Renaissance and Reformation William Tell
Marc H. Lerner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0457


William Tell (Wilhelm, Guillaume) is the name of a legendary Swiss hero from Canton Uri in the present-day Swiss Confederation. From the first recorded appearances of Tell in the late 15th century until the Revolutionary Era of the late 18th century, the symbol of William Tell has been used in a variety of ways to shape the cultural mythology of Switzerland, Europe, and the Atlantic world. According to a variety of Swiss foundation myths, Tell stood up to tyranny in the late 13th or early 14th century and helped secure Swiss liberty by defeating (or helping to defeat) the tyrant known as Gessler. Most of the tales present Tell as a humble, virtuous citizen of the canton who refused to bow down to the arbitrary symbols of a tyrant’s authority. In reaction to Tell’s defiance, the tyrant forced Tell to shoot an apple off Tell’s son’s head, promising both father and son their freedom if Tell were successful. However, upon discovering a second arrow hidden on Tell’s person, which threatened the tyrant, Gessler tried to imprison Tell. A sudden storm, possibly divinely inspired, allowed Tell to escape the ship with his life and kill Gessler in revenge, while a Swiss uprising overthrew the tyrannical government. Differences in content and interpretation of the various Tell stories result from the answers to several questions: Did Tell plan and lead the revolt? Did he take part in the foundational oath at the Rütli Meadow, the mythical birthplace of the Swiss Republics? Did the revolt target local aristocrats or a foreign tyrant? Usually the Tell story broke into two camps: one supporting the elite leadership of the Swiss republics, and the other demanding more popular sovereignty. In this breakdown, Tell either acted in defense of his family against the foreign tyrant or sought to overthrow local, aristocratic rule, signaling a more popular rebellion. Eventually, these interpretations were easily expanded beyond Swiss boundaries and were used to support or challenge elite-led governments outside the Swiss Republics. During the Revolutionary Era, the figure of Tell evolved into a transnational proxy in an ongoing battle between those who saw true liberty as self-rule, free from the intervention of foreigners, and those who saw liberty as an egalitarian principle, available to the entire male citizenry.

General Overviews

A wide variety of works are available that offer a general introductory overview of the William Tell legend from the first recorded appearance of the story in historical chronicle, song, and play form from the late-15th- and early-16th-century songs and chronicles. De Capitani 2013 gives an introduction to the topic in the online Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz (HLS). Bergier 1988 (published in German in 1990) has a worthwhile bibliography reflecting the state of the field at the time and aims for a general audience. Labhardt 1947 gives a summary of the early development of the Tell legend before delving into the Swiss and French events of the Revolutionary Era. Morerod and Näf 2010, an edited volume, provides excerpts from some of the primary texts from 15th and 16th centuries, and contributions also provide historical analysis. Heinemann 1902, Stunzi 1973, and Heuser and Wirtz 2007 introduce the massive number of graphic representations of the Tell story. Lily Stunzi’s volume provides a more general overview as well. Kreis 2004 (cited under Historical Origins) provides essential context by providing background on a linked foundational tale about the Rütli Meadow. Marchal 1990 (cited under Historical Origins) gives essential context to understanding the period in which the Tell stories were first written down. Blatter and Groebner 2016 includes a wide-ranging introduction to the topic, which is informed by the latest research and is quite accessible to the general reader. Berchtold 2004 gives a 19th- and 20th-century overview. Tschan 2000 is also a useful introduction.

  • Berchtold, Alfred. Guillaume Tell: Résistant et Citoyen du Monde. Geneva, Switzerland: Editions Zoé, 2004.

    Berchtold has a short introduction of the Tell legend before Friedrich Schiller but focuses most of his attention on how Schiller’s version changed the uses of William Tell and how later versions of the story evolved.

  • Bergier, Jean-François. Guillaume Tell. Paris: Fayard, 1988.

    This “biography” of William Tell is about the memory of a hero, whose actual existence cannot be verified. Bergier attempts to discuss the context from which the William Tell stories arise. There are three parts: the context of the origins of the Tell story, the testing of the legend, and the transformation of Tell. Bergier allows for the possibility of Tell having existed, though not in the same form as the retellings of the tale.

  • Blatter, Michael, and Valentin Groebner. Wilhelm Tell Import-Export: Ein Held unterwegs. Baden, Switzerland: Hier und Jetzt, 2016.

    This accessible book, based on recent research, provides historical background and discusses the chronicles’ development in their own political context, the different versions of the tale in content and medium (chronicles, songs, plays), and the international spread of the story over time.

  • De Capitani, François. “Wilhelm Tell.” In Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz. Bern, Switzerland: HLS, 2013.

    The introductory entry in the premier online historical dictionary of Swiss history, written by qualified experts. De Capitani was a leading commentator on early modern Swiss cultural history and popular symbols. He covers the historical origins of the tale, the evolving cultural representation of the hero, the international spread, and the critical response to the stories.

  • Heinemann, Franz. Tell-Iconographie: Wilhelm Tell und sein Apfelschuss im Lichte der Bildenden Kunst eines halben Jahrtausends (15.–20. Jahrhundert). Lucerne, Switzerland: Geschwister Daleschal’s Buchhandlung, 1902.

    Introduction of the iconography side of Tell research. An older book, but covers much of the early iconography and symbolic importance of the William Tell image and character.

  • Heuser, Mechthild, and Irmgard M. Wirtz, eds. Tell im Visier. Bern, Switzerland: Verlag Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007.

    Catalogue of an exhibition held at the Schweizerische Nationalbibliothek, Bern, 16 November 2007–30 March 2008.

  • Labhardt, Ricco. Wilhelm Tell als Patriot und Revolutionär 1700–1800: Wandlungen der Tell-Tradition im Zeitalter des Absolutismus and der französischen Revolution. Basler Beiträge zur Geschichtswissenschaft 27. Basel, Switzerland: Verlag von Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1947.

    Labhardt provides background on the first recordings of the Tell legend in song and chronicle form. He traces these recordings through the 17th century before focusing on the 18th century in Switzerland and France. It is an in-depth work, which includes important details on the spread of Tell to France and the expansion and high point of the Tell cult in the French Revolutionary arena, but it does not go beyond Switzerland and France.

  • Morerod, Jean-Daniel, and Anton Näf, eds. Guillaume Tell et la libération des Suisses. Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Société d’Histoire de la Suisse Romande, 2010.

    This is an explicit attempt to bring the Tell discussion to the French-speaking public. It provides an overview of the early Swiss liberation stories from 1420 to 1525 and provides excerpts of sixteen of the texts of the liberation stories. The editors see a narrow version of the Liberation myth that does not involve Tell and a later, inclusive version that includes the figure of William Tell.

  • Stunzi, Lily, ed. Tell: Werden und Wandern eines Mythos. Bern, Switzerland, and Stuttgart: Hallwag Verlag, 1973.

    Broad-ranging and accessible introduction to many different aspects of Tell scholarship: the debate over origins, the international spread of the tale in the 18th century, and a presentation of many images of Tell in all of his varieties. This was an outgrowth of a Du magazine issue from August 1971 (see Stunzi 1971, cited under Global Turn).

  • Tschan, Reto. “The Re-Appropriation and Transformation of a National Symbol: Wilhelm Tell 1789-1895.” Masters Thesis, University of British Columbia, 2000.

    Tschan's work is a useful general introduction and specifically useful for Schiller's relationship with Müller and the initial, uneven reception of Schiller's Tell in Switzerland.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.