Swiss History: Fact or Fake News?

Join us on this journey through the centuries: the MoneyMuseum presents some of the most magnificent chronicles of Switzerland. We hope this exhibition sharpens your understanding of how history was – and still is – used, and what for: Is the story of Switzerland we tell today fact or fake news?

To the Stops
Swiss History: Fact or Fake News?
Swiss History: Fact or Fake News?


Ursula Kampmann

So, who was this William Tell guy? Was he real? Or is the charming story of a father shooting an apple off his son’s head just one version of a legend that exists in other countries, too? Why did there have to be a William Tell in the first place? These are the questions we’ll be exploring in our 2022 MoneyMuseum exhibition.

We’ll take an in-depth look at the writers of the fledgling country of Switzerland and meet the men whose chronicles defined our understanding of Swiss history. We’ll also be examining the intentions behind these works. What kind of world view did the writers hold? What motivated them to portray the history of the Switzerland in this way and not another? In other words: is the story of Switzerland we tell today fact or fake news?
We hope this exhibition sharpens your understanding of how history was – and still is – used, and what for. This is a highly topical issue right now, illustrated not least by the historical ‘facts’ underpinning the rhetoric used by both Russia and Ukraine to justify their respective positions in this horrendous war.

So, join us on this journey through the centuries: the MoneyMuseum presents some of the most magnificent chronicles written by Swiss historians and printed by Swiss printers.

The tools employed by those Swiss historians date back to antiquity. After all, the word “chronicle” itself comes from the Greek: chrónos means time, and chroniká biblía means nothing more than “time book” – or “history book”, as we’d call it nowadays.

In Switzerland, too, written history was preserved by monks and nuns in their monasteries and convents, where ancient and more recent historical manuscripts were kept in medieval libraries. The Renaissance brought these hidden treasures to the attention of the secular world, and chroniclers around the world set about compiling the history of their city or ruling dynasty, using the ancient texts as a template.

At this station, we’ll be presenting two books by two particularly important ancient writers, whose works shaped our understanding of historical narrative. Plutarch shows us how historical facts can be illustrated with short, distinctive anecdotes. Meanwhile, Tacitus’ work reminds us that there’s no such thing as a “neutral” historian; as soon as they set about interpreting facts to form a narrative, their work is shaped by their own values and standards.

Stop 1 – The Legacy of Classical Antiquity

Plutarch: The Art of the Anecdote

Plutarch, PARALLHLA EN BIOIS ELLHNWNTE KAI RWMAIWN (= Greek and Roman Parallel Lives)

Published by Andreas Cratander and Johann Bebel in Basel, 1533.

Plutarch (AD 45-125) came from the northern Greek municipality of Chaironeia, which had seen its fair share of battles. The stories of the Roman victory over the Greek king Mithridates I of Pontus must have seemed particularly significant to the young Plutarch. In this battle, the Romans proved themselves to be militarily superior to the Greeks.

Chaironeia is a village in northern Greece. Its most famous landmark is a funerary monument commissioned by Philip II of Macedon following the decisive battle against Athens in the year 338. Photo: KW.

For the proud Greeks, this meant humiliation, which Plutarch intended to counter with his “Parallel Lives”. In these biographies, he juxtaposed figures from Greek and Roman history, with the aim of demonstrating the equality of the two peoples. Nowadays, we know Plutarch as a historian. But he was actually more concerned with the character of his protagonists, which he liked to capture in the form of little anecdotes. He himself writes that “a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest” tells us more about a person’s character than “the bloodiest battles…”. From Plutarch’s work, and that of his imitator Suetonius, historians learned how to illustrate abstract facts with little stories – and it didn’t matter to them whether these stories were true or just well-written fiction.

Simon Grynaeus (1493-1541)

Plutarch was Greek and so, of course, he wrote in Greek. Now, in the Middle Ages, hardly any readers could understand this language. However, Plutarch’s work was cited by many Latin writers, and so his name remained well-known among the educated classes. When Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives” were translated into Latin for the first time, around 1400, the scholars pounced on them. His entertaining tales were enjoyed not only by the humanists, but also by the Reformed theologians, who prided themselves on their profound knowledge of Greek (and Hebrew). And so, when the Basel-based printers Andreas Cratander and Johannes Bebel printed Plutarch’s work in 1533 – which was the first time it had been published in the original language outside Italy – they expected good business. Overall, this work is the third Greek edition of the “Parallel Lives”.

In his dedication, Grynaeus urges readers not only to enjoy the elegant style and fascinating anecdotes, but also to model their own character after Plutarch’s relatable protagonists.

Plutarch categorises and brings together people who, according to him, are similar. For instance, he compares the founder of Athens, Theseus, with the founder of Rome, Romulus.

The world-changing Alexander the Great is set side by side with Julius Caesar, gravedigger of the Roman Republic.


It was produced by Simon Grynaeus (1493-1541), humanist and Reformed theologian. He was one of the most prominent editors of ancient works of his time, who himself actively searched for lost manuscripts. He had also published the Latin edition of Plutarch’s work back in 1531. Grynaeus dedicated the Greek edition to Johannes Oporinus, a teacher of Latin and Greek at the Basel Latin school.

Ferdinand Hodler, Wilhelm Tell. Solothurn Art Museum. Photo: KW

So, what does Plutarch have to do with the history of Switzerland? We just wanted to show you where this idea of condensing historical facts into anecdotes originally comes from. Simply writing “The Habsburgs were tyrannical rulers” isn’t nearly as impressive as describing a Habsburg bailiff forcing a peasant to endanger the life of his own child.

Tacitus: Sine Ira et Studio

Cornelius Tacitus, Opera qvae exstant, a Ivsto Lipsio postremvm recensita eivsqve avctis emendatisqve commentariis illvstrata.

Published in Antwerp by Balthasar II Moretus at the Officina Plantiniana, 1648.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus (approx. 58-120) came from a wealthy family. His marriage to an upper-class Roman woman paved the way for him to secure a position in the Senate. Tacitus was also supported by his father-in-law, the consul Gnaeus Iulius Agricola, which enabled him to rise to the position of suffect consul. This ascent through the ranks was supported by three emperors: Domitian, Nerva and Trajan.

Statue of Tacitus, 19th century.

Tacitus lived through a period of political upheaval: in the year 96, his first benefactor, Emperor Domitian, was murdered. He was replaced first by Nerva, then by Trajan. Tacitus was then faced with a problem shared by many other senators who had been promoted under Domitian: he had to convince the new emperors Nerva and Trajan that his allegiance to the murdered Domitian had only been pledged reluctantly, and that he would support his new ruler with loyalty and devotion.

So, although Tacitus declares in his Annals that he wishes to write ‘sine ira et studio’ (which roughly translates as “without anger and passion”), this by no means corresponds to our understanding of objectivity. Tacitus lived under an autocrat. His success depended on whether or not the emperor approved of what he wrote.

Portrait of the murdered Emperor Domitian. Photo: KW

Tacitus solved this problem by celebrating Trajan as the best of all emperors, while characterising Domitian as a tyrant. The esteem he showed for other emperors depended on how much respect they had paid to the Senate. Emperors who had been appointed by the military, such as Claudius, had to be incompetent. For Caligula, who was elected by the Senate, Tacitus invented a terrible disease that turned once good men into unpredictable tyrants as soon as they became emperor. Tacitus’ perception of women also seems rather questionable today. According to him, any woman who aspired to power was a scheming manipulator.

Tacitus didn’t actually falsify any facts, but he interpreted him in his own way, and so skilfully that his view of history continued to dominate the academic world well into the latter half of the 20th century. It is only recently that his interpretations have been called into question. Many new biographies reveal that the “bad” emperors were not quite so brutal, the “good” emperors not quite so perfect.

The 1648 edition of Tacitus’ works contains his most important texts.

  • The Annals: the history of the Roman Empire from Augustus to Nero
  • The Histories: the history of the Roman Empire from Galba to Domitian, only partially preserved
  • The Germania: this work holds up the Germanic peoples, portrayed as unspoiled, as an example to the corrupt Romans
  • The biography of his father-in-law and benefactor Julius Agricola
  • The dialogue on his proposed reasons for the decline of the art of oratory


Justus Lipsius, the editor, dedicated his edition to Emperor Maximilian II. As with Plutarch’s work, the reader is instructed to study the various protagonists to refine their own character.

Justus Lipsius (1547-1606)

Justus Lipsius was a Flemish philologist and philosopher, whose ideas have shaped our understanding of civic participation in state systems. His contemporaries knew him more as an editor of numerous works by ancient writers, including the first critical edition of Tacitus, as well as works by Livius, Caesar, Seneca and Pliny, just to name a few.

The European upper classes were greatly influenced by their knowledge of the history of the first twelve rulers of Rome, as reflected in the architecture and interior decoration of our palaces. The twelve Caesars are among the typical motifs depicted there.

Enamel portraits of the twelve Caesars. Weimar, Neues Schloss. Photo: KW.


This is some text inside of a div block.
Benedikt Tschachtlan und Heinrich Dittlinger
Manuscript, 1470. Facsimile
Beschreibung der Burgundischen Kriege
Diebold Schilling
Published in Bern by Franz Samuel Fetscherin, 1743.

Stop 2 – The Invention of the Liberation Myths

Our second station takes us to Bern. In the 15th and early 16th centuries, Bern was a major European power. The Bernese upper classes had the financial and military resources to expand their own territory enormously at the expense of the neighbouring noble families. The territorial lords whom they attacked, and who also happened to be experiencing a period of weakness at the time, were no match for their cannons and formidably armed mercenaries. To justify their expansion, which was carried out at the expense of the Habsburgs, Kyburgs and many other noble families, the Bernese cooked up a state-endorsed myth of liberation from the oppressive nobility.

In 1420, the Council of Bern entrusted its former scribe Konrad Justinger (1370-1438) with the task of compiling a history of Bern. Justinger’s chronicle spanned all the way up to his own present, and therefore became a fundamental work used by many other chroniclers, including one Benedikt Tschachtlan. At this station, we’ll be looking at a facsimile of Tschachtlan’s chronicle, written in 1470. It is the first illustrated chronicle in Switzerland. Nowadays, this term is used to describe a series of handwritten texts accompanied by elaborate illustrations. The most famous illustrated chronicle is the one written by Diebold Schilling around 1480. It was used as a fundamental work of Swiss history for many centuries, as illustrated by the second book we’ll be discussing at this station: a reprint of the chronicle produced in 1743, so around 250 years after it was first written.

Benedikt Tschachtlan: The First Illustrated Chronicle

Benedikt Tschachtlan and Heinrich Dittlinger, Chronik
Manuscript, 1470. Facsimile.

Bern was undergoing a phase of expansion when Benedikt Tschachtlan was born, around 1420. He came from an upper-class family, which meant he was also able to build a career for himself. By the age of around 30, Tschachtlan was already a member of the Grand Council and taking on important roles in the city administration. For example, in 1469, he was a standard-bearer in the Waldshut War, which was waged by the eight cantons of the Swiss Confederacy against the local nobility, led by Sigismund, Archduke of Austria-Tyrol, a member of the House of Habsburg. At the end of the war, Bern secured substantial reparations, as well as lucrative territories.

Between 1400 and 1474, Bernese territory almost doubled in size. Map: Marco Zanoli, cc-by 4.0.

Even then, the warring parties made a point of claiming that they had not waded into the war solely for material gain. But what reason were the councillors of Bern supposed to give for going to war when the subject came up? Perhaps Benedikt Tschachtlan, who had repeatedly attended the Federal Diet of Switzerland as a Bernese envoy since 1469, realised how useful it would be to agree on a uniform argument. But how does one go about establishing a uniform interpretation of events? By writing it down. And that’s just what Benedikt Tschachtlan did.

The successful bear hunt of Berthold V, Duke of Zähringen, to which Bern owes its name.

Tschachtlan did not work alone, as we can see from the first page: the devout Benedikt Tschachtlan, standard-bearer and councillor for Bern, had the chronicle written and painted in 1470. Heinrich Dittlinger was the writer of the book.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the two noblemen actually did all the work themselves. Nowadays, we assume that they compiled the texts, paid and supervised the scribes, and financed the illuminators, whom they also gave precise instructions as to what should be depicted, where and how.

Coat of arms of the guild ‘Gesellschaft zu Distelzwang’. Photo: RicciSpeziari, cc-by 3.0.

After all, that’s what was truly genius about the Tschachtlan chronicle: it featured pictures at a time when pictures were only ever seen in churches and noble homes. The colourful illustrations invited readers to study the chronicle over and over again in exclusive circles. As a result, the Bernese upper classes all visualised the course of events together and thus coordinated their perception of history. Most of the content of the Tschachtlan Chronicle was already known to its readers. It contains a copy of Justinger’s old chronicle and a version of Johannes Fründ’s chronicle on the Old Zürich War, edited according to the Berne interpretation of events. The only new element was the account of contemporary history.

Tschachtlan was a member of an elite guild called ‘Gesellschaft zu Narren und zu Distelzwang’. In this guild, the local upper classes would meet for informal discussions. Here, the text of Tschachtlan’s chronicle became the subject of lively debate. Of course, for this to be possible, it had to be written in German. Latin was not widely taught among the burghers.

The expansion of Bernese territory occurred largely at the expense of the Kyburgs and the Habsburgs. To justify this expansion, frequent reference was made to the military provocation by the nobles. This image depicts knights of the Count of Kyburg killing two Bernese burghers.

To promote the idea that the Habsburgs were indeed a ‘sworn enemy’, the Swiss ambush of the marching battalion of a Habsburg army was reimagined as a glorious battle, today known as the Battle of Morgarten of 1315.

The Bernese upper classes were clearly very proud of their military might. 200 of the 230 illustrations in the Tschachtlan Chronicle depict acts of war.

Bern had state-of-the-art weaponry at its disposal. Around 1470, this included the first cannons. These cannons were not yet mounted on wheeled gun carriages, but were instead fired from newly built wooden scaffolds.

In this illustration, too, we see a Bernese cannon being used in battle, whose shot severely damaged the city wall of Bremgarten. The Bernese also fought with arquebuses, which were highly modern at the time.


Diebold Schilling: His Goods at Grandson, His Courage at Morat and His Blood at Nancy

Diebold Schilling, Beschreibung der Burgundischen Kriege.
Published in Bern by Franz Samuel Fetscherin, 1743.

As part of the peace treaty concluded after the Waldshut War, Sigismund, Archduke of Austria-Tyrol was required to pay 10,000 gulden to the Swiss Confederates in war reparations. He borrowed this money from the richest prince in Europe at the time, Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. By way of a pledge, Charles demanded the territories of Sundgau and Alsace. And that’s how one of the most ambitious men of his time became a neighbour of the Swiss Confederacy.

The Luzerner Schilling: In 1469, Sigismund, Archduke of Austria, pledged Sundgau and Alsace to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.

Charles the Bold made himself a lot of enemies with his ambitious plans, including Louis XI, King of France, whom history has given the nickname “l’araignée” (the Spider). Louis XI assembled a great coalition against Charles the Bold, which was also joined by the Swiss Confederacy. This gave it a pretext to take action against Charles the Bold and advance into his territory. The Swiss Confederacy mobilised its war machinery, which was unparalleled in Europe at the time, and fought the battles that inspired a rhyme now well-known in Switzerland: Charles lost his “Gut” (goods) at Grandson, his “Mut” (courage) at Morat and his “Blut” (blood) at Nancy. In the years 1476 to 1477, the Swiss Confederacy finished off the man who had attempted to build his own kingdom.

1743 edition: the Battle of Nancy on 5 January 1477.

On 31 January 1474, before the final battles had even been fought, the Council of Bern tasked the scribe Diebold Schilling with compiling a new chronicle that would portray the actions of the Bernese in a favourite light. The Council censored Schilling’s draft, meaning that the chronicle contains the official and contemporary Bernese interpretation of the Burgundian Wars, which does not quite correspond to the historical truth. Diebold Schilling justified the Bernese policy. He had no doubt whatsoever that Charles the Bold, the “brute” and “bloodshedder”, had only himself to blame for his fate.

Schilling’s chronicle consists of three parts: the first adopts Konrad Justinger’s chronicle, with some minor revisions. The second contains the continuation of Justinger’s chronicle by Benedikt Tschachtlan. The third part was new. It summarised the contemporary history of the years between 1468 and 1480.

Schilling’s work is preserved in several slightly different versions: the version of the Great Burgundy Chronicle that was authorised by the Council of Bern lies in the Burgerbibliothek Bern public library. Diebold Schilling also produced a copy of his chronicle, which was sold by his widow to the Council of Zurich, and is now kept in the Zurich Central Library. There is also another edition, produced at the personal initiative of the former Schultheiß (sheriff) of Bern Rudolf von Erlach, known as the ‘Spiezer Schilling’, which was never finished and now also lies in the Burgerbibliothek Bern.

The execution of the occupying troops in Grandson, as depicted in Johannes Stumpf’s chronicle

How Diebold Schilling’s narrative changed the truth can be illustrated by the events preceding the Battle of Grandson: this municipality was not part of the Swiss Confederacy at the time, but was under Burgundian control. It was conquered by the Bernese in 1475 and, when the municipality was recaptured by a Burgundian army in 1476, the liberated residents forced the execution of their occupiers by drowning and hanging.

The Berner Schilling: the Swiss Confederates pray before the Battle of Grandson.

In his chronicle, Diebold Schilling describes the great piety of the Bernese troops; he writes that they implored God for victory before the Battle of Grandson, and God – according to the Bernese version – had no choice but to grant victory to their just cause.


Before the town of Grandson, around 20,000 Burgundian mercenaries faced around 18,000 elite Swiss Confederate soldiers. The outcome of the battle came as no surprise. And yet, until well into the 20th century, Diebold Schilling’s account was widely accepted as the official version of events. His narrative is summarised in the following poem, which features in the 1743 edition we’re presenting here:

The rich prince Charles of Burgundy, with ample land and gold,
Yet his lust for territory never grows cold.
Twice he sent 50,000 men to oppress
Our united Swiss country, and stand on its neck.
Our men in Grandson yielded, the prince promised they’d be safe,
Yet soon they were all hanged or drowned in the lake,
But the little Swiss army soon took its revenge on the Burgundian host,
Cut them down by the thousands, and won great riches besides.

The fact that items of the “Burgunderbeute” (the spoils of the Burgundian Wars) are still proudly displayed in museums and armouries today clearly shows just how much importance is still attached to this victory over the Burgundians, even in modern Switzerland.

Surcoat of the Burgundian herald from the “Burgunderbeute”, displayed in the Old Arsenal Museum in Solothurn. Photo: KW.

Schilling lists the spoils of war in minute detail.

Charles the Bold was presented as the incarnation of tyranny, so greatly feared by his subjects that they hardly dared to bring him the news of the defeats at Grandson and Morat. The illustration is accompanied by the following poem:

The hero is gone, nowhere to be found,
The people succeeded in driving him out.
How his face, that once shone so bright,
Grows withered and dark. He flees the daylight
and he’d flee himself if he could; for he cannot regard,
without horror, his nothingness, his barren, empty heart.

1743 edition: Charles the Bold receives the news from Grandson and Morat.


This is some text inside of a div block.
Kronica von der loblichen Eydtgnoschaft Ir har kom[m]en und sust seltzam strittenn und geschichten
Petermann Etterlin
Published by Michael Furter in Basel, 1507
Kronica von der loblichen Eidgnoschaft bearbeitet von Johann Jakob Spreng
Petermann Etterlin
Edited by Johann Jakob Spreng, published in Basel by Daniel Eckenstein, 1752.

Stop 3: The Sworn Enemy of Swiss Freedom: The Habsburgs

The real winner of the Burgundian Wars was Maximilian I of Habsburg. He married Mary of Burgundy, the heiress of Charles the Bold, a few months after the latter’s death. As her dowry, she brought him most territories of the Kingdom of Burgundy. This included not only the bailiwicks of Upper Alsace and Breisgau, but also the Free County of Burgundy (Franche-Comté), which directly bordered Swiss Confederate territory. Not to mention the claim to some regions in northern Italy, located in the south of the Swiss Confederacy. Now, if we consider the fact that Vorarlberg and parts of the present-day cantons of Grisons and Engadin were also under Habsburg control, it quickly becomes clear that the Swiss Confederates were more or less surrounded.

In addition, this was now the third generation of Habsburgs to hold the title of king or emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. This meant that the traditional support by the emperor for the smaller imperial estates against the powerful territorial lords could not be relied on in this case. As a result, the Swiss Confederate territories slowly withdrew from imperial politics and, in 1648, they secured their independence in the Peace of Westphalia.

Whereas until the end of the 15th century, the Swiss Confederacy’s polemic had been shared among numerous noble families, now, it was directed solely at the Habsburgs. The chronicle written by Petermann Etterlin played an instrumental role in this development. It was the first chronicle of the entire Swiss Confederacy, printed in 1507, and it will be the subject of our third station.

Petermann Etterlin: A Chronicle of the Entire Swiss Confederacy

Petermann Etterlin: Kronica von der loblichen Eydtgnoschaft Ir har kom[m]en und sust seltzam strittenn und geschichten
Published by Michael Furter in Basel, 1507.

Petermann Etterlin was the son of the chronicler for the city of Lucerne. His father did not belong to the upper class and he, too, would never break into the political elite. He remained a subservient scribe, participated in numerous military campaigns and is even said to have run a wine tavern.

Die Eidgenossenschaft umklammert von Habsburger Gebiet: Die geographisch-politische Situation 1499 vor dem Schwabenkrieg bzw. wie er in Deutschland heißt, dem Schweizerkrieg. Karte: Marco Zanoli, cc-by 4.0.
The Swiss Confederacy surrounded by Habsburg territory: the geopolitical situation in 1499 before the Swabian War or, as it is called in Germany, the Swiss War. Map: Marco Zanoli, cc-by 4.0.

He earned his money elsewhere. Etterlin was a creature of the French ambassador, who resided in Lucerne and recruited Reisläufer (Swiss mercenaries) on behalf of his king. For this ambassador, Etterlin procured information and influenced public opinion. He was rather unscrupulous in this work, as illustrated by an incident in 1507, when he intercepted a messenger of Maximilian I on his way to Italy and took the letters by force, which he then handed over to the French ambassador.

Ludwig XII. trifft 1508 die Vertreter der Heiligen Liga im Hoflager Maximilians I. Foto: KW.
Louis XII meets the representatives of the Holy League at Maximilian I’s court camp in 1508. Photo: KW.

This is the context in which we need to examine the chronicle by Petermann Etterlin. With it, he was trying to convince the educated elite of the Swiss Confederacy that it was better to side with the French king in the war than with the Habsburgs, who also seemed dangerous at the time due to their geographical proximity. The Swabian War of 1499, which saw the Swiss Confederates defeat the imperial army at Dornach, was still fresh in people’s minds.

Petermann Etterlin’s chronicle ended up playing such an important role because it – unlike the White Book of Sarnen, which contains the earliest version of the William Tell myth, among others – is available in printed form. Etterlin’s chronicle was published in 1507 by Michael Furter in Basel.

The Rütli Oath

Petermann Etterlin portrayed the history of the Swiss Confederacy as a progressive liberation from oppression by the tyrannical Habsburgs. To promote this interpretation, he drew on local and foreign narrative motifs that had been circulating in Switzerland since the 15th century. One such legend is the Rütlischwur (Rütli Oath), which was skilfully illustrated by an artist.

Wilhelm Tell schießt seinem Sohn einen Apfel vom Kopf
William Tell shoots an apple off his son’s head

It is from the White Book of Sarnen that the story of the courageous William Tell, who shoots an apple from his child’s head at the command of a cruel Habsburg bailiff, originates.

Another equally significant story is that of the bailiff of Unterwalden, who is said to have been beaten to death in the bathtub by a peasant after raping the latter’s wife. This narrative theme can be traced all the way back to antiquity: Brutus overthrew the last Roman king following the rape of Lucretia.

Woodcuts were expensive. For that reason, the same woodcut was used to illustrate different historical events. We might also wonder who paid for the splendid design of the book. After all, neither the printer Michael Furter nor the writer Peter Etterlin had the money required for such opulence.

We also have Etterlin’s chronicle to thank for the oldest illustration of the city of Lucerne.


Petermann Etterlin: The Survival of the Liberation Myths into the Modern Era

Petermann Etterlin, Kronica von der loblichen Eidgnoschaft, bearbeitet von Johann Jakob Spreng
Published in Basel by Daniel Eckenstein, 1752.

Petermann Etterlin’s work is one of the main sources from which the country’s fledgling nationalism of the 18th century drew its lore. This was a double-edged sword. At the schools, the history of Switzerland – as it had been recorded by the chroniclers of the 15th and 16th centuries – was taught unchanged. But there were also some unconventional intellectuals, educated under the new academic faculties for Swiss history, who were questioning these very myths, to the disapproval of the national-minded citizens. A prime example of this discord is the controversy surrounding William Tell, a figure to whom the Swiss theologian Uriel Freudenberger dedicated an anonymous essay in 1760. He published a brochure entitled ‘Der Wilhelm Tell. Ein dänisches Mährgen’ (English: ‘William Tell, a Danish Fable’), in which he revealed the Tell myth to be a narrative formula also found in other cultures. Freudenberger’s text was banned at the instigation of national-minded politicians and even burned by the executioner in central Switzerland.

Johann Heinrich Füssli, Skizze zu „Der Rütli-Schwur“. Art Institute of Chicago.
Johann Heinrich Füssli, painting of ‘Der Rütli-Schwur’. Art Institute of Chicago.

This is the intellectual background against which we need to understand the new edition of Etterlin’s chronicle produced by Jakob Spreng in 1752. Johann Jakob Spreng was a Swiss theologian who was honoured as an ‘imperial poet’ by Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, at the age of just 25. In 1742, he returned to his home city of Basel, where he held the post of Associate Professor of Eloquence and German Poetry from 1743 onwards. His translation of Etterlin’s work from Early New High German into the colloquial language of the 18th century may well have been one of the reasons why he was offered an associate professorship in Swiss history in 1754.

Epitaph of Johann Jakob Spreng. Epitaph at the Church of St. Theodore, Basel. Photo: Ein Dao, cc-by 4.0.

This is the intellectual background against which we need to understand the new edition of Etterlin’s chronicle produced by Jakob Spreng in 1752. Johann Jakob Spreng was a Swiss theologian who was honoured as an ‘imperial poet’ by Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, at the age of just 25. In 1742, he returned to his home city of Basel, where he held the post of Associate Professor of Eloquence and German Poetry from 1743 onwards. His translation of Etterlin’s work from Early New High German into the colloquial language of the 18th century may well have been one of the reasons why he was offered an associate professorship in Swiss history in 1754.

Spreng preceded the book with a detailed introduction, in which he tried to explain why Etterlin had made so many spelling errors. In fact, the many ‘errors’, as Etterlin calls them, were not a result of negligence on the printer’s part, but rather due to the fact that spelling rules had not actually been formulated until much later.

Spreng added annotations to the text to make it easier for readers to understand and, on page 29, he explains why the story of William Tell is credible.

The naive lack of criticism with which Spreng adopted Etterlin’s interpretation of history is also reflected in his index. His brief summaries are very telling. For example, beside the entry “Landvögte derer von Uri, Schweiz und Unterwalden” (Bailiffs of Uri, Switzerland and Unterwalden) he adds the note: “regieren tyrannisch, werden vertrieben” (tyrannical rulers, driven out).



This is some text inside of a div block.
Chronicon Helveticum, Zweyter Teil Von Anno MCCCCXV (= 1415) bis A. MCCCCLXX (= 1470)
Aegidius Tschudi
Published by Hans Jakob Bischoff in Basel, 1736.
Gemeiner Löblicher Eidgenossenschaft Städte, Länder und Völker Chronik, würdiger Taten Beschreibung
Johannes Stumpf
Published in Zurich by Christoph Froschauer, 1586
Eidgenössische Chronik
Werner Schodeler
Manuscript, 1510-1535. Facsimile
Regiment Gemeiner loblicher Eydgnoschafft
Josias Simler
Published in Zurich by Christoph Froschauer the Younger, 1577.

Stop 4 – Questions of Faith

The Swiss Reformation is considered to begin in 1522, when the so called “Affair of the Sausages” occurred at the house of the printer Christoph Froschauer in Zurich. The Reformation resulted in a number of towns – including Zurich, Bern, Basel, Geneva and Schaffhausen – adopting the Reformed faith as their state religion, while other cantons in the Confederacy continued to profess the Catholic faith.

Such a division of faith in a very small space triggered a heated discussion among theologians of all confession about how to interpret their common past. Coming from the medieval understanding of grace, they considered historical success to be major evidence for whether a religion was pleasing to God or not.

In this context, the Reformed had a crucial advantage: they dominated the urban centres with their universities and printing houses, and were thus in a much better position to propagate their view of history.

We illustrate this by means of four chronicles. The centrepiece is what’s probably the most famous Zurich chronicle. It was published in 1548 by Johannes Stumpf in Christoph Froschauer’s printing house. Numerous new editions followed. The same is true for Josias Simler’s work, who published a somewhat abridged version of Stumpf’s chronicle in 1572.

On the other hand, the chronicle by Aegidius Tschudi – who is after all considered the father of modern Swiss historiography – remained unprinted until 1734. He was Catholic. Just like the author of the last illustrated chronicle of Switzerland. Among other things, Werner Schodeler left behind a contemporary account of the Reformation. It has not been edited to this day.

Aegidius Tschudi: The Father of Swiss History

Aegidius Tschudi, Chronicon Helveticum, Zweyter Teil Von Anno MCCCCXV (= 1415) bis A. MCCCCLXX (= 1470)

Published by Hans Jakob Bischoff in Basel, 1736.

Aegidius Tschudi was a contemporary of the Reformation. He came from one of the oldest and most influential families in Glarus, which is illustrated, for example, by the fact that it was his father who commanded the troops of Glarus in the Battle of Marignano. Tschudi received his first education from Huldrych Zwingli himself, who was then a pastor in Glarus. At the age of eleven, Tschudi began his studies – first in Basel, then in Paris, which was home to the most famous theological faculty in Europe at the time.

Aegidius Tschudi (1505-1572)

In 1529 he was back in Glarus. He held high offices and focused on the peaceful coexistence of both confessions. To this end, he used his passion: history. His work was intended to make Reformed and Catholic Swiss aware of their roots, enabling them to identify with a common history. In his work, he traced the Swiss people back to the Helvetii, who were prominently mentioned in Caesar’s “De Bello Gallico”. Tschudi made the programmatic choice of omitting the time of the Reformation in his chronicle.

He copied inscriptions, collected coins and used old authors as well as federal archives. In this way, he did pioneering work. His work “Das wirklich uralte Raetien in den Alpen” (The truly ancient Rhaetia in the Alps), published in Basel in 1538, made him famous. It was the only one of his books that was printed during his lifetime.

Page from Tschudi’s manuscript of the 1555 Chronicon Helveticum; the small matchstick man is supposed to be William Tell.

Nevertheless, Tschudi’s research had a substantial influence on the findings of other historians. He generously provided all those who wrote about Swiss history with information. Johannes Stumpf, in particular, benefitted from this. He used Tschudi’s research to stir up opinion against the Catholics. In a letter from 11 December 1547, Tschudi complained bitterly about the polemics against monks and the worship of images in Stumpf’s chronicle.

As secretary of the Legislative Assembly in Baden, Tschudi witnessed first-hand how aggressive the actions of the Reformed were, who – in turn – tried to force the cities of the old faith to introduce Reformed preaching. Tschudi too became radicalised, which is why a military campaign with the purpose of re-Catholicizing Switzerland was named after Tschudi (the so-called “Tschudi-Handel”). The plan failed and Tschudi went into exile in Rapperswil. Although he returned to Glarus in 1565, his political career was over. His chronicle of Switzerland, which was completed in 1571, was not printed. Although historians repeatedly exploited it for their own purposes, it was not published until 1736.

The one responsible for Tschudi’s chronicle being finally published was Johann Rudolf Iselin (1705-1779), a Swiss lawyer who worked as historian and publisher.

In his preface, Iselin mentions that copies of Tschudi’s chronicle could already be found in most Catholic churches and in many libraries of Reformed cities before it was printed.


In his introduction to the second volume, Iselin felt compelled to defend himself against the accusation of having removed Catholic polemics from Tschudi’s work. His contemporaries could not believe that Tschudi’s chronicle had been written without any form of polemics.

Johannes von Müller (1752-1809)

Johannes Müller was the most important Swiss historian of the 18th century. His fame is largely due to the fact that he adopted Tschudi’s work. He says about Tschudi: “As far as he [Tschudi] goes, there is light and clarity; before and after him darkness and gloom.”

Thanks to Johannes Müller’s work, Friedrich Schiller learned about the legend of William Tell. Goethe supplied him with the original text by Aegidius Tschudi. He had obtained Iselin’s edition from 1736.

Depiction from William Tell by Friedrich Schiller, published in Tübingen in 1804. Photo: KW.

Johannes Stumpf: The Reformed Perspective

Johannes Stumpf, Gemeiner Löblicher Eidgenossenschaft Städte, Länder und Völker Chronik, würdiger Taten Beschreibung.
Published in Zurich by Christoph Froschauer, 1586.

The Reformed theologian Johannes Stumpf wrote the most famous chronicle of Switzerland to date. It owes its fame not only to its text but also to exquisite illustrations. The publisher Christoph Froschauer engaged one of the best book illustrators of his time: Heinrich Vogtherr the Elder (1490-1556), who was a printer himself and a follower of the Reformed faith. Christoph Froschauer wrote to the St Gallen historian Joachim von Watt on 18 January 1545: “The situation of the chronicle is as follows: since Martinmas (= 11 November) I have had the best engraver there is at the moment in my house. I give him 2 guldens per week as well as food and drink; he does nothing but wood engravings for the chronicle. No expense is spared on that!”

Christoph Froschauer’s printer’s mark from 1525.

These about 400 wood engravings illustrate the first Swiss chronicle that was written from the Reformed perspective.

The author of this chronicle, Johannes Stumpf, was a devoted follower of Zwingli and not a historian at all to begin with. A theologian by training, he came to Zurich in the 1520s, where he married the daughter of Heinrich Brennwald in 1529. Brennwald, too, was among the key figures of the Zurich Reformation. He had written a four-volume chronicle of Switzerland, and this work became the basis of Stumpf’s publication.

Stumpf intended his work to defend the failed actions of Zwingli, who had used military force to try to impose the Reformation throughout Switzerland in order to religiously unify the Confederacy. He considered the Catholic Habsburgs to be the arch-enemy, who were trying to suppress the Reformation in the empire at the same time. This dispute culminated in 1547 – shortly before the first publication of Stumpf’s chronicle – in the Battle of Mühlberg, where the troops of Emperor Charles V subdued the Protestant imperial estates.

Johannes Stumpf (1500-1577/78)

Johannes Stumpf emphasised the anti-Habsburg myths of his predecessors. Not only did he describe the story of William Tell, he also wrote about the Unterwalden bailiff, who was said to have raped the wife of the man who then murdered him in the bath.

Johannes Stumpf, chronicle of 1586: anti-Habsburg myths.

Charles V was so displeased with Stumpf’s chronicle and its view of the Habsburgs that he banned the book in the empire and issued a warrant for its author and publisher.

Charles V (1500-1558). Photo: KW.

Charles V was so displeased with Stumpf’s chronicle and its view of the Habsburgs that he banned the book in the empire and issued a warrant for its author and publisher.

His ban had no effect. The chronicle became a success. The first edition of 1548 was followed by a second one in 1586 – the work we present to you here. In 1606 a third edition was published, and the MoneyMuseum also owns a copy of this work.

Stumpf became famous above all for his maps. They were so sought after that they were compiled and reprinted in a separate map series in 1552. If the depictions seem unfamiliar to you, remember that it didn’t become customary for maps to point North on top until the 19th century.

Stumpf had the ambition to create a world chronicle that reached back to the creation of the world, which meant to him 1183 before the birth of Christ. It deals with the Trojan War, the Flight of Aeneas and the Founding of Rome.


Werner Schodeler: Buried in the Archives

Werner Schodeler, Eidgenössische Chronik

Manuscript, 1510-1535. Facsimile

Printed books did not replace handwritten manuscripts overnight. On the contrary. Until the 18th century, all those who could not afford printed books copied what interested them from printed works. And, of course, many books – like Aegidius Tschudi’s history of Switzerland – were only available in the form of manuscripts and various transcripts. This fate was shared by the last hand-illustrated Swiss chronicle. Werner Schodeler, a citizen of Bremgarten, produced the work at his own expense between 1510 and 1535 and had it lavishly illustrated.

Depiction of Bremgarten from Schodeler’s chronicle.

Schodeler’s family was from Bremgarten. As subjects of the Habsburgs, his ancestors had fought the Confederacy until the town was conquered by them in 1415. Bremgarten wasn’t reformed like Zurich or Bern. Religious equality prevailed there for a short time after the First War of Kappel. But after Zwingli’s attempt to impose Reformed preaching throughout Switzerland had failed, Bremgarten was forced to re-Catholicise.

Werner Schodeler, born in 1490, was an excellently informed contemporary of the Reformation. Shortly after 1500, he started his apprenticeship in the chancellery of Bern, where the always joking boy – as accounts in the Bernese archives have it – was trained as a scribe. In 1509 he took over the office as Bremgarten town scribe. In this function he took part in the Milanese wars.
Despite his talents and his marriage to a member of the Zurich ruling class, Schodeler did not make a career for himself. He might have been too tolerant for his time. He refused to give up the Catholic faith and, at the same time, – as Joachim von Watt wrote about him – he considered many things Christian that were considered heretical by the Popes.
Does the chronicle, which he wrote on his own initiative and at his own expense, reflect this spirit? We don’t know that. His book, written between 1510 and 1535, is only available in the form of a facsimile to this day. It has neither been transcribed nor edited.

The first volume, which was probably written last, contains an edited version of the Tschachtlan chronicle. It is now kept at the Leopold-Sophien Library in Überlingen. Although the volume has blank spaces for illustrations, it only contains a few depictions. Perhaps Schodeler had run out of money.

The second, lavishly illustrated volume – which is now kept in the Bremgarten city archives – covers the years from 1436 to 1466. It is mainly based on the chronicle of Hans Fründ from Lucerne, whose account is described as factual and critical today. In the 1950s, on the other hand, his style was considered “whiny” because he was rather critical of Zurich.

The third volume, which is kept in the Aargau Cantonal Library, deals with the period between 1468 and 1525, and thus covers the period of the Reformation. The largest part was written by Werner Schodeler himself.

The standard work on Swiss historiography comments on Schodeler: “The part written by him ... is characterised by prudence, order and a good overview; you can feel the effect of the new spirit, temperament and frankness; he does not spare the Confederates in his judgments.”

The depictions of the third volume are black and white, but already inspired by the Renaissance understanding of art. This depiction of a feast of Charles the Bold gives us a realistic insight into Renaissance dining habits.


Josias Simler: Swiss Basics

Josias Simler, Regiment Gemeiner loblicher Eydgnoschafft.

Published in Zurich by Christoph Froschauer the Younger, 1577.

Josias Simler was part of the generation that followed Tschudi, Stumpf and Schodeler, i.e. a generation for which the Reformation had become normal and where – for the time being – peace prevailed between Reformed and Catholic cantons; at least in the Holy Roman Empire, to which Switzerland still belonged. Simler’s father was a clergyman and he, too, studied theology. The Zurich City Council supported him financially thanks to a recommendation by his godfather, the Zurich Antistes Heinrich Bullinger. In 1552, Josias Simler became Professor of New Testament exegesis at the Carolinum academy in Zurich.

Josias Simler (1530-1576)

His job gave Simler enough time to study history, geography, archaeology and philology. Throughout his life he worked on a large volume on Swiss history, which was never completed.

Instead, Josias Simler published the information he had gathered in an easy-to-use compendium shortly before he died. The book, which the MoneyMuseum displays at this station in its German first edition from 1577, was published in 1576. Translated into English, the title reads: “Two books on the state system of the Swiss”.

Simler’s work is more than a chronicle. Only the first volume is dedicated to Swiss history. For this part, he took the most important information from Stumpf’s work, providing his readers with a short version that became much more wide-spread than the longer original.

The second volume was something new. Simler summarised what he knew about the “state” of the Swiss people, i.e. about individual Swiss territories and their legal status. For Simler, Switzerland was merely a “state” for emotional reasons, the different cantons which agreed on political matters in the federal diet were independent from a legal point of view.


Just how complex the legal situation was in the 15th century is illustrated by Simler’s account of the legal status of the Kelleramt, a region between Affoltern, Bremgarten and the Reuss river. Originally, it had been part of Zurich. But it was pledged to Bremgarten, which had the lower jurisdiction, while the court of appeal and the high justice were located in Zurich.

Page 177 is dedicated to the Federal Diet of Switzerland. He recounts that it was exclusively held in the town hall of Baden in his time because the city had adequate inns and enough supplies for the envoys due to the hot springs.

Josias Simler does not review his sources critically, he simply repeated the information he found. In this case it was the story of the evil Habsburg farmhand who wants to drive away the oxen of the old farmer.

Simler, De re publica Helvetiorum libri duo von 1734

Simler’s work is one of the most successful chronicles of Switzerland. Just one year after the first edition had been published in Latin, a French and a German version were released. Johann Jakob Leu’s revised version of 1735 was the 38th(!) edition of this work.

Death mask of Oliver Cromwell. Ashmolean Museum / Oxford. Photo: UK.

Simler’s work is one of the most successful chronicles of Switzerland. Just one year after the first edition had been published in Latin, a French and a German version were released. Johann Jakob Leu’s revised version of 1735 was the 38th(!) edition of this work.

One of them was used by Oliver Cromwell for his transformation of the British state.


This is some text inside of a div block.
Gründliche Beschreibung der denkwürdigsten Geschichten und Thaten, welche in den Helvetischen Landen … bis auf das 1627. Jahr … sich zugetragen ….
Michael Stettler
Published by Jacob Stuber in Bern, 1626.
Beyträge zu der Historie der Eidsgenossen
Johann Jakob Bodmer
Johann Jakob Bodmer in the name of Johann Jakob Lauffer. Published in Zurich by Conrad Orell und Company, 1739.

Station 5 – Can History Be Neutral?

The Reformation and its new, text-based style of reasoning had taken the Catholic clergy by surprise. The Jesuits, in particular, began to provide students with an education that was at least as sophisticated as that of their Reformed colleagues in Tübingen, Wittenberg, Strasbourg or Basel. The result was the so-called “controversial theology”, under the heading of which followers of both confessions systematically examined the works of the other religion for errors with the purpose of refuting them. To this end, a new device was added to the historian’s toolbox. Today we call this approach source criticism. It refers to the questions a historian asks his source when he wants to find out about the historical message of a legend, a coin, an archival document or a chronicle.

Today’s scholars pride themselves on not accepting any message unless it was thoroughly examined. Of course, it was a long way to get there. At this station we present two historians who set out on this path: Michael Stettler published a new chronicle in 1626 on behalf of the Council of Bern. His work was continued by Jakob Lauffer in the first half of the 18th century – but we will not present Lauffer’s work but the research published by Johann Jakob Bodmer in the name of Lauffer.

Michael Stettler: Impartial and to the Praise of the Ancestors?

Michael Stettler, Gründliche Beschreibung der denkwürdigsten Geschichten und Thaten, welche in den Helvetischen Landen ... bis auf das 1627. Jahr ... sich zugetragen ....

Published by Jacob Stuber in Bern, 1626.

Writing an official chronicle based on historical sources while being financed by the government is a balancing act, and one may doubt whether Michael Stettler succeeded in accomplishing this task. He was a member of Bern’s upper class himself and pursued a modest career in the government service. As a scribe at the marriage court, which judged the moral behaviour of the people of Bern, he had access to part of the city’s archives. At a young age, Stettler already wrote a “Short poetic verse of a highly laudable Confederacy” and a tragicomedy about the “Origin of the laudable Confederacy” in 33 acts.

Michael Stettler (1580-1642) with his chronicle of Bern.

In 1614, the Bern Council agreed to his request of granting him access to all – even the secret – archives, enabling him to write a continuation of Bern’s chronicle. In 1623 Stettler presented his manuscript about the events from 1526 to 1610 to the Council: a ten-volume work. Before the book could be printed, it was censored by the Council members. On 25 March 1625, the version that had been approved by the government obtained the permission to be published.

In his introduction, Michael Stettler describes the purpose of history. In his opinion, historical analogies provide guidelines for contemporary politicians, helping them understand what specific actions result in. But to provide such guidelines, Stettler had to take a fresh look at the events. His chronicle is no longer about an order of the world imposed by God. It is about cause and effect, about a logical sequence of events with political or military measures that produce a precisely outlined result. To reconstruct the events, Michael Stettler consulted primary sources including official documents, records and contracts.

The fact that his work would be censored by the Council of Bern did not make a difference for Stettler. He refrained from expressing his own view and limited his work to the presentation of facts. However, Stettler was not aware of the fact that even the mere selection and compilation of historical facts is an expression of one’s view.

Title page of the 1626 chronicle.

On the title page, Michael Stettler wrote that he did both: copying the material of the most reliable authors and consulting the most important archives. It is important for him to assure his readers that he gathered all the information for his work in praise of the venerable ancestors with utmost impartiality. According to him, there is no contradiction between being impartial and praising someone.

We, on the other hand, may well question Stettler’s impartiality. Especially since he does not criticise Bernese politicians at all, which is especially striking with regard to his account of the Milanese wars.

Ferdinand Hodler, study on the “Retreat of Marignano”.

The devastating defeat of Marignano, which cost the lives of about 9,000-10,000 of the approximately 22,000 mercenaries, was caused because some of the soldiers – including the troops of Bern – withdrew from the treaty with the Pope in order to conclude a new (and more lucrative) treaty with France.

Whereas earlier authors explained this defeat with the mercenaries’ unchristian greed for money, Stettler blamed Pope Leo and the Spanish King for it, presenting the Swiss people as “innocent and partly deceived by evil”.

Stettler on the Milanese wars.

An account that contradicts all reason: Stettler sepicts that German mercenaries cut the flags of the Confederates into small pieces in order to eat them with their salad. Moreover, he recounts they let the fat out of the corpulent Grisons bailiff to grease their weapons and boots with it. Today’s readers would not consider such an account to be neutral either.


Jakob Lauffer: More Annotations Than Text

Johann Jakob Bodmer im Namen von Johann Jakob Lauffer, Beyträge zu der Historie der Eidsgenossen.

Published in Zurich by Conrad Orell und Company, 173

Johann Jakob Lauffer (1688-1734) is considered the last chronist of Bern that was supported by the government. He was from Zofingen, studied theology at the academy in Bern and in Halle. After his return to Bern, he was appointed Professor for Eloquence and History. With great reluctance, he accepted the commission to write a history of Bern in 1724. He said: “It is also very dangerous to write a historical work in a republic. A truth-loving man cannot avoid hurting several families and making them his enemies.”

1757 view of the city of Bern.

In fact, Johann Jakob Lauffer did not have to face this danger. His chronicle was only published after his sudden death between 1736 and 1739 in Zurich – obviously not until the Council of Bern had examined and censored the historical work.

Johann Jakob Bodmer, whos was the centre of intellectual Zurich in the late 18th century, was responsible for the chronicle to be published. Together with his nephew Konrad Orell, he had founded the publishing bookshop Orell & Compagnie in 1734, a company that lives on today as Orell Füssli. One of their first prestigious projects was publishing the eighteen-volume chronicle by Lauffer in addition to four volumes written by Bodmer himself.

Johann Jakob Bodmer (1698-1783)

Bodmer connected this publication with his own interests. He fought for a Swiss national identity that he wanted to promote by means of a common history. Therefore, the studied theologian and trained silk merchant taught Helvetic history at the Zurich Carolinum since 1731. Bodmer was an Enlightened man. Although he used national myths to promote Switzerland’s national identity, he maintained that the contents of these myths must not contradict logical reasoning. His books were aimed at the intellectual upper class, not at a broad public. Therefore, his treatises were on the cutting edge of the knowledge of his time. Bodmer quoted his sources and commented on them critically.

Bodmer’s title already revealed his goal. He did not write a new chronicle but “Beiträge”, i.e. contributions related to Swiss history.

The first volume, for instance, contains four completely different parts:

  • a history of Zurich’s form of government up to Brun’s guild constitution of 1336,
  • an essay by Bodmer on the reasons why Bern became the leader of the Confederacy,
  • a treatise on the coinage law of Fraumünster Abbey and
  • an edition of the Latin work by Oswald Geisshüsler, called Myconius, on the War of Kappel.

Bodmer backed the text on the history of Zurich’s form of government with numerous, lengthy annotations just like we are used to from modern scholarly works.

His treatise on the coinage law of Fraumünster Abbey is introduced by a brief outline of the state of art and the sources – a mandatory requirement for any piece of quality research today.

In the 18th century, the book business was boosted by advertising. Thus, in volume three, “the publisher” Bodmer told his readers what to expect from the next volume.

Moreover, he included a catalogue of new publications that were available from his bookshop. Among other books there are a medical work, several novels, and some books by Voltaire, a bestselling author of the time.



This is some text inside of a div block.
Huldrych Zwingli
Published by Christoph Froschauer in Zurich, 1581.

Station 6 – The Likeable Reformer Next Door?

And what’s the situation like today? Is our view of history more accurate given that modern historians have had several centuries of experience with source criticism? Or is our view of history influenced by other, contemporary factors? What role, for example, do mechanisms of popular culture play when we enjoy a historical film?

We put it to the test: we compare the historical figure of Zwingli with the Zwingli from Stefan Haupt’s 2019 film.

Huldrych Zwingli: A Relentless Warrior of God

The most famous portrait of Huldrych Zwingli, painted in 1549 by Hans Asper.

Zwingli was from a wealthy family. His uncle held a high ecclesiastical office and enabled him to make a career within the Church for himself. In 1506, Zwingli took up his first pastorate in Glarus. He fought in the Italian Wars alongside Glarus mercenaries and received 50 guldens from the Pope each year to use his influence on leading politicians to voice the Church’s interests in military matters. Things changed after the defeat of Marignano. Zwingli had to leave Glarus and moved to the pilgrimage site of Einsiedeln. There he encountered the worst aberrations of Catholic popular beliefs. Zwingli became radical. He lashed out against the worship of saints and the practice of Swiss mercenaries serving in foreign armies – the latter aroused the interest of the Council of Zurich. At the time, Zurich was looking for a preacher for the Grossmünster who would keep the people of Zurich from earning their living as mercenaries.

Zwingli took up this office in 1519, and he was very successful. Instead of preaching about the Gospel of the day as had been customary, he translated the Gospel of Matthew in the pulpit. In that very summer, a plague epidemic struck Zurich, killing one in four(!) citizens. Zwingli survived and understood this as a sign that God had chosen him to reform the Church.

Churches and monasteries in Zurich before the Reformation. Map: Marco Zanoli, cc-by 4.0

Zwingli’s career must be understood against the background of the expansion of Zurich. Between 1400 and 1500, the city enlarged its territory many times over. And within the city itself the Council also tried to gain control. In this matter, the Council competed with the Bishop of Constance, who had supervised ecclesiastical institutions and monasteries for centuries and was thus, according to contemporary standards, the rightful owner of this power.

The only weapon left to the Bishop of Constance was the threat that God would punish those who did not obey him – and this threat was still taken very seriously in the 16th century. At a time where only 8.2% of the population reached the age of 60 – for comparison: in 2019, the average(!) life expectancy in Afghanistan was 64.8 – the only goal of the vast majority was to secure a place in God’s kingdom after their death. Thus, a pastor like Zwingli, who could eloquently use the bible to demonstrate why this robbery was pleasing to God, was a useful tool for the Council of Zurich.

Zwingli and the Council of Zurich used each other to achieve their goals. Zwingli justified the Council of Zurich seizing ecclesiastical properties and eliminating independent critics from the pulpits. And Zurich enabled Zwingli to turn his vision of a divine state into reality.

Zwingli’s death in the Battle of Kappel.

The fight for the Zurich-style Reformation was, of course, also a political question and had an impact on Zurich’s power within the Confederacy. Thus, it was a bitter setback when Zurich suffered a defeat against the combined forces of the Catholic cantons on a field near Kappel on 11 October 1531. One in ten Zurich citizens lost their lives back then. Zwingli was executed as a heretic, an act that was interpreted as God’s judgement on Zwingli’s teachings by his contemporaries.

This situation was an image problem for Zurich, which had regained its strength after the War of Kappel. Therefore the Council of Zurich sponsored a magnificent edition of Zwingli’s complete work on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his death, which we present to you at this station. With these books, the people of Zurich wanted to prove that Zwingli’s teachings were still being followed and that his Reformation had thus been successful. This means that the Council reinterpreted Zwingli’s death: the man who died wasn’t a heretic but a martyr.


This is exactly what the dedication of this work tells us. It reads “To the Holy and Catholic Church of all believers, the beloved bride of our King and Priest Christ, and to all believing future generations, the vindication of Mister Huldrich Zwingli and his works through their publication by Rudolf Gwalther from Zurich.”

Rudolf Gwalther (1519-1586).

Gwalther had held the position as the highest official of the Zurich state church since 1575. He had a personal interest in Zwingli’s rehabilitation. He was married to Zwingli’s daughter Regula. His daughter was to marry the son of Heinrich Bullinger, his predecessor. The Zurich state priesthood established itself as a closed caste.

Vignette of the page with the dedication.

The vignette of the dedication perfectly illustrates how Zurich wanted Zwingli to be perceived. It depicts Christ cleansing the church from the merchants.

Table of contents.

Through his writings against the Anabaptists, Zwingli justified the actions of the Zurich Council against this group of Reformed who were not willing to accept the authority of the city council in matters of faith.

To this day, the historical image of Zwingli is obscured by various images that were created for various purposes. With dwindling numbers of churchgoers, a Reformed church has to present a tolerant founding father. The holy warrior Huldrych Zwingli no longer fits our age.


Huldrych Zwingli: The Likeable Reformer Next Door

Zwingli. The ReformerA film by Stefan Haupt, written by Simone Schmid, produced by C-Films, EIKON and SRF, 2019.

Films are commercial undertakings and subject to the rules of the market. In other words: regarding films, success does not mean telling the truth but having persuaded as many people as possible to spend money on it. This applies to two directions. In the run-up, as much funding as possible has to be raised to ensure an opulent set. After the production, the favour of the audience is the major currency, and a film gains it depending on how entertaining it is. Therefore, it’s of crucial importance for every director that a film meets or exceeds the expectations of the customers.

The Beginning of the 2019 Reformation celebrations at Zurich’s Grossmünster: Gottfried Locher on the left, Johann Schneider-Amman on the right, behind them the logo with a stylised portrait of Zwingli.

A Film about Zwingli in the Anniversary Year of the Reformation

The very subject of “Zwingli” was opportunistic. At the time of its premiere, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation was prepared and celebrated across the globe with a lot of media coverage and financial commitment. The Reformed Church hoped that the anniversary would draw increased attention to its beliefs, working against the dwindling number of churchgoers. In such an environment, financing a “historical” film about the Zurich Reformer Zwingli was probably much easier than at any other time.

Wolfdietrich von Raitenau, the Bishop of Salzburg, took his companion Salome Alt to all official occasions during the 22 years of their relationship. She bore him 15 children.

No Film without some Tender Love

pastor Huldrych Zwingli – with blushing, tender care, loving kisses and everything we expect from a love affair today. It has to be that way. After all, today’s public expects – from a film as much as from a book – a nice love story, preferably combined with a strong woman who demonstrates with her behaviour that women have always been equal to men.

That isn’t historical at all. Gender equality is an issue of the 20th century. And our idea of a marriage that is based on love is a concept of the 19th century.

In Zwingli’s time, people married to form a strong economic alliance. Affection was nice to have, of course, but no precondition. Zwingli probably chose his housekeeper based on how capable she seemed to be. Anna Reinhart appreciated Zwingli for the fact that – as a people's priest at the Grossmünster – he was one of the city’s best-paid officials.

By the way, the fact that Zwingli stands by his child and his love for Anna Reinhart in such a dramatic way in the film would not have been considered special by his contemporaries. On the contrary. It was quite normal for a well-off pastor to live in a relationship that was similar to a marriage. The entire clergy expected that celibacy would come to an end soon. And this probably would have happened – had it not been for the Reformation. The Reformation compelled the Council of Trent to retain celibacy and make it a unique feature of the Catholic clergy.

Depiction of a Catholic abbot from the Zurich Dance of Death. The Reformed poet accuses the clergyman of lust, greed and laziness. – Not unlike what the screenwriter does to him today. From the Dance of Death by Rudolf and Conrad Meyer, Zurich 1650; republished in 1759

Catholics Are Fat, Greedy and Wear Fur

The general public obviously knows how the Reformation came about: a small group of selfless clergymen revolted against the selfish Catholics who exploited the Christian’s fear of the afterlife to make money. And this is what Stefan Haupt and his screenwriter present: Their plot begins with a camera shot of a painting of the Last Judgment. Impressively, a sleazy priest demands the pious widow Anna to give him money for a requiem mass to prevent her husband from suffering in purgatory. Yes, the viewer concludes, that’s just how they are, the Catholics: egoistic, self-absorbed, arrogant, scheming and greedy for money – and there are no exceptions. Stefan Hauptsums up this prejudice wonderfully. All actors that represent Catholics are fat. And – how horrible! this will make all politically correct citizens, vegans in particular, turn away in disgust! – they wear thick fur collars. The Reformers, on the other hand, glide through the streets in elegant black robes. They are handsome young men who one would also like to see in swimming trunks. This distinguishes them from the Anabaptists, whose wild spirit is reflected by their wild beards.

We don’t need a detailed historical comment here to expose this as black-and-white storytelling. Exciting stories need good and bad guys. A sinister adversary makes the hero shine even more.

Of course, historically speaking, the moral quality of Catholic clergymen was on average not a whit better than that of the Reformed – however, it was not worse either. But at the beginning of the Reformation, the Reformed were very clever in taking advantage of the fact that the new teachings spread particularly quickly in university towns where high-performance printing presses were located. Although these presses could not disseminate prejudices as quicky as Facebook can today, they did create prejudices that survived for a longer time – for more than half a millennium.

Depiction of the bailiff for the poor of Reformed Zurich. From the Dance of Death by Rudolf and Conrad Meyer, Zurich 1650; republished in 1759.

All for the Welfare of the Poor

The sequence of scenes is impressive: The noble Katharina von Zimmern hands over the key to the Fraumünster convent to the city council – of course, for the sole purpose of following the message of the Gospel and feeding the poor with the proceeds of her convent. Cut. A grumpy convent sister carries her bundle out of the Fraumünster, protesting loudly. Cut. Many hungry poor wait patiently in line, smiling, to receive their share of the food. Cut. And this is what this sequence tells us: convents were dissolved to feed the poor, poor people.

This is nothing but superb 16th-century propaganda. Actually, the main effect of closing convents was that these vast estates fell under the control of the city of Zurich. And its council could now dispose of the income as it wished. Of course, some of the money was given to the poor. An office was set up to take care of this matter. Not in a very successful way. Whereas the Catholic Church had concluded specific contracts with the benefactors as to how many poor people were to be clothed, fed or provided with alms from the proceeds at which time of the year, now an official decided who deserved support and who did not. The Zurich Dance of Death from 1650 illustrates that even Reformed fellow citizens were not convinced of this system. The artist chose the Zurich bailiff for the poor as an example of a corrupt official.

By the way, Katharina von Zimmern did not hand over the Fraumünster out of pure Christian charity. She made a good deal. In return, she received a generous life annuity as well as the right to live in her former convent.

Felix Manz was drowned on 5 January 1527 in the Limmat. The drawing was made between 1605 and 1606.

Zwingli Washes His Hands of It
Oh dear, Anna really wanted to persuade her husband to protect the Anabaptists. She’s the good one, after all, the conscience of Zwingli, who – completely incomprehensible for the viewer – turns from a nice guy into a helpless bystander and then even into a supporter of war towards the end of the film. And there is always someone else to blame. The Anabaptists just didn’t want to understand that this wasn’t the time for additional concessions; the Catholic priests – schemers, as we remember – stirred up the Federal Diet to exclude Zurich; and when the Catholic towns refused to be starved by the Reformed do-gooders, Zwingli resolutely mounted his horse in order to – uhm, to do what exactly? The film leaves this question unanswered. If truth had been told and the film had shown that Zurich and Zwingli were trying to force the entire Confederacy to adopt the Reformation, the beautiful image of the likeable Zwingli next door would have gone down the drain.

It remains a fact that Zwingli justified the execution and expulsion of the Anabaptists with his writings, and that he played a major role in the decision of the Council of Zurich to wage war on the Catholic towns. And, according to his world view, he was absolutely right to do so. He was not worried about people’s lives in this world, but about their salvation in the hereafter. A view that is shared by the Taliban. But that can obviously not be shown in a film that the Reformed Church is supposed to recommend to its believers. So it’s better to include a remark about Zwingli’s tolerance by showing that he wanted to translate the Koran into Latin.

Films are made to be entertaining. And that’s okay. Screenwriters like Simone Schmid produce pastimes like her hit series “Der Bestatter” (The Undertaker). Stefan Haupt also has no background as a historian. And he doesn’t have to. However, the fact that the Faculty of Theology of the University of Zurich awarded him with an honorary doctorate for his film Zwingli should give us pause for thought. My only consolation as a historian is that it wasn’t the Faculty of History.

A Personal Request

This brings us to the end of this exhibition. We fulfilled our mission if this exhibition made you a little more sceptical.

For there are always three questions that must be asked to verify whether a statement is true:

  • What can the author know about the event?
  • Which values does the author represent?
  • Who benefits from the fact that I believe what the author says?

Remain sceptical!

Ursula Kampmann

Ursula Kampmann, historian, numismatist and curator of the MoneyMuseum Book Collection.