote. In Switzerland such a meeting is called a Landsgemeinde (district community); the earliest record of one is in Schwyz in 1294. Held in the open air, assemblies of this kind become the highest legislative authority in the rural cantons of the Swiss federation – Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug, Glarus and Appenzell.
Even today a Landsgemeinde is still held every year, on the last Sunday of April, in the tiny canton of Appenzell. Issues of local relevance are voted on, and passed into law, in the traditional method.
At the earliest known Landsgemeinde, in Schwyz in 1294, the issues are of grave concern, with weighty implications for the future of the region. The meeting takes place just three years after the formation of the Everlasting League.
Everlasting League: AD 1291-1315
On the death of Rudolf I, in 1291, the three forest districts of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden openly campaign against the election of his Habsburg successor, Albert, as German king. To protect themselves against Habsburg attack, they pledge themselves to an Everlasting League of mutual defence (signing it, tradition says, in the Rütli meadow in Uri).
The pledge remains for the moment hypothetical. A rival candidate wins the crown. Albert subsequently defeats him in battle and becomes the German king, in 1298. But there is no dramatic clash between the rebellious cantons and the Habsburgs until fifteen years later, when the next escalation in the drama follows an act of aggression by the Swiss.
In 1313 the men of Schwyz attack the rich Benedictine abbey of Einsiedeln. The Habsburgs, with feudal responsibility for the abbey, take various steps to reassert their authority. When these fail, they assemble a great army in 1315 to attack Schwyz.
On the mountain slope of Morgarten, on the border of Schwyz, the glittering Habsburg array is met on November 15 by a much smaller citizen army drawn from the farmers of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden. The Swiss are armed with a weapon which they make very much their own – the halberd.
The Habsburg knights, mounted and in armour, rely on the thundering weight of a charger to mow down the opposition. In the confined space of Morgarten, they find themselves at the mercy of the Swiss halberdiers.
At the end of each 8-foot halberd there is a sharp metal point; this can jab like a spear. Below the point to one side is a hook; this is used to grapple a knight and drag him from his horse. Below the point on the other side there is an axe blade; with a heavy sweeping blow, at the end of the long handle, this will cut through armour and sink into limb or neck. With this lethally adaptable weapon the Swiss footsoldiers bring down the Habsburg cavalry.
The great victory at Morgarten prompts the Swiss farmers to renew their Everlasting League. They meet on December 9 at Brunnen, Schwyz’s port on Lake Lucerne. This time the document is in German (in 1291 it was in Latin), but the clauses are much the same. None of the three confederate cantons is to accept any new feudal obligation without consulting the others; all are to come to each other’s defence if attacked.
It is an agreement which other Swiss cantons can subscribe to when they wish, and it remains the basis of an expanding Swiss confederation. The leading role of Schwyz, particularly at Morgarten, causes the confederation to be referred to informally as Schwyz (hence Switzerland) from as early as 1320.