In This Article Switzerland

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

Renaissance and Reformation Switzerland
Randolph C. Head, David Y. Neufeld
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • 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 provides much less detail on politics, but adds substantial material on economic and social history. Maissen 2010 is pointillist in approach, but incorporates the current literature and consensus on major issues. Bonjour 1955 is dated, but in English and good on foreign affairs, while Ceschi 2000 covers the often-neglected Italian Switzerland with current scholarship. Finally, the historical atlas in 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.

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    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.

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    Still useful owing to the author’s particular expertise in international history and the history of foreign affairs, as well as the history of Swiss neutrality.

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

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

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

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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

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    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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