A Short History of Switzerland

By E. Bonjour; H. S. Offler et al. | Go to book overview
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VI
THE HEROIC AGE

The fifteenth century. Judged by the standard of political significance for Europe, the fifteenth century is the supreme age of Swiss history. Between 1415 and 1525 the confederation achieved greatness: the emperor was brought to realize that his nominal subjects had escaped from his authority, but could be induced to offer him help; the kings of France let no opportunity slip of improving relations with these rough German fighters, while Burgundy, Savoy, Venice, and, almost more than any, the papacy, watched anxiously the proceedings of the frequent, cumbrous, and usually inconclusive diets in which a slight approximation to agreed Swiss policy was reached. During the years of transition from fèudal armies to national armies, the Swiss were better able to wage successful war than any other community in Europe. A threat, or apparent threat, to their independence, an appeal to the needs and greed of poor peasants, adroit flattery, successful invocation of the claims of religion, or even skilful bribery of the few men who knew something of Europe and of the management of their fellows, could bring out an armed force of disciplined brave men whose fire-power and weight of advance made them formidable beyond their numbers, which were considerable. It was only when artillery became a decisive factor in armed conflicts that war ceased to be the only profitable national industry of Switzerland. There was a moment at the beginning of the sixteenth century when the united cantons were a great power, and when decisive action might have made the confederation as influential as the kingdom of France, but, fortunately for humanity, unity and aggressive decision were alike lacking, and variety continued to be the characteristic and the attraction of these peoples.

Most of the energy of this most active of centuries was consumed in what would be described in English or French history as civil war. It was essential that between the Rhine and the Rhone there should be sufficient community of purpose to ensure that the homes and possessions of the valley-dwellers should be safe, if necessity or interest should call away the majority of the able-bodied males.

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