To Stab the French!

Unrest on the River Banks of the Reuss

On 1 September 1512, a letter was written to the city council of Lucerne that described recent, rather unusual events that threatened to break the peace.

Staatsarchiv Luzern, AKT 13/3456, Projekt eines Attentates auf den französischen Agenten auf der Reuss bei Merenschwand, Kundschaft, 1. 9. 1512.

The letter, from an anonymous writer, describes what seems to be a plan by locals to attack a convoy of people from France who were travelling on the river Reuss. He shares the results of his inquiries into the planned attack by detailing to the city council what he had learned from different people he had interviewed. He himself was not involved with this proposed action. The letter was written in Merenschwand, a village under the rule of Lucerne and situated next to the river Reuss, which represented the border between the city states of Lucerne and Zurich. Both sides of the Reuss, and the river itself, feature heavily in the narrative (see Map1 and Map2).

Map 1: This detail of a map by Jos Murer from 1566 shows the concerned region, the villages mentioned in our source are highlighted. The dotted line on the river Reuss represents the border between the territories of Lucerne and Zurich.

Eigendtliche und grundtliche Verzeichnung aller Stetten, Graffschafften, Herrschafften, Landen, Gerichten und Gebieten so einer Statt Zürych zugehörig […] zu Zürych : by Christoffel Froschower, 1568.
Universitätsbibliothek Basel, Kartenslg Schw Ca 1.
Map 2: The two villages Merenschwand and Maschwanden and their location between the cities Lucerne and Zurich. In 1512, Merenschwand belonged to Lucerne and Maschwanden to Zurich.
GoogleMaps, 5. 9. 2019.

The first witness is Hans Wy of Merenschwand. He states that, as he was threshing grain in front of his home, five armed people came down the river Reuss, and that he recognised them as being from the Zurich side of the river. Curious at the sight of these armed men, Wy inquired after their business, but to no avail. He later heard from a boy that “sÿ wend die franntzosen stechen” (they want to stab the French). Our anonymous writer also managed to talk to this boy himself, who seemed to have confirmed the statement.

First paragraph of the letter.
Staatsarchiv Luzern, AKT 13/3456, Projekt eines Attentates auf den französischen Agenten auf der Reuss bei Merenschwand, Kundschaft, 1. 9. 1512.

The next witness is Hans Maler, also from Merenschwand, whose testimony provided more concrete details. He describes an event in Maschwanden, a village on the Zurich side of the Reuss (see Maps 1 and 2), where a group of armed men were also seen passing through. He stated that the local innkeeper, upon seeing the men, asked what they were doing and they told him that they were after some Frenchmen, who they wanted to capture. Here we learn, that the supposed French must have been travelling by boat on the Reuss. Upon hearing that the armed men wanted to “schuffen und stechen” (hit and stab) the French, the innkeeper went to get his harness and pike and joined them in their mission. He was not, however, alone: apparently the whole village solidarized with them and joined in.

Last paragraph of the letter.
Staatsarchiv Luzern, AKT 13/3456, Projekt eines Attentates auf den französischen Agenten auf der Reuss bei Merenschwand, Kundschaft, 1. 9. 1512.

Hans Maler further relates to our anonymous author that a local official instructed the people that, at his order, they should throw stones at the French if they refused to come ashore. Who exactly this local official was and where his authorities lay is unclear.

Another official, Felix Schwend, had a different stance on the matter. He was an important official from Zurich, as he represented the city’s jurisdiction in this region of the Zurich city state. Schwend told the people that he would not help them kill the French, but he would also not hinder them. Schwend, who had been a city councilman in Zurich and part of the “Constaffel” society, belonged to the ruling elite of Zurich.[1] With this in mind, it is not surprising that he would not support such an unlawful attack, but he was clearly also not a part of the pro-French faction either.

Finally, in the last segment of the letter, we learn a little more about this French convoy on the river Reuss. They were probably travelling from Lucerne, where they had secured a deal to hire mercenaries. We know this because, as Maler says, he was not willing to help kill the French, even for a 100 gulden: another replied, in turn, that he would do it for less, “wann sin herrn inn nitt gleitt geben hetten” (if his lords did not give them escort. Meaning mercenaries). Since we can assume that this person is also from Merenschwand, “sin herrn” would refer to the city council of Lucerne. This is further supported by the fact that the Frenchmen were travelling down the Reuss, as it flows down the region from Lucerne.

It is important to remember that this document has to be analysed in the context of the Italian Wars and the ongoing discussions and discontent regarding the “Pensionen”. This was a practice in which money was given, either to a Swiss political body or individual person, from a foreign ruling elite to gain political favour and access to Swiss mercenaries. The French kings were chief agents in this market. This led to a series of revolts by the rural populace in the Swiss Confederation, known as the “Pensionenunruhen”: they include the curiously named “onion war” (1513-1515) in Lucerne and “gingerbread war” (1515) in Zurich among others.[2] They exemplify the deep discontent held by the rural populace against the “Pensionenwesen”: our document gives us a fascinating glimpse into the growing dissatisfaction of the people in the rural areas of Lucerne and Zurich against the urban, pro-French elites. The authorities in Lucerne therefore had good reasons for wanting to know exactly what had happened in the region of Merenschwand, who was involved, and what they did. It is further noteworthy, that the anonymous author of the “Kundschaft” only mentioned people in the jurisdiction of Zurich actively participating in the planned attack, while the people of Merenschwand are all described as mere onlookers. This could well be a deliberate narrative to appease the city council of Lucerne.

Whether or not the attack was actually carried out has not been determined thus far. Further sources from Lucerne, such as the minutes of the city council, make no mention of this matter. It may, however, be possible to find additional information in the Zurich state archives.

[1] Dütsch, Hans-Rudolf. Die Zürcher Landvögte von 1402-1798, Ein Versuch zur Bestimmung ihrer sozialen Herkunft und zur Würdigung ihres Amtes im Rahmen des zürcherischen Stadtstaates (Zürich, 1994), p. 228.

[2] About the pensionen and the Pensionenunruhen in depht: Rogger, Philippe. Geld, Krieg und Macht. Pensionsherren, Söldner und eigenössische Politik in den Mailänderkriegen 1494–1516 (Baden 2015).

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