1902 Encyclopedia > Arnold von Winkelried

Arnold von Winkelried
A legendary hero of Swiss history




WINKELRIED, ARNOLD VON. The incident with which this name is connected is, after the feat of Tell, the best known and most popular in the early history of the Swiss Confederation. We are told how, at a critical moment in the great battle of Sempach, when the Swiss had failed to break the serried ranks of the Austrian knights, a man of Unterwalden, Arnold von Winkelried countrymen, though at the price of his own life. But the now and then a real historical name) do imaginary and impossible deeds at a very uncertain period, in the latter we have some solid ground to rest on, and Winkelried's act might very well have been performed, though, as yet, the amount of genuine and early evidence in support of it is very far from being sufficient.

The Winkelrieds of Stanz 1 were a knightly family Winkelried acting as a witness to a contract of sale on May 1, 1367, while the same man, or perhaps another member of the family, Erni von Winkelried, is plaintiff in a suit at Stanz on September 29, 1389, and in 1417 is the points, Was he present at the battle, and did he then perform the deed commonly attributed to him ? involving a minute investigation of the history of that battle, to ascertain if there are any authentic traces of this incident, or any opportunity for it to have taken place.

Evidence of Chronicles. - The earliest known mention of the incident is found in a Zurich chronicle (discovered in 1862 by Herr G. von Wyss), which is a copy, made in 1476, of a chronicle written in or at any rate not earlier than 1438, though it is wanting in the 16th-century transcript of another chronicle written in 1466, which up to 1389 closely agrees with the former. It appears in the well-known form, but the hero is stated to be " ein getriiwer man under den Eidgenozen," no name being given, and it seems clear that his death did not take place at that time. No other mention has been found in any of the numerous Swiss or Austrian chronicles till we come to the book De Helvetii Origin, written in 1538 by Rudolph Gwalther (Zwingli's son-in-law), when the hero is still nameless, being compared to Decins or Codrus, but is said to have been killed by his brave act. Finally, we read the full story in the original draft of Giles Tschudi's chronicle, where the hero is described as "a man of Unterwalden, of the Winkelried family," this being expanded in the final recension of the chronicle (1564) into "a man of Unterwalden, Arnold von Winckelried by name, a brave knight," while he is entered (in the same book, on the authority of the "Anniversary Book" of Stanz, now lost) on the list of those who fell at Sempach at the head of the Nidwald (or Stanz) men as "Herr Arnold von Winckelriet, ritter," this being in the first draft "Arnold Winckelriet."

Ballads. - There are several war songs on the battle of Sempach which have come down to us, but in one only is there mention of Winkelried and his deed. This is a long ballad of 67 four-line stanzas, part of which (including the Winkelried section) is found in the additions made between 1531 and 1545 to Etterlin's chronicle by H. Berlinger of Basel, and the whole in Werner Steiner's chronicle (written 1532). It is agreed on all sides that the last stanza, attributing the authorship to Halbsuter of Lucerne, "as he came back from the battle," is a very late addition. Many authorities regard it as made up of three distinct songs (one of which refers to the battle and Winkelried), possibly put together by the younger Halbsuter (citizen of Lucerne in 1435, died between 1470 and 1480), though others contend that the Sempach-Winkelried section bears clear traces of having been composed after the Reformation began, that is, about 1520 or 1530. Some recent discoveries have proved that certain statements in the song usually regarded as anachronisms are quite accurate ; but no nearer approach has been made towards fixing its exact date, or that of any of the three bits into which it has been cut up. In this song the story appears in its full-blown shape, the name of Winckeiriet being given.

Lists of Those who Fell at Sempach. - We find in the "Anniversary Book" of Emmetten in tin terwalden (drawn up in 1560) the name of "der Winkelriedt " at the head of the Nidwald men ; and in a book by Horolanus, a pastor at Lucerne (about 1563), that of "Erni Winckelried." occurs some way down the list of Unterwalden men.

Pictures and Drawings. - In the MS. of the chronicle of Diebold Schilling of Bern (c. 1480) there is in the picture of the battle of Sempach a warrior pierced with spears falling to the ground, which may possibly be meant for Winkelried; while in that of Diebold Schilling of Lucerne (1511), though in the text no allusion is made to any such incident, there is a similar picture of a man who has accomplished Winkelried's feat, but he is dressed in the colours of Lucerne. Then there is an engraving in Stumpfs chronicle (1548), and, finally, the celebrated one by Hans Rudolph Manuel (1551), which follows the chronicle of 1476 rather than the ballad.





The story seems to have been first questioned about 1850 by Moritz von Stiirler of Bern, but the public discussion of the subject originated with a lecture by Prof. 0. Lorenz on " Leopold III. and die Schweizer Biinde," which he delivered in Vienna on March 21, 1860. This began the lively paper war humorously called " the second war of Sempach," in which the Swiss (with but raro exceptions) maintained the historical character of the feat against various foreigners - Austrians and others.

Most of the arguments against the genuineness of the story have been already more or less directly indicated. (1) There is the total silence of all the old Swiss and Austrian chroniclers until 1538, with the solitary exception of the Zurich chronicle of 1476 (and this while they nearly all describe the battle in more or less detail). The tale, as told in the 1476 chronicle, is clearly an interpolation, for it comes immediately after a distinct statement that "God had helped the Confederates, and that with great labour they had defeated the knights and Duke Leopold," while the passage immediately following joins on to the former quite naturally if we strike out the episode of the "true man," who is not even called Winkelried. (2) The date of the ballad is extremely uncertain, but cannot be placed earlier than at least 60 or 70 years after the battle, possibly 130 or 140, so that its claims to be regarded as embodying an oral contemporary tradition are of the slightest. (3) Similar feats have been frequently recorded, but in each case they are supported by authentic evidence which is lacking in this case. Five cases at least are known : a follower of the count of Hapsburg, in a skirmish with the Bernese in 1271 ; Stiilinger of Ratisbon in 1332, in the war of the count of Kyburg against the men of Bern and Solothurn ; Conrad Royt of Lucerne, at Nancy in 1477; Herni Wolleben, at Frastenz in 1499, in the course of the Swabian war; and a man at the battle of Rappel in 1531. (4) It is argued that the course of the battle was such that there was little or no chance of such an act being performed, or, if performed, of having turned the day. This argument rests on the careful critical narrative of the fight constructed by Herr Kleissner and Herr Hartmann from the contemporary accounts which have come down to us, in which the pride of the knights, their heavy armour, the heat of the July sun, the panic which befell a sudden part of the Austrian army, added to the valour of the Swiss, fully explain the complete rout. Herr Hartmann, too, points out that, even if the knights (on foot) had been ranged in serried ranks, there must have been sufficient space left between them to allow them to move their arms, and therefore that no man, however gigantic he might have been, could have seized hold of more than half a dozen spears at once.

Herr K. Dirkli (Der Wahre Talctik der alien Urschweizer, Zurich, 1886) has put forth a theory of the battle which is, he allows, opposed to all modern accounts, but entirely agrees, he strongly maintains, with the contemporary authorities. According to this the fight was not a pitched battle but a surprise, the Austrians not having had time to form up into ranks. Assuming this, and rejecting the evidence of the 1476 chronicle as an inter- polation and full of mistakes, and that of the song as not proved to have been in existence before 1531, Herr Biirkli comes to the startling conclusion that the phalanx formation of the Austrians, as well as the name and act of Winkelried, have been transferred to Sempach from the fight of Bicocca, near Milan (April 27, 1522), where a real leader of the Swiss mercenaries in the pay of France, Arnold Winkelried, really met his death in very much the way that his namesake perished according to the story. Herr I3iirkli confines his criticism to the. first struggle, in which alone mention is made of the driving back of the Swiss, pointing out also that the chronicle of 1476 and other later accounts attribute to the Austrians the manner of attack and the long spears which were the special characteristics of Swiss warriors, and that if Winkelried were a knight (as is asserted by Tschudi) he would have been clad in a coat of mail, or at least had a breastplate, neither of which could have been pierced by hostile lances.

Whatever may be thought of this daring theory, it seems clear that, while there is some doubt as to whether such an act as Winkeiried's was possible at Sempach, taking into account the known details of the battle, there can be none as to the utter lack of any early and trustworthy evidence in support of his having performed that act in that battle. It is quite conceivable that such evidence may later come to light; for the present it is wanting.






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