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To the 15th century AD
16th - 20th century
     North Italian adventures
     Swiss reform
     Catholic and Protestant cantons

To be completed

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North Italian adventures: 1503-1516

Several circumstances conspire to draw the Swiss into north Italy during the early 16th century. The cantons have a long-standing interest in controlling two passes (the St Gotthard and the Splügen) which carry much of the trade between Italy and northern Europe.

The best way of achieving this is to acquire land south of the passes, and there are now fine opportunities to do so. Northern Italy is in chaos, as several contenders struggle for the duchy of Milan. The contenders are eager to enlist the support of the famously effective mercenary armies of Switzerland.


The Swiss help the French king Louis XII in his capture of Milan; in reward, in 1503, he gives them the Milanese region of Bellinzona. Nine years later the Swiss are fighting on the pope's side against the French. When they drive the French out of Milan in 1512, they are rewarded with Locarno and Lugano.

The run of Swiss successes in northern Italy ends abruptly in 1515 at Marignano, where they are heavily defeated by a French army. But the new French king, Francis I, proves more eager to pacify the Swiss than to recover every part of the duchy of Milan.


In a treaty of 1516, which becomes known as the Perpetual Peace, Francis I grants the cantons most of their gains south of the Alps in return for a Swiss commitment not to serve in campaigns against France.

The treaty brings under Swiss control a large Italian population. For three centuries they are governed at arm's length (and not well) by the northern cantons. Finally, in 1803, these Italian regions are grouped into a new canton, Ticino, which becomes a member of the Swiss confederation.


The Perpetual Peace of 1516 comes at a good moment for the cantons, where many citizens are beginning to question the loss of young Swiss lives as mercenaries in other people's battles.

Among those expressing this view is Huldreich Zwingli, the central figure in the next chapter of the Swiss story. The ruggedly individual Swiss have already demonstrated how to cast off a feudal yoke, that of the Habsburgs. They have proved that citizens on foot, armed only with pikes and halberds, can subdue the mounted chivalry of Europe. Now, in the same spirit, they ask more radical questions than anyone else in the great debate of the 16th century - the Reformation.


Zwingli: 1518-1525

The towns of Switzerland are the perfect context for the new movement of reform. Independent, free of any feudal ties, they are run by councils in which the merchants of the guilds usually have the predominant voice. The largest town is Zürich, where from 1518 there is a powerful preacher on the cathedral staff - Huldreich Zwingli.

Zwingli's first overt gesture against Catholic dogma is his eating of sausage during Lent in 1522, an event usually taken as the start of the Swiss Reformation. Zwingli, experiencing little of the opposition faced by Luther in Germany, persuades Zürich to accept sweeping Protestant reforms. But, like Luther in Wittenberg, he is soon confronted by reformers more radical than himself.


Anabaptists: 1525

Zürich, swift in its acceptance of Zwingli's Protestant logic, is also the first city where radical reformers insist upon logic in a ritual central to the Christian faith - that of baptism (one of only two Sacraments retained by Luther and Zwingli, the other being the Eucharist).

If each Christian in the reformed faith is to be personally responsible for his or her relationship with God, how can a mewling infant be offered the sacrament of baptism? In the gospels, there is only an adult baptism - that of Jesus himself. In the early years of the religion most Christians were converts, choosing the faith and receiving baptism as adults.


Arguments for adult baptism formed part of the unrest in Wittenberg during Luther's absence in 1521. Now, in 1525 in Zürich, Conrad Grebel - a young follower of Zwingli - takes a drastic step. He baptises a former Catholic priest, Georg Blaurock.

The action forms part of a wider programme, derived by Grebel from the gospels. His tenets include a free church of believers, fully detached from the state; refusal to swear an oath; and pacifism. The last two commitments, subsequently of great importance to all radical sects in this tradition, derive from Christ's sermon on the mount (Matthew, v, 33-48).


Grebel's act of baptism is a direct challenge to his former mentor, Zwingli, who is closely associated with the state - indeed he has a guaranteed majority of supporters on Zürich's city council. It can also be seen as blasphemy, since this is a rebaptism. It denies the validity of a sacrament, in the form of Georg Blaurock's original baptism as an infant.

The reaction of Zürich, under Zwingli's guidance, is swift and extreme. Anyone even attending a ceremony of this kind is to be liable to death by drowning - if they want water they shall have it. It is the start of a long ordeal of persecution for Anabaptists (from Greek for 'baptize again'). No other Christian sect has had such a high proportion of martyrs.


Swiss reform: 1525-1531

Zürich is intolerant of the radical programme of the Anabaptists, but nevertheless this is the city in which the pattern of a fully reformed church is first established. The central detail, on which Zwingli goes much further than Luther, is the nature of the Eucharist.

By 1525 Zwingli has already replaced the mass (containing implications of a sacrificial ritual) with a simple service in which the altar becomes a communion table. In Zwingli's communion the bread and the wine, both of which are given to the congregation, merely symbolize Christ's body and blood. Luther maintains a more traditional view. The two men clash dramatically at Marburg, in 1529. They fail to reach agreement.


In this respect the Swiss reform differs intrinsically from the Lutheran version (or, later, the Anglican variety). It does so also on the issue of holy images. It is only the Swiss example which causes sculpture and painting to be smashed in many churches of Europe during the 16th century.

The independence of each Swiss canton has enabled Zürich to effect very rapidly its own programme of reform. But the same political freedom also makes it impossible for the whole federation to move together into reform. It soon becomes evident that the rural cantons are remaining faithful to Rome, while Basel, Bern and Schaffhausen side with Zürich.


The pope and the emperor (Clement VII and Charles V) see in this split a chance of containing the Swiss movement for reform. They encourage the rural cantons to band together in 1529 as a Christian Union. Hostilities between the Catholic and Protestant cantons break out in that year and again in 1531. On the second occasion Zwingli himself marches into battle, at Kappel, and loses his life in a decisive Catholic victory.

This disaster ends the pre-eminence of Zürich in the Swiss reformation. But Zwingli's reforms are developed, during the next decades, in a city which has close links with the Swiss federation - Geneva, where Calvin begins preaching in 1536.


Catholic and Protestant cantons: 1529-1798

The hostility between Catholic and Protestant cantons, seen so dramatically on the field of Kappel in 1531, remains a feature of the next three centuries. In 1597 one of the smallest cantons, Appenzell, even has to split into two parts (known as Rhoden). Henceforth the northern half of Appenzell is administered by Protestants, the southern half by Catholics.

In this atmosphere cooperation becomes difficult. The Swiss confederation, established courageously and effectively in a time of feudalism, almost collapses under the strain of Reformation and Counter-Reformation.


Only when threatened from outside is there a show of unity. After remaining free of foreign alliances during the Thirty Years' War, all thirteen cantons make an agreement in 1647 pledging themselves to defend jointly their shared outer frontier. This pact of armed neutrality, known as the Defensionale of Wyl, is a significant step towards a Swiss national identity. But it does nothing to prevent conflict between the cantons themselves.

The two most serious clashes between Protestant and Catholic interests are both ended by battles at Villmergen, in 1656 and 1712. But the confederation does somehow hang together, while becoming an increasingly sleepy backwater of Europe. Then, in 1798, it is rudely awakened by Napoleon.


Geneva: 1535-1762

Geneva is not a member of the Swiss confederation until after Napoleon's interference. But the city becomes closely linked with Protestant Bern in the early 16th century.

During the Middle Ages Geneva was ruled by a prince-bishop of the Holy Roman empire. More recently it has fallen under the control of Savoy. Now Geneva uses the Reformation to win its freedom. In 1535 the city council shows an inclination to adopt the reformed faith of Zürich and Bern.


The duke of Savoy and the bishop of Geneva join forces to attack the city, but it is saved by the intervention of a citizen army from the Swiss canton of Bern. With this success, Geneva formally adopts the reformed faith in May 1536.

Two months later a young French reformer, passing through the city, is persuaded to stay and preach. He is John Calvin, who subsequently transforms Geneva (between 1541 and his death in 1564) into a theocratic state run on strict puritan lines.


Bern remains closely linked to Geneva (citizenship is even shared between the two towns), and in 1584 Zürich joins the alliance. But Savoy has ambitions to recover this prospering city.

During the night of 12 December 1602 an army of the duke of Savoy arrives suddenly outside Geneva with ladders to scale the walls. The Savoyards are repelled with considerable losses at a cost of only seventeen Genevan lives. The citizens crowd into the former cathedral to sing Psalm 124, beginning 'If it had not been the Lord who was on our side..'. It has been Geneva's psalm for this day ever since, on the anniversary of the victory which secures the city's independence.


The duke of Savoy signs the peace of St Julien in 1603, finally relinquishing his claim. Geneva settles down, like its neigbours in the Swiss cantons, to a life of quiet prosperity. Huguenot refugees arrive from France bringing valuable skills, particularly after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Clockmaking thrives, as the city's main industry. Geneva even produces a citizen of world renown.

Jean Jacques Rousseau is born here in 1712. But he leaves Geneva at the age of sixteen, only very occasionally returning. After 1762, when the views expressed in his Social Contract and Emile bring him notoriety, the city council orders the burning of both books.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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