The Confederation before 1798: Switzers, Swiss and Helvetians

The origins of modern Switzerland date back to the developments that took place between the founding of the Helvetian Republic in 1798 and the founding of the Federal State in 1848. The history of the Confederation, however, is substantially longer. The Swiss Federal Archives contain various documents from the time before 1798.

On the term "Helvetian"

The so-called Helvetians are named in various ancient texts, for instance in documents authored by Caesar. The Helvetians were a Celtic tribe that settled mainly in the midlands. The area that makes up modern Switzerland was also settled by many other tribes.

From the Switzers to the Swiss

In 1291, the three cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden concluded the regional Waldstätte Alliance, which was sealed by the Federal Charter of 1291. The Schwyzer, or Switzers, soon became well known far and wide thanks to the significant role they played in the Waldstätte Alliance and the importance of their troops as mercenaries. As a result, the surrounding German-speaking regions started to refer to all confederates as "Schwyzer". The spelling changed over the course of time from "Schwyzer" (Switzer) to "Schweizer" (Swiss).

The term "Schweiz" (Switzerland) attained common usage during the 17th and 18th centuries. However, the competing terms "Helvetia" and "Helvetian" continued to exist. The term "Switzerland" did not manage to oust "Helvetia" completely. The Helvetian Republic was proclaimed in 1798 under pressure from the occupying French forces. The proclamation went hand in hand with the creation of centralised political bodies. The Central Archives, a predecessor of the current Swiss Federal Archives, were also established during this time. The Latin designation "Confoederatio Helvetica" appears increasingly on official documents, coins and seals following the founding of the Federal State in 1848. Finally, the abbreviation "CH" became established as an acronym for Switzerland and Swiss products.

Documents predating 1798 held by the Federal Archives

The Central Archives founded in 1798 were appointed to collect the manuscripts of the new state. Documents from the time preceding the proclamation of the Helvetian Republic remained in the state archives of each canton. The Swiss Federal Archives therefore hold but a few manuscripts predating 1798. The following provides an overview of the most significant fonds.

Collection of manuscripts

Diplomats, archivists, historians and theologists were appointed by the newly founded Central Archives to research foreign archives and libraries for documents relating to Swiss history and to transcribe them. The main topics to which these manuscripts relate are:

  • Wars of Burgundy and Milan
  • Reformation and contra-reformation
  • Thirty Years' War
  • Spanish Succession
  • Times of the Revolution and Napoleon
  • Times of the Sonderbund (Separatist League)
  • Founding of the Federal State
  • Crises of Neuchâtel and Savoy
  • The two World Wars

The manuscripts relate mainly to diplomatic, economic and military aspects. The entire inventory of the manuscript collection (PDF, 141 MB, 28.09.2012) is searchable online in German.

Private archives

The Swiss Federal Archives own various private archives from the time preceding the proclamation of the Helvetian Republic in 1798. Among them are manuscripts of the Italian nuncio and subsequent cardinal Marcello D’Aste (1691-1695) and the French envoy in Solothurn Jacques Le Fèvre de Caumartin (1641-1648).

The fonds of the Swiss mercenaries

The Swiss Federal Archives also contain documents on Swiss mercenaries in foreign employment. The mercenaries had their heyday between the 15th and 18th century before becoming outlawed with the founding of the Federal State.

The Swiss Federal Archives hold documents on Swiss mercenaries in French (1474-1899), British (1855-1885), Spanish (1734-1835), Dutch (1819) und Neapolitan (1827-1860) service and in Service to the Vatican (1829-1863).

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Last modification 04.11.2019

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