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Middle Ages

Migration of Nations

Around A.D. 400 the Germanic tribes attacked the Roman Empire severely. So the Romans withdrew troops from the north of the Alps to defend themselves in Italy - but in vain. A part of the western Germanic tribe of the Franks invaded France. They adopted much of the Roman culture and even their language Latin, which was transformed into what is known today as French. Much the same was true for the Burgundians: they also came from Germany and finally settled in eastern France (Burgundy) and western (today French speaking) Switzerland.

Another Germanic tribe called Alamannen settled in southern Germany and northern Switzerland. The Alamannen were not quite interested in Roman towns, nor Roman culture. They rather infiltrated in small groups, cleared woodland and erected their own small villages. They kept their German language and had only very limited relations with the Celtic and Roman population. Todays border between German and French language in Switzerland is more or less the border between Burgundians and Alamannen.

More about Migration of Nations: Switzerland Colonized by Germanic Tribes
More about Switzerland's population and languages today

Feudal System in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages the Feudal System was developed in Europe: The king was primarily a warlord and had power to distribute land conquered by his troops among the dukes. these gave it to the knights. Trade that had once flourished around the Meditarranean Sea and in Western Europe declined, money barely existed anymore. There was no economical ground to raise taxes in significant amounts. Instead, farmers had to deliver 10% of their crops to the landowners (noblemen or monasteries). They were also obliged to soccage (compulsury labour) for several days per year.

The farmer's dependency was aggravated when the original general duty to miltary service was gradually abandonded in favor of what could be called a professional army consisting of knights (noblemen) and foot-soldiers (landless sons of peasants): free farmers could "liberate" themselves from their military duty - but the price was more economic dependency.

feudal system


Culture in the Middle Ages

As both German and Celtic tribes had little experience in writing, science and arts, the collapse of the western part of the Roman empire also lead to an enormous decay in culture. Europe took several centuries to regain the knowledge of the Greek and Roman culture. This work was performed by literate monks in the monasteries.

Interestingly enough, the task of preaching the christian gospel to the Alamannen in northern Switzerland was not taken over by Romans or people from Constantinople, but rather by wandering Irish monks. One of them, Gallus, settled as a hermit near today's city of St Gallen (eastern Switzerland) early in the 7th century. In 820 a monastery was founded there that became soon very influential. The city of St. Gallen was later built around the monastery.

Monasteries were also leading in agricultural progress (for example the introduction of the three-field system and refined methods of fruit-growing) and in business affairs (monks from St. Gallen created standardized business treaties in 888).

Monasteries were founded by kings and noblemen for political, social and religious purposes:

  • Power politics: abbots of monasteries had political and jurisdictional functions like counts. Donations sometimes could prevent the expansion of a rival count.

  • Bad conscience and power of the church to impose heavy penance even for sins almost inseparable from secular life:
    "In the impersonal society of the early Middle Ages one man's penance was as good as another's. It was not a question of individual effort, but of the payment of a supernatural debt." (R. W. Southern: Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970, p. 227)

  • In the Middle Ages, supernatural powers were thought to be quite as real as enemy soldiers and had to be fought:
    "The abbot is armed with spiritual weapons and supported by a troop of monks anointed with the dew of heavenly graces. They fight together in the strength of Christ with the sword of the spirit against the aery wiles of the devils. They defend the king and clergy of the realm from the onslaughts of their invisible enemies." (Foundation charter of King Edgar for New Minster, Winchester, 966, quoted by R. W. Southern, op. cit. p. 224f)

  • Public relations: in an almost illiterate but devout society, monks were highly esteemed and benefactors could profit on "sponsoring" them.

  • Placement for children of noblemen: secular society could not provide enough positions for all of them, so monasteries offered prestige, material security and a reason for non- reproduction to those noble childs who could not inherit a secular title.

Jurisdiction in the Middle Ages

Jurisdiction is one of the dark sides of the Middle Ages: torture to extort a confession, cruel sentences and judicial murder (especially burning of so-called witches and heretics) were widespread. Awareness of the shameful wrong done to thousands of innocent women and men lead to the abolition of the death penalty all over western Europe.

The basic principles of society and politics in the USA have been defined by European emigrants that were mostly (religious) dissenters. Interestingly enough they esteemed religious liberty, but they did not abolish the death penalty altogether. Latest genetic analysis techniques provide incriminatory evidence of a so far unknown reliability. Results of recent retrials based on DNA analysis in the U.S.A. show that dozens of innocent people have erroneously been sentenced to death - jurisdiction today is still far from being infallible. This does not make the Middleages less dark, but it might remind us that there remains still a lot to improve ...

Power Politics in the Middle Ages

Charlemagne and Switzerland

The period from 400 to 800 was dominated by small kingdoms, dukes and local noblemen. The Franks and the Burgundians had kings (however with limited power), while the Alamannen were less organized. In France Charlemagne (747-814) became king of the Franks in 768 and could establish a powerful position. In 800 he was crowned as emperor by the pope. He organized an administration based on counts all over western Europe.

Switzerland as Part of the German Empire

The carolingian dynasty could not keep together the empire for long, however. In 843 his grandsons split up the empire in three: western (France), central (Lorraine-Burgundy-Italy) and eastern (Germany). So Switzerland was split between Burgundy and Germany for a while. But soon the central empire decayed and around 900 the German king had seized control over Burgundy and Italy. In 962 German king Otto I. was crowned emperor.

While other German dukes quarreled with each other about dominance within the German empire, the traditional desinterest or even aversion of the Alamannen to national organisation deprived the dukes of Swabia [another name for Alamannic southern Germany] of support. As a consequence, they played a minor role and power politics in southern Germany as well as in Switzerland concentrated on the level of counts. Several counts (namely those of Kyburg, Toggenburg and Zähringen) gained remarkable influence in Switzerland during the Middle Ages, but their dynasties became extinct towards the end of the Middle Ages.

Now the counts of Habsburg thought they could profit. Starting from a castle in northern Switzerland they had acquired territories in Austria and tried to lay hands on the heritage of the counts of Kyburg, Zähringen and Toggenburg. But this constellation was also a chance for free farmers to withstand the general European tendency towards concentration of power in the hands of counts, dukes and kings.

This is where the history of the Old Swiss Confederacy starts.

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