These days, we tend not to assume that Switzerland is the “land of the Switzers”, partly because that sounds a bit silly, somehow. However, nobody should be laughed at if they did think this – it turns out that one of the legends about the origin of the name is one of those “fighting brothers” stories, and the immigrant Alemann who won the fight got to name the land they were occupying – Suit, or Swit, they say his name was. See! Not far to Suittersland and Switzerland, then…
Swit must have lived a long time ago, before even the Romans came over the Alps, and his little piece of paradise was a small, fairly flat valley deep among some very high mountains (literally the things myths are made of – the Mythen) but with easy access to two lakes as well, the smaller Lauernzer and the much larger Lake Lucerne, which has fingers clamped along several valleys, so making transport and commerce fairly easy.
Now, of course, we know that this tiny canton was one of the first, founding cantons (along with Uri and Unterwalden) and that its flag is the basis of our country’s flag – However, I was surprised to find that it was quite difficult to actually find out much about the village of Schwyz itself apart from some standard information, but as ever in this country, there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of interest in the history of it, how it grew, why there are some very elegant 19th century properties or even why the hugely dominating St. Martin’s church is so incredibly enormous. Only that it all burned down in the 17th century and had to be rebuilt. After most of the villagers had died of the plague a few years earlier. The fact that it is a village – 14000 inhabitants these days – rather than a town is already a little puzzling, since it’s the capital of the canton (though there are other cantons where this is the case, e.g. Appenzell) and it has an elaborate painted town hall that holds extremely important documents, like those which show how Switzerland was founded in 1291!
Which leads me to one of the oldest, if not the oldest, building I could find, the Archive Tower. Built in the 13th century, or even as early as 1200, it doesn’t seem to have been used for defence for very long and was soon given over as a prison and treasury, plastered over, made to look more modern, a separate staircase built on and finally in the 1930s, taken back to bare stone – and then pretty much left to it. It’s now tucked in behind other buildings…
Apparently, the Bet(h)lehem house is also famed for its age, celebrated as the oldest wooden house in Europe and dating to around 1287. It looks very much like any other old house in the area, partly plastered foundations and weathered old wood exterior. It doesn’t look as if anyone is very interested in it, either. (Though it is part of the Ital Reding museum in a large 17th century house and I will try to visit when it’s open in the summer months.) The original village of Schwyz is squashed and huddled, despite open areas, while all through and around it there have grown late 20th and early 21st century concrete boxes, both for commercial and residential use. If the church wasn’t so domineering, you might not notice you’d actually driven through the middle of Schwyz, which grows seamlessly into several other villages these days, but try as I might, I could not find any old photographs or lithographs of how Schwyz looked up to the mid-20th century (since it probably looked much the same for several hundred years!). This little picture doesn’t do it justice, and the massiveness of the church doesn’t come over, either, though otherwise it looks much the same as in 1890… Somehow, I feel a bit sorry for Schwyz. So important and yet so obscure. The canton is a rich one with land in extremely lucrative places where taxes are low and the proportion of millionaires very high, but right in the very heart of it, where Switzerland began, is a quiet, sleepy little place without much sense of its history or value (except to a lucky few, I suppose, who will have a tiny historical society somewhere!), and which can’t really compete – even that monster of a church is dwarfed by the world-famous monasterial one at Einsiedeln (also canton Schwyz)…
In all the years I have lived here, I stopped in Schwyz for the first time today. It was nearly the last day of a lovely little exhibition of modern paper cuts – and really, a very fitting location for a craft that seems as quintessentially Swiss as could possibly be…
Ueli Hauswirth – Wild und Wald
The exhibition is now moving on to the Château de Prangins for the rest of the spring and summer; this craft has a very popular tradition in the Pays d’Enhaut area of the Suisse Romande.
Those interested in the craft may already know that paper-cutting is quite the trend – check out http://www.designsponge.com/2013/02/25-amazing-papercut-artists.html or google Rob Ryan paper cuts…Mind-boggling!
I’m considering nominating you as the official historian for Swiss culture or whatever more serious title the job deserves. There is an enormous amount of cultural wealth that is totally ignored and – dare I say it – disrespected, which is astounding in a country where tourism is so important. You have a book to write, methinks!
Not too long ago, a young black emigrant woman wrote and illustrated a history of Switzerland, hoping that it would be picked up in schools etc. At the time I saw a couple of articles about it and thought ah well, she’s pipped me to the post. I never heard if it was published or seen it for sale and it’s certainly not made any waves – telling?!
It takes more than one little ripple to make a wave! Get in there and start splashing!
Swissrose will also get my vote as chief historian 🙂 Thank you very much for shining some light on what I think is suck a beautiful part of the country, and so rich with history. I visited the museum after I rode the tourist boat on the lake and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who happens to be in the area. I just wish I had known about the Bet(h)lehem house! Next time…
Thanks, I’ll keep it in mind! You might enjoy some of my other Swiss ramblings in the archives, then… 😉
I thinkthat the interesting past is often obscured by the “touristic” past. Once something becomes part of the standard history then the rest tends to fall by the sidelines. I wonder if Schwyz was more well known in the 13th century?
I think so, too, Gillie. Schwyz was important for a very short slot of time in the 13th and beginning of the 14th centuries and after that, it was the bigger towns like Lucerne, Zurich and Berne joining the confederation which soon dominated. It was all about protection from the Habsburgs in those days, and what was the lesser evil.
However, it’s also true that history is not a popular subject in this country – particularly noticeable when you have an English background rich with kings, queens and juicy goings-on! At school there is very little emphasis and it’s treated in a very old-fashioned way and history in primary school is really only mentioned at all if you happen to live somewhere that had Roman and/or mediaeval activity, as we did, so a bit one-sided; they get about 2 years worth of history at an ordinary secondary school (to cover everything from dinosaurs to WWII and beyond) before leaving at 15/16, and ironically, you only get more history if you go to grammar school to prepare for university entrance in 13 subjects, so not much time there, either (and that’s less than 20% of young people). Hence the sad fact that history is considered dull and unimportant by most here.
How sad. It is impossible to understand how we live today without having any knowledge of how our ancestors lived and why they lived that way. Is there any interest in family history and genealogy? At university I had a Swiss/English boyfriend. His father was from the Lugano area and his first language was Romanche (sp?) He (the boyfriend) would have loved to have known more about his Swiss heritage, but there didn’t seem to be the same interest in keeping family trees that we have here (I for example have a family tree that goes back to the 1500s and my husband has one going back to a similar era and we are not particularly “posh” our families merely kept records.
That’s amazing Gillie! No, although the Swiss are often proud of their name/heritage, they don’t seem to be into genealogy much. My mom is doing really well and also has found family right back to mediaeval times through her research on her own family; on my husband’s side they have always had a long family tree because the surname is a Huguenot one and ancestors well documented – but no real idea of where in France it came from, as the trail stops when the family fled to Germany…
Ooh I have a friend who does papercutting, I will share that Design Sponge link with her. The stones in that old building are so beautiful! Switzerland is on our list for our next European holiday. Thank you so very much for your absolutely wonderful comment on my latest post. I adored reading more about you and your thoughts. And yes, you’re right, sometimes there is a little envy isn’t there? Hugs.
Undoubtedly! Aren’t there some fantastically ethereal papercuts around?!
Thanks for this 🙂 I’ve been wanting to go to Schwyz for a while, but haven’t made it yet – always so many other things to do! I’ve got a hope of getting to the exhibition when it comes to Prangins though, so I will look out for it.
The exhibition isn’t huge but there is so much intricate work to admire, as well as the art, that if you’re really interested you could spend ages! It’s themed, too – I gather the cutters were given several subjects to work around, so the interpretation is fascinating, too. Schwyz is certainly worth a visit, but plan to include other places like Altdorf when you do – and/or go hiking higher up towards Morgarten and you can put the historical facts together, too 😉 (You might like to read Canadian J.K. Swift’s “Altdorf” and “Morgarten” before you do – fictionalised history but still very well written and nobody else seems to have bothered!)
Good old Huguenots. My (catholic) stepfather has a jolly good family tree on the Huguenot side of the family 🙂
Yes, poor things – what times they lived in 😮 How ironic that your Catholic stepfather is from a Huguenot family!
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