In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Switzerland

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Historiographical Studies
  • Journals

Renaissance and Reformation Switzerland
Randolph C. Head, David Y. Neufeld
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0277


The Swiss Confederacy was a product of the late 14th and 15th centuries that occupied an increasingly anomalous place within the mostly Germanic Holy Roman Empire and the European political system during the 16th and 17th centuries. The evolution of its complex political and institutional fabric, which long rested on late medieval feudal and communal practices, was accompanied by the emergence of a distinctive historical mythology, centered on the figure of William Tell and the three “Urschweizer” forest cantons, that profoundly shaped understandings of the Confederacy both inside and outside its boundaries. The Confederacy garnered attention from European thinkers from time to time as a model alternative to the emerging system of absolute sovereign states—for example, during the Dutch Revolt and before the French Revolution—but otherwise remained little more than a footnote in broader histories of Europe. The extraordinary richness of Swiss source material, ranging from the early medieval holdings of abbeys such as St. Gall to the extraordinary illustrated urban chronicles of the 15th century to the remarkably intact series of administrative records of the Swiss cantons from the 16th century onward, also contributed to various historiographical movements as historians’ interests changed. Inside Switzerland, a dense tradition of local and regional history grappled with the epistemic potency of Swiss historical mythology through repeated waves of revision and restatement, beginning in the first published overview by Petermann Etterlin in 1507 (Kronica von der loblichen Eydtgnoschaft, jr harkommen und sust seltzam strittenn und geschichten [Basel, Switzerland: Mich. Furtter, 1507]) and continuing to the present. The profoundly federal nature of Swiss politics always shaped Swiss historical practice as well, however, so that even today, much of the best historical writing on Switzerland is cantonal or local in focus, even as it embodies larger historiographical currents. This article seeks to provide access to this complex historical terrain by concentrating on the political, social, and cultural history of the Swiss region in particular. Larger European movements with significant Swiss components—including Humanism, particularly in the person of Erasmus of Rotterdam; the printing industry, which flourished early on in Basel; and the artistic currents of the northern Renaissance—are not included, since they are better comprehended in their European scope. Many publications on Swiss history carry titles in German and French, and often also in Italian; here, only one title is given in most cases, depending on the origin and focus of the reference.

General Overviews

The constitutive role that history writing took for Swiss identity from the 15th century onward has resulted in a long tradition of historical surveys. The published chronicles of Petermann Etterlin (see Etterlin 1507) and other 16th-century authors combined mythography and historiography in a foundational way, as did the influential manuscript collections of Aegidius Tschudi (d. 1572), (published in the Quellen zur Schweizer Geschichte, cited under Political History). Historians of Switzerland recapitulated these authors’ formulations through the succeeding centuries, until the advent of modern historiography generated a series of new national and cantonal histories emerging around 1900, including works by Wilhelm Oechsli, Johannes Dierauer, and Karl Dändliker. While older works remain useful for their narrative detail, modern researchers should begin with the three generations of historical synthesis listed here. The Handbuch der Schweizer Geschichte is the most detailed, but generally takes a traditional narrative and intellectual history approach, and preceded the revisionist turn in Swiss political history of the 1970s and 1980s. The Nouvelle Histoire de la Suisse et des Suisses (Comité pour une Nouvelle Histoire de la Suisse 1982–1983) provides much less detail on politics, but adds substantial material on economic and social history. Comparable in total scope, Kreis 2014 incorporates the fruits of the last decades of research. Maissen 2010 is pointillist in approach, but reflects the scholarly consensus on major issues. Bonjour 1955 is now dated, if still useful for its treatment of foreign affairs, but readers should look to Church and Head 2013 for the best English-language overview. With Holenstein 2015, these works position Swiss history in relation to a broader European context. Ceschi 2000 covers the often-neglected Italian Switzerland with current scholarship. Finally, the historical atlas Amman and Schib 1958 is essential for understanding the complex spatial articulation of premodern Switzerland in various aspects.

  • Amman, Hektor, and Karl Schib. Historischer Atlas der Schweiz. 2d ed. Aarau, Switzerland: Sauerländer, 1958.

    An essential resource for understanding the complex geographical dimensions of political, economic, and religious matters in Switzerland.

  • Bonjour, Edgar. A Short History of Switzerland. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955.

    Superseded by Church and Head 2013, but still useful owing to the author’s particular expertise in diplomatic history.

  • Ceschi, Raffaello, ed. Storia della Svizzera italiana: Dal Cinquecento al Settecento. Bellinzona, Switzerland: Edizioni Casagrande, 2000.

    This new volume, with contributions from many scholars active in Italian Switzerland, places their region fully into the flow of the Confederacy’s history.

  • Church, Clive, and Randolph Head. A Concise History of Switzerland. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139013765

    An accessible and learned work of synthesis, structured in terms of political history. The authors place institutional developments within changing social and economic contexts and highlight the enduring impact of myths embedded in the Confederacy’s political culture. Consistent consideration of these particularities in light of European and global developments gives the authors grounds to reexamine when and how Switzerland has represented an exceptional case.

  • Comité pour une Nouvelle Histoire de la Suisse, ed. Nouvelle Histoire de la Suisse et des Suisses. 3 vols. Lausanne, Switzerland: Payot, 1982–1983.

    A group project inspired by the Annales approach sweeping European historiography in the 1970s. Although not as detailed in its narrative elements as the Handbuch der Schweizer Geschichte, this work systematically includes demographic and economic history, and is thus an essential supplement to the Handbuch in these areas, as well as conveying a more critical approach to the mythical dimensions of Swiss historiography. Also published in German and Italian.

  • Etterlin, Petermann. Kronica von der loblichen Eydtgnoschaft, jr harkommen und sust seltzam strittenn und geschichten. Basel, Switzerland: Mich. Furtter, 1507.

    The first published work dedicated specifically to the history of the Swiss Confederation as a single entity. Etterlin’s chronicle contributed significantly to the circulation of the canonical narrative of development that identified the Confederation’s origins in the three Forest Cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden with the oaths among the three communities’ leaders and the deeds of William Tell. There are a number of modern reprints as well as a digitized version available online.

  • Handbuch der Schweizer Geschichte. 2 vols. Zurich, Switzerland: Verlag Berichthaus, 1972–1977.

    Provides detailed narratives and historiographical context, with exhaustive references to the older literature. Walter Schaufelberger’s chapter on the 15th century strongly reflects its author’s preoccupation with military history, while Leonhard von Muralt’s chapter on the Renaissance and Reformation concentrates on intellectual history from a primarily Protestant perspective.

  • Holenstein, André. Mitten in Europa: Verflechtung und Abgrenzung in der Schweizer Geschichte. Baden, Switzerland: Hier + Jetzt, 2015.

    Stimulated by current debates regarding Switzerland’s relationship to Europe, Holenstein recasts Swiss history as essentially transnational. His treatment of the Confederation’s premodern history foregrounds economic, military, political, and cultural interconnectedness with Europe. The fact that such linkages contributed to the structures that undergird the modern federal state should shape Swiss self-image, he argues. Exclusivist elements of Swiss national identity, such as the discourse and practice of neutrality, were constructed in response to undesirable foreign ascriptions.

  • Kreis, Georg, ed. Die Geschichte der Schweiz. Basel, Switzerland: Schwabe, 2014.

    As a collective project with ambitions of comprehensiveness, a successor to Comité pour une Nouvelle Histoire de la Suisse 1982–1983, but one in which political history provides a common thread linking eleven principal chapters shaped by the research and methodological specializations of leading scholars. Strong chapters on the Early Modern period highlight confessional, economic, and demographic developments. Twenty-two short essays on more limited topics provide fascinating supplements to the chronological narrative. Notable for the diversity of contributors in national origin, language, and gender.

  • Maissen, Thomas. Geschichte der Schweiz: Schweizer Geschichte auf den Punkt gebracht. Baden, Switzerland: Hier + Jetzt, 2010.

    A recent effort to identify critical moments in Switzerland’s history, built up as a mosaic rather than as a systematic narrative. The author’s broad expertise in modern as well as early modern history lends additional authority to the perspectives it conveys.

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