Zurich's history

09 Dec 2016

Romans and Schwyzerdüütsch (100BC - X Century)
Though human history in Zurich began before the Romans, it seems it was they who gave the city its name. Around 15 BC they established a military base at the site of today’s Lindenhof which was called Turicum, and as later inhabitants weren’t so fluent in Latin, it gradually became the slightly more callous ‘Zurich’. On Lindenhof you can find a copy of the Roman tomb stone mentioning Turicum. Roman rule ended around 400 AD and nobody really has any idea what went on in Zurich for the next few centuries. One important change that falls into this obscure period is the arrival of the Germanic tribe of the Allemanni, who brought with them the language that was to become today’s Swiss German dialect (Schwyzerdüütsch). By the 9th Century Zurich was part of the Carolingian empire and according to legend the emperor Charlemagne founded Zurich’s main cathedral, the Grossmünster. Maybe the man himself never actually turned up in Zurich, but the kings of the Franks did have a secondary residence, a pfalz, on the Lindenhof.

Zurich in women’s hands (XII-XIV Century)
In the 13th Century Zurich became an imperial city, answering only to the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire which had grown out of the Carolingian Empire. Formally Zurich was now headed by a woman - the abbess of the Fraumünster abbey, who however shared power with an elected reichsvogt, the emperor’s representative. In 1336 times began to change. An uprising of Zurich’s craftsmen made the newly founded guilds the foundation of Zurich’s political structure, weakening the power of the church and the landed gentry. Even today people who matter in Zurich belong to one of the zünfte (guilds) and the Sechseläuten procession in April is their celebration (see Basics for the exact date). Many of the guild houses, still in use today, are now also restaurants like the Zunfthaus Zur Schmiden or the Zunfthaus am Neumarkt.

Zurich goes Swiss… (XIV-XVI Century)
The guild revolution left Zurich a little isolated, which led to its alliance with the founding cantons of the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1351. So Zurich joined ‘Switzerland’, which had existed as a treaty since 1291. This however didn’t stop the city waging war against fellow cantons, such as with Schwyz which got in the way of Zurich’s plans for territorial expansion. Soon the city ruled over lands all around Lake Zurich and north all the way to the Rhine and drew its wealth from craft production, trading across the Alps and the contracting of mercenaries to foreign powers. Soldiers from the Swiss cantons armed with pike and halberd were sought-after mercenaries who fought in all major armies in Europe - occasionally even against each other. They had gained a reputation as formidable fighters, due amongst other things to the victories of the Swiss cantons over the Habsburg king’s forces trying to rein them in. Mercenary service wasn’t appreciated by all though. It was connected to corruption and moral decay and came to be criticised more and more in the early 16th Century.


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