Zwingli: The Reformation in Switzerland



THE success of the Swiss cantons in repelling the assault of Charles the Bold (1477) strengthened their Confederation, fired their pride of nationality, and steeled them to withstand the attempt of Maximilian to subject them in fact as well as in theory to the Holy Roman Empire. Disputes over the division of the spoils after the defeat of Burgundy brought the cantons close to civil war; but at the Diet of Stans (1481) a hermit philosopher, Nikolaus von der Flüe—Brader Klaus in Swiss memory—persuaded them to peace.

Canton by canton the sturdy Confederation grew. Fribourg and Solothurn were admitted in 1481, Basel and Schaffhausen in 1501, Appenzell in 1513; now they were thirteen, all speaking German dialects, except that French too was spoken in Fribourg and Bern. They formed a federal republic: each canton regulated its internal affairs, but was governed in its external relations by a common legislature. The single chamber of this federal diet was composed of an equal number of deputies from each canton. Democracy was not complete; several cantons appropriated minor communities as voteless vassals. Nor was Switzerland as yet a model lover of peace. In 1500–12 the cantons took advantage of Italian disruption to seize Bellinzona, Locarno, Lugano, and other regions south of the Alps; and they continued to lease Swiss legions—with their consent—to foreign powers. But after the defeat of the Swiss pikemen at Marignano (1515) the Confederation renounced territorial expansion, adopted a policy of neutrality, and directed its virile peasantry, its skillful artisans, and its resourceful merchants in developing one of the most civilized civilizations in history.

The Church was as genial and corrupt in Switzerland as in Italy. She gave patronage and considerable freedom to the humanists who gathered around Froben and Erasmus at Basel. It was part of the moral tolerance of the age that most Swiss priests enjoyed the services of concubines.1 One Swiss bishop charged his clergy four guilders for every child born to them, and in one year garnered 1522 guilders from this source.2 He complained that many priests gambled, frequented taverns, and got drunk3—apparently without paying an episcopal fee. Several cantons—Zurich in particular—set up civic supervision of churchmen and taxed monastic properties. The bishop of Constance claimed all Zurich as his feudal fief, and demanded of it obedience and tithes; but the papacy was too enmeshed in Italian politics to support his claims effectively. In 1510 Pope Julius II, in return for some Genevese legions, agreed that the town council of Geneva should regulate the monasteries, convents, and public morals within its domain.4 So, seven years before Luther’s theses, the essence of the Reformation was achieved in Zurich and Geneva—the supremacy of secular over ecclesiastical authority. The path was cleared for Zwingli and Calvin to establish their diverse mergers of Church and state.

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