Saturday 1 August 2009
As they do every August 1, the Swiss commemorate on Saturday the pact signed by their forefathers in 1291.
But historian Georges Andrey draws swissinfo.ch’s attention to a few inconsistencies in the roots of Switzerland’s national day, which was created just over 100 years ago.
Legend has it that on August 1, 1291, amid continuing Habsburg repression, representatives from three forest cantons around Lake Lucerne — Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden — met on the Rütli meadow to sign a pact of eternal mutual defence. This is said to have laid the foundation of the Switzerland of today.
The Museum of Schwyz exhibits the only copy of the Federal Charter, owned by canton Schwyz, that survived the test of time.
However, for many years researchers have raised doubts about this version of events. Andrey, author of Swiss History for Dummies, explains the latest scientific consensus.
Federal Charter of 1291
The Federal Charter or Letter of Alliance (Bundesbrief) documents the Eternal Alliance or League Of The Three Forest Cantons (Ewiger Bund der Drei Waldstätten), the union of three cantons in what is now central Switzerland, traditionally dated in early August, 1291 and associated with the current August 1 national holiday. This agreement cites a previous (lost) similar pact.
This inaugural confederation grew through a long series of accessions to modern Switzerland. The Alliance was concluded between the people of the alpine areas of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden. The participants are referred to as conspirati and (synonymously) coniurati, traditionally translated in German as “Eidgenossen”.
The league was set up as a league for defence purposes against any attacker, probably prompted by the death of Rudolf I of Habsburg on 15 July 1291. Before his death, Habsburg attempted to reinforce his claim over Schwyz and Unterwalden which meant a succession of military interventions.
The authenticity of the letter is disputed. Most historians agree that it is almost certainly a product of the 14th century. In 1991, the parchment was radiocarbon dated to between 1252 and 1312 (with a certainty of 85%). The document is thus certainly unrelated to the emergence of the modern federal state in 1848, as had sometimes been suggested before the carbon dating. It should rather be seen in the context of chapter 15 of the Golden Bull of 1356, where Charles IV outlawed any conjurations, confederations, and conspirationes, meaning in particular the city alliances (Städtebünde), but also other communal leagues that had sprung up through the communal movement in medieval Europe.