Online Encyclopedia


Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V26, Page 576 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Spread the word: it!
WILLIAM TELL. The story of William Tell's skill in shooting at and striking the apple which had been placed on the head of his little son by order of Gessler, the tyrannical Austrian bailiff of Uri, is so closely bound up with the legendary history of the origin of the Swiss Confederation that they must be considered together. Both appear first in the 15th century, probably as results of the war for the Toggenburg inheritance (1436—50); for the intense hatred of Austria, greatly increased by her support of the claims of Zurich, favoured the circulation of stories which assumed that Swiss freedom was of immemorial antiquity, while, as the war was largely a struggle between the civic and rural elements in the Confederation, the notion that the (rural) Schwyzers were of Scandinavian descent at once separated them from and raised them above the German in-habitants of the towns. The Tell story is first found in a ballad the first nine stanzas of which (containing the story) were certainly written before 1474. There is no mention made of the names of the bailiff or of his master, or of the hat placed on a pole. Tell is called " the first Confederate," and his feat is treated as the real and only reason why the Confederation was formed and the tyrants driven out of the land. It is probably to this ballad that Melchior Russ of Lucerne (who began his Chronicle in 1482) refers when, in his account (from Justinger) of the evil deeds of the bailiffs in the Forest districts, he excuses himself from giving the story. He goes on to narrate how Tell, irritated by his treatment, stirred up his friends against the governor, who castle on the lake of Lucerne, when a storm arose, and Tell, by reason of his great bodily strength, was, after being unbound, given charge of the rudder on his promise to bring the boat safely to land. He steers it towards a shelf of rock, called in Russ's time Tell's Platte, springs on shore, shoots the bailiff dead with his crossbow, and goes back to Uri, where he stirs up the great strife which ended in the battle of Morgarten. In these two accounts, which form the basis of the Uri version of the origin of the Confederation, it is Tell and Tell only who is the actor and the leader. We first hear of the cruelties of Austrian bailiffs in the Forest districts in the Bernese Chronicle of Conrad Justinger (1420). No names or details are given, and the dates are different in the two recensions of the Chronicle as " olden days before Bern was founded " (i.e. before 1191) and 126o. Several details, but only one name, are added in the De Nobilitate et Rusticitate Dialogus (cap. 33) of Felix Hemmerli, a canon of Zurich, who wrote it after 1451 and before 1454; in this last year he was imprisoned by the Schwyzers, whom he had repeatedly insulted and attacked in his books. According to him the men of Schwyz and of Unterwalden were the first to rise, those of Uri following suit much later But neither Justinger nor Hemmerli makes any allusion to Tell, or his feat. The Tell story and the " atrocities " story are first found combined in a MS. known as the White Book of Sarnen. They are contained in a short chronicle written between 1467 and 1476, probably about 1470, and based on oral tradition. Many details are given of the oppressions of the bailiffs: we hear of Gessler, of the meeting of Stoupacher of Schwyz, Furst of Uri, and a man of Nidwalden at the Rfitli,- -in fact, the usual version of the legend. To give an instance of tyranny in Uri, the author tells us the story of the refusal of " der Thall " to do reverence to the hat placed on a pole, of his feat of skill, and of his shooting the bailiff, Gessler, from behind a bush in the " hollow way " near Kiissnacht. Tell is represented as being one of those who swore at the Rutli to drive out the oppressors; but the narrative of his doings is merely one incident in the general movement which began quite independently of him. The chronology is very confused, but the events are placed after Rudolf's election to the empire in 1273. This is the only account in which Tell is called." der Thall," which name he himself explains by saying, " If I were sharp (witzig) I should be called something else and not der Tall," i.e. the simpleton or slow-witted man. (It is worthy of notice that the same meaning is attributed to the name of Tokko, the hero of a similar legend in Gheysmer's abridgment of the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, which may, somehow, have influenced the Swiss version.) The only other known instances of the Uri version of the legend relating to the origin of the Confederation are the Latin hexameters of Glareanus (1515), in which Tell is compared to Brutus as " assertor patriae, vindex ultorque tyrannum," and the Urnerspiel (composed in 1511—12), a play acted in Uri, in which Russ's version is followed, though the bailiff, who is unnamed, but announces that he has been sent by Albert of Austria, is slain in the " hollow way." Tell is the chief of the Ri.itli leaguers, and it is his deed which is the immediate occasion of the rising against the oppressors, which is dated in 1296. Mutius (1540) is the latest writer who, in his description of the origin of the Confederation, does not mention Tell and his act. The two stories are now firmly bound together; the- version contained in the White Book is the accepted one, though small additions in names and dates are often made. The task of filling up gaps, smoothing away inconsistencies, rounding off the tale, was accomplished by Giles Tschudi (q.v.), whose recension was adopted, with a few alterations, by Johannes von Muller in his History of the Confederation (178o). In the final recension of Tschudi's Chronicle (1734-36), which, however, differs in many particulars from the original draft still preserved at Zurich, we are told how Albert of Austria, with the view of depriving the Forest lands of their ancient freedom, sent bailiffs (among them Gessler) to Uri and Schwyz, who committed many tyrannical acts, so that finally on 8th November 1307, at the Rutli, Werner von Stauffacher of Schwyz, Walter Fiiret of Uri, Arnold von Melchthal in Unter- 1 walden, each with ten companions, among whom was William Tell, resolved on a rising to expel the oppressors, which was fixed for New Year's Day 1308. A few days later (November 18) the Tell incident takes place (described according to the White Book version), and on the appointed date the general rising. Tschudi thus finally settled the date, which had before varied from 126o to 1334. He utterly distorts the real historical relations of the Three Lands, though he brings in many real historical names, their owners being made to perform historically impossible acts, and introduces many small additions and corrections into the story as he had received it. In particular, while in his first draft he speaks of the bailiff as Gryssler—the usual name up to his time, except in the White Book and in Stumpff's Chronicle of 1548—in his final recension he calls him Gessler, knowing that this was a real name. Later writers added a few more particulars, that Tell lived at Burglen and fought at I Iorgarten (1598), that he was the son-in-law of Furst and had two sons (early 18th century), &c. Johannes von Muller (178o) gave a vivid description of the oath at the Riitli by the three (Tell not being counted in), and threw Tschudi's version into a literary form, adding one or two names and adopting that of Hermann for Gessler, calling him of " Bruneck." Schiller's play (1804) gave the tale a world-wide renown. The story was, on the ground of want of evidence, regarded 1 as suspicious by Guilliman in a private letter of 1607, and doubts were expressed by the brothers Iselin (1727 and 1754) 1 and by Voltaire (1754); but it was not till 1760 that the legend was definitely attacked, on the ground of its similarity to the story of Tokko (see below), in an anonymous pamphlet by Freudenberger, a Bernese pastor. This caused great stir; it was publicly burnt by order of the government of Uri, and many more or less forged proofs and documents were produced in favour of Tell. The researches of J. E. Kopp (Urkunden zur Geschichte d. eidgenossischen Biinde, 2 parts, 1835 and 1851, and Geschichte der eidgenossischen Bunde, vol. ii., 1847), first cleared up the real early history of the league, and overthrew the legends of the White Book and Tschudi. Since then many writers have worked in the same direction. Vischer (1867) has carefully traced out the successive steps in the growth of the legend, and Rochholz (1877) has worked out the real history of Gessler as shown in authentic documents. The general result has been to show that a mythological marksman and an impossible bailiff bearing the name of a real family have been joined with con-fused and distorted reminiscences of the events of 1245–47, in which the names of many real persons have been inserted and many unauthenticated acts attributed to them. Th. von Liebenau has, however, shown (in an article reprinted from the Katholische Schweizerbldtter in the Bollettino Storico della Svizzera Italiana for 1899) that in 1283 the Emperor Rudolf of Habsburg i gave the right of receiving the tolls for escort over the St Gotthard Pass to his sons, the dukes of Austria. The levying of these tolls gave rise to various disputes between the men of Uri and the bailiffs of the dukes of Austria, and by 1319 (if not already in 1309) the claim to levy them was silently given up. These facts show (what could not hitherto be proved) that at the time when legend places the rising of Uri, Tell exploit, &c., the dukes of Austria really had disputes with Uri. The story of the skilful marksman who succeeds in striking some small object placed on the head of a man or child is very widely spread; we find it in Denmark (Tokko), Norway (two versions), Iceland, Holstein, on the Rhine, and in England (William of Cloudesley). How it came to be localized in Uri we do not know; possibly, through the story of the Scandinavian colonization of Schwyz, the tale was fitted to some real local hero. The alleged proofs of the existence of a real William Tell in Uri in the 14th century break down hopelessly. (I) The entries in the parish registers are forged. (2) As to the Tell chapels—(a) that in the " hollow way " near Kiissnacht was not known to Melchior Russ and is first mentioned by Tschudi (1572).(b) That on Tell's Platte is first mentioned in 1504. The document which alleges that this chapel was built by order of a " landsgemeinde " held in 1388, at which 114 men were present who had been personally acquainted with Tell, was never heard of till 1759. The procession in boats to the place where the chapel stands may be very old, but is not connected with Tell till about 1582. (c) The chapel at Burglen is known to have been founded in 1582. Other documents and statements in support of the Tell story have even less claim to credit. It has been pointed out above that with two exceptions the bailiff is always called Gryssler or Grissler, and it was Tschudi who popularized the name of Gessler, though Grissler occurs as late as 1765. Now Gessler is the name of a real family, the history of which from 1z5o to 1513 has been worked out by Rochholz, who shows in detail that no member ever played the part attributed to the bailiff in the legend, or could have done so, and that the Gesslers could not have owned or dwelt at the castle of Kiissnacht; nor could they have been called Von Bruneck. In the Urnerspiel the name of the bailiff's servant who guarded the hat on the pole is given as Heintz Vogely, and we know that Friedrich Vogeli was the name of one of the chief military officers of Peter von Hagenbach, who from 1469 to 1474 ad-ministered for Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, the lands (Alsace, &c.) pledged to him by Sigismund of Habsburg. Now Hagenbach is known to have committed many cruelties like those attributed to the bailiffs in the legend, and it has been plausibly conjectured that his case has really given rise to these stories, especially when we find that the Confederates had a hand in his capture and execution, that in a document of 1358 Hagenbachs and Gesslers appear side by side as witnesses, and that the Hagenbachs had frequent transactions with the Habsburgs and their vassals. In general see two excellent works by Franz Heinemann, Tell-Iconographie, Lucerne, 1902 (reproductions, with text, of the chief representations of Tell in art froth 1507 onwards), and Tell-Bibliographie (including that of Schiller's play), published in 1908 at Bern. Among the vast number of books and pamphlets on the Tell story, the two most to be recommended are W. Vischer, Die Sage von der Befreiung der Waldstdtte (Leipzig, 1867), and E. L. Rochholz, Tell and Gessler, with a volume of documents 1250–1513 (Heilbronn, 1877). Convenient summaries of the controversy will be found in any modern book on Swiss history, and more particularly in G. von Wyss, Ober d. Gesch. d. drei Lander—Uri, Schwyz, u. Unterwalden —in den Jahren 1212–1315 (Zurich, 1858) ; Alf. Huber, Die Waldstdtte bis zur festen Begrundung ihrer Eidgenosseltschaft, mit einem Anhange fiber die geschichtliche Stellung des Wilk, Tell (Innsbruck, 1861); Albert Rilliet, Les Origins de la Confederation Suisse, histoire et legende (Geneva, and edition, 1869) ; and S. Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, ch. v. (new edition, London, 1884). The setting up in 1895 in the market-place in AItdorf of a fine statue (by the Swiss sculptor Richard Kissling) of Tell and his son, and the opening in 1899, just outside Altdorf of a permanent theatre, wherein Schiller's play is to be represented every Sunday during the summer months, show that the popular belief in the Tell legend is still strong, despite its utter demolition at the hands of a succession of scientific Swiss historians during the 19th century. A. Gisler of Altdorf (in his book, Die Tellfrage, Bern, 1895) has also made an attempt to rehabilitate it from the purely historical point of view. He is well acquainted with all the researches that have been made, but tries to save Tell's refusal to do reverence to the hat, his leap from the boat in the lake, and his slaying of the bailiff in the " hollow way." To effect the rescue of these incidents, he boldly admits the forgeries in the registers, abandons all the traditional dates, throws over Tschudi's account, and regards the shooting by Tell of the apple from his son's head as an " ornamental addition " to the tale. Save a mention of the Tell chapel on " Tellsplatte " in 1504 (the first known before was that by Tschudi in 1572), and a proof that the pilgrimages to Burglen and Steinen had nothing to do with " St Kummerniss," as her images are preserved in the parish churches of those villages, whereas the pilgrims go to the chapels therein, he brings forward no new evidence. , His book is a striking proof that the popular Tell legend cannot claim the support of authentic history, while his attempt to find room for the atrocities of the wicked bailiffs elsewhere than at Altdorf consists only in suggesting an intricate series of possibilities, none of which are supported by any positive evidence. In his pamphlet Die Sagen v. Tell u. Stauffacher (Basel, 1899) August Bernoulli, and in his elaborate Geschichte d. Schweiz. Politik (vol. i. Frauenfeld, 1906) J. Schollenberger, have applied the same sort of method, but without attaining any greater degree of historical success. (W. A. B. C.)
End of Article: WILLIAM TELL

Additional information and Comments

There are no comments yet for this article.
» Add information or comments to this article.
Please link directly to this article:
Highlight the code below, right click and select "copy." Paste it into a website, email, or other HTML document.