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History of Switzerland During the Late Middle Ages

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The cities that became part of the Swiss Union eventually acquired the status of free cities, that is, they became independent entities within the Holy Roman Empire. These cities bought up the lands of the local impoverished aristocrats and gradually turned into large landowners. The cities of the Swiss Union carried on a lively trade with other cities in Europe, such as Venice, Krakow, Antwerp and Lyon. The armed forces of the confederation were represented by voluntary detachments of young men; many of them became mercenary soldiers, and this accounted for a considerable income for the cantons of Switzerland.

In 1460, Sargans and Thurgau were annexed to the Confederation, which gave Switzerland access to the Rhine. In the years 1474-1477, the Swiss Union participated in the Burgundian Wars on the side of the French king and against the Duke of Burgundy, Karl the Bold, an ally of the Habsburgs. The most significant battles were the battle of Granson (1476), the battle of Murten (1476) and the battle of Nancy (1477). Karl the Bold was killed in the Battle of Nancy, and as a result, the Burgundian state was divided between the King of France and the Habsburg dynasty. However, tensions again arose between the cantons when deciding on the admission of new members of the confederation. Contradictions were resolved by the (Stanser Verkommnis) of 1481, which made it possible to expand the union to 13 members by 1513. In 1481, Friborg and Solothurn were adopted.

In 1499, the Holy Roman Empire attempted to regain control of the Swiss territories, which led to the Swabian war. German King Maximilian I was defeated in several battles, and as a result, the Swiss Union finally consolidated its de facto independence from the Holy Roman Empire and was replenished in 1501 with new members: Basel and Schaffhausen.

In 1513, Appenzell was adopted. In the same year, the Swiss army took part in the battle of Novara as mercenaries, allowing the Duke of Milan Massimiliano Sforza to repel the siege of Novara by French troops. However, in the next battle of the war of the Cambrian League, the battle of Marignano, the Swiss army suffered the first serious defeat, having lost about 10 thousand, where they subsequently refrained from large-scale participation in armed conflicts, although the Swiss mercenaries continued to be in great demand. Thus, the defeat at Marignano laid the foundation of Swiss neutrality. After the Duchy of Milan was conquered, the French king Francis I concluded a “perpetual peace” with the Swiss union (which lasted 250 years), under which Switzerland committed itself to supply France with mercenaries, and also received the French market to sell its goods (textiles, cheeses, later books, jewelry and watches).

The cultural life in the Swiss Union also did not stand still. In 1432 the first work began in Basel and until the XIX century it was the only Swiss university (the official opening took place in 1460).


At the beginning of the 16th century, the Reformation began in Germany, and in 1520–1530, it spread to Switzerland, even in a more radical form. The center of the reform movement was Zurich, where the first translation of the Bible into German was compiled and printed. The translation was done by Huldrych Zwingli and Leo Jude. It was printed by Christoph Froschauer’s printing house. Besides Zwinglianism in Zurich, there was also another Reformation movement – Anabaptism. At the same time, the central part of Switzerland remained Catholic, largely because Zwinglianism condemned the use of mercenary armies, where for the inhabitants of this region the service of mercenaries was the main source of income. The conflict between Protestants and Catholics poured into civil wars twice: the First Filmergen War of 1656 and the Toggenburg War of 1712. The main battles of both wars took place near the settlement of Filmergen.

Not without resistance, the Reformation was introduced in Geneva. Here, the French theologian Jean Calvin and his compatriot Guillaume Farel, who had been expelled from Paris, became the main ideologists of the reformation of the Church. It should be noted that Protestants differed little from Catholics in relation to heretics: a good example of this is the fate of the Spanish thinker and naturalist Miguel Servet, who was convicted by Catholics in Lyon and executed at the insistence of Calvin in Geneva. The reformers did not yield to the witch hunt – for the period from 1590 to 1600 only in one Protestant canton of Vaud more than 300 women were burned at the stake. But in the Protestant cantons they willingly accepted the Huguenots from France, as well as from other European countries, where Catholicism prevailed. Most of them were in Neuchâtel and Basel. Since many of them were jewelers, bankers and watchmakers, thanks to them, western Switzerland became the center of banking and watchmaking.

The center of the Counter-Reformation (Catholic Reformation) in Switzerland was the city of Lucerne. Here settled Carlo Borromeo, one of the most prominent figures of the Counter-Reformation. In 1577, a Jesuit college opened in Lucerne, and a century later a Jesuit church.

In 1648, in the Westphalian peace treaty between the major European powers, the independence of Switzerland was formalized.


Encyclopedic Dictionary of Brockhaus and Efron

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