Front Page Titles (by Subject) II.: Religion and Society in Late Medieval Switzerland - Selected Works of Huldrich Zwingli
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II.: Religion and Society in Late Medieval Switzerland - Huldrych Zwingli, Selected Works of Huldrich Zwingli 
Selected Works of Huldrich Zwingli, (1484-1531) The Reformer of German Switzerland, translated for the First Time from the Originals, ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1901).
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Religion and Society in Late Medieval Switzerland
Until the end of the thirteenth century the rural and urban areas of what is now Switzerland were known to most Europeans as a land of river valleys and difficult mountain passes which afforded the traveller access to the busier and culturally more attractive lands of Italy and France.4 Internally, these areas were ruled by lords spiritual and temporal, cousins of the great feudal nobles, bishops, and abbots who elsewhere ruled so much of Europe. Although technically many of these lords were vassals and subvassals of the Holy Roman Emperor (whose power had been based since 1273 chiefly in southern and southeastern Germany and Bohemia), the diverse regions of Switzerland were much more directly under the rule of the great aristocratic lay dynasties and the powerful ecclesiastical establishments whose foundations ran back to the eighth and ninth centuries. The great houses of Savoy and Habsburg are only two of the most prominent of these, and throughout much of the middle ages the prince-bishops of Constance and the abbots of the monastery of St. Gall controlled as much territory as the lay lords. Zürich itself had once been owned, for example, by the Convent of Notre Dame, the Fraumünster, and Zwingli’s own town of Wildhaus was under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of Chur, although it belonged to the monastery of St. Gall, which had acquired it from the Counts of Toggenburg.
These princely jurisdictions, however, never successfully managed to prevent the emergence of the strong sentiments of regional independence that were to characterize Swiss political history between the thirteenth and the eighteenth centuries. The origins of this fierce localism are obscure, and the best characterization of its qualities is given by the modern English historian H. S. Offler:
Whatever the origin of this free element—which it is simpler, and perhaps safer, to regard as persisting from the time of the Germanic occupation—its importance, together with the necessity of the co-operation of all in the details of Alpine economy, had early promoted in the valleys the fusion of all the inhabitants into communities which in some sense overrode, though they did not abolish, the ordinary divisions of feudal lordship.5
This “freedom” was, of course, understood in the sense of freedom from excessive jurisdiction and interference on the part of an overlord in internal affairs, not political “freedom” in its later sense. Around the middle of the thirteenth century, as Habsburg dynasticism grew, the regional consciousness of the rural areas of central Switzerland became more articulate, and towns began to grow. Earlier rulers had encouraged the confederations of regions, primarily for commercial purposes, and before the expansion of Habsburg power they had generally left the government of these areas to the regions themselves. In the late thirteenth century the three “forest cantons,” Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden—all located around Lake Lucerne—formed a confederation for mutual defense. Between 1291 and 1314 they appear to have remained content with this loose arrangement, but their defeat of the forces of the Duke of Austria at Morgarten in 1315 welded the three cantons into a political unit. The Confederation increased in members throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Zürich joining it in 1351. By the late fifteenth century the Confederation had become involved in the larger quarrels of the principalities and kingdoms surrounding it. The imperial ambitions of the Habsburgs, the expansion and collapse of the great duchy of Burgundy, the recovery of France from the Hundred Years War and its subsequent expansionist designs, and the power of the Visconti and later the Sforza rulers of the duchy of Milan drew both Swiss mercenary soldiers and Swiss leaders into a complex and dangerous diplomatic orbit. The new-found importance of Swiss soldiers in the service of the papacy and other powers, and the consequent economic growth of the Confederation, placed understandable stresses upon the members of the Confederation and a number of internal rivalries developed, some of which were not to be resolved until the eighteenth century. Between 1483 and 1486, for example, the burgomaster of Zürich, Hans Waldmann, attempted to propel the city into a position of domination within the Confederation under his own despotic rule, and in the course of his attempt engineered a constitutional revolution within the city itself whereby the gild masters and merchants rose to a position of dominance over the older urban patriciate.6
During Zwingli’s own lifetime, then, the final stages of the expansion of the Swiss Confederation took place, as did the internal transformation of the city of Zürich. The late fifteenth-century revolution in the city had brought to power a coalition of wealthy gild masters and surviving patricians who ruled the city and the surrounding countryside and dominated appointments to political office. The economic life of the city had also changed in the course of the fifteenth century. The older industries—principally textile manufacturing in silk and wool—had suffered during the political turmoil of the 1440s, and Zürich slowly became a commercial, rather than a manufacturing town. In addition to commerce, much of Zürich’s wealth came from the income of mercenaries and recruiters, a weapons industry, and the lucrative administrative careers of Zürich’s citizens in the affairs of the neighboring rural areas. These areas, together with the city itself and several small towns in the district, had a population of around 60,000, about 5,000 in Zürich proper. Although the city was small and comparable in many respects to other early sixteenth-century towns, its unique place in the Swiss Confederation and its own internal development made it distinctive. It shared with other parts of the Confederation the income from and problems created by the extensive mercenary service of the Swiss, and it maintained contact with perhaps more of the world’s great powers than its size and location might otherwise suggest.
The late medieval city, as other towns besides Zürich show, did not necessarily have to be a proto-industrial, economically progressive, rationalistic urban cimplex in order to be a city. Patricians, gild masters, underemployed craftsmen, soldiers with an unusually high standard of living—but only intermittent employment—and clergy focussed their attention on the problems of the hour and looked to religion for an understanding of forces which they could not otherwise understand.
The ecclesiastical divisions of the Swiss Confederation were older than the political divisions. The six bishoprics of Basel, Geneva, Lausanne, Constance, Sion, and Chur were rendered weaker because of the irregularity of political and ecclesiastical territories. The vast wealth—and much of the temporal power—of the churches, monasteries, convents, and pilgrimage shrines of the Confederation had steadily decreased throughout the fifteenth century, as, indeed, had some of the spiritual prestige attached to them. The vogue of some shrines—such as that at Einsiedeln, where Zwingli was to be the resident priest from 1516 to 1518—continued, however, and the popular veneration of relics, in Switzerland as elsewhere during this period, seems to have increased as the fifteenth century drew to a close. The Great Minster (Grossmünster) of Zürich supported twenty-four canons, and the Fraumünster supported seven. The three city parishes had fifty-seven canons and priests, and the Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, and Béguine monasteries and convents included around two hundred monks, religious, and nuns. The city of Zürich itself was under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of Constance, whose power, like that of many other bishops, was great in direct proportion to its proximity. Zürich was largely free of episcopal interference in its day to day affairs. In the matter of personal spiritual life, there is little evidence that Zürich contained many conspicuously troubled consciences in the early sixteenth century. The pilgrimage to Einsiedeln was popular, and the affairs of the spirit appear to have been firmly under the control of the ecclesiastical officials and city magistrates. If the city was not especially troubled by religious doubt, however, its comfortable religion may well have been less than successful in dealing with those troubling social questions which became more acute after 1500—the propriety of mercenary service, the financial demands of the Church, the unrest of workers and soldiers alike whose work was intermittent and whose future was uncertain.
The secular life of Zürich was ruled by two councils. The Great Council numbered two hundred members, and the Little Council numbered fifty. The former was composed of the leaders of the gilds and cooperating patricians and was the real ruling body of the city. The Little Council was composed half of members of the Great Council and half from the remainder of the population. It administered the daily affairs of the city, and, with the Great Council, exerted considerable influence over ecclesiastical affairs as well. Two mayors—burgomasters—were the symbolic heads of the city-state. To a certain extent, this efficient government succeeded in keeping the tensions of the city under control. The issues of mercenary service and town relations with the recruiters of the great powers and underemployment of urban and rural workers remained just beneath the surface of political life, however, and, as was the case with other social problems during the late middle ages, these could not be considered as separable from religious concerns. Traditional tensions among the Swiss cantons were also evident around 1500. The urban and rural members of the Confederation (the word “canton” had been borrowed from France in the fifteenth century to designate the individual member states of the Confederation) differed in economic and political aims, and hence the Confederation as a whole was not as stable as later Swiss history might lead one to believe. Such religious dissent as was present—humanist and Erasmian among the learned and the patricians, and social and evangelical among the uneducated and poor—probably did not seem as dangerous as the political and economic problems which the city officials controlled. It was into this world of the city-state with its intermittent prosperity and social tensions that Ulrich Zwingli entered in 1518 as people’s priest at the Grossmünster.
[4. ]See E. Bonjour, H. S. Offler, and G. R. Potter, A Short History of Switzerland (Oxford, 1952).
[5. ]Ibid., 71.
[6. ]The consequences of this revolution are analyzed in A Short History of Switzerland, and the best study of the relation between Zürich’s social and political structure during Zwingli’s lifetime is Norman Birnbaum, “The Zwinglian Reformation in Zürich,” Past and Present, No. 15 (1959), 22-47.