Of the Savages in the Swiss Mountains

The title page of this issue has never been included in this edition of the “Historical Tales”. That is why the book starts with the dedication to the flourishing Swiss.

Johann Jacob Bodmer, Historische Erzählungen die Denkungsart und Sitten der Alten zu entdecken (= Historic stories in order to find out more about the way of thinking and the morals of our ancestors)

Published by Orell, Geßner & Co. in Zurich 1769


They seem a bit dusty, those stories by Johann Jacob Bodmer, which he dedicated to the flourishing Swiss in 1769. Titles such as “The Power of the Fatherland”, “The Noble Farmer” and “The Customs of Old Innocence” quickly lead the modern reader to believe that this treatise is not about entertainment but about instruction. The youthful reader – particularly the Swiss, of course – should please take a look at how heroic, selfless and modest his ancestors were.

Johann Jakob Bodmer, painting by Johann Caspar Füssli, around 1748. Zurich Central Library.

A sugar-coated Past

That the past told by Bodmer had about as much to do with the real events as a modern Hollywood film has to do with current historical scholarship, is something the modern reader realizes after a few lines. Author Johann Jacob Bodmer, however, had a different view. For him, what he told was the essence of history. And he had a knowledge of the past that was quite profound for the time.

His father, a reformed pastor, had not only sent him to Latin school, but also to the Collegium Carolinum, the very institution from which Zurich University was to emerge. After that, Bodmer was actually supposed to become a merchant but he lacked the required talent. He was a bookworm who read with enthusiasm. He knew the old and new literature in German, French, English and Italian, worked as a translator – of Milton and Homer, among others – and as an publisher of, for example, the Codex Manesse and parts of the Song of the Nibelungs.

In 1731, the people of Zurich had appointed him as professor of Swiss history at his old alma mater, the Collegium Carolinum in Zurich. Thus the historical idylls in this volume were not written by just some amateur writer, but by a professional historian!

Learning from History?

However, the historical scholarship of the 18th century had a different objective than today. Its representatives were less concerned with reconstructing the past as accurately as possible, but rather with making the past useful as a model for the present. History was understood as an example to be followed by wise people in their actions.

But what was the model worth imitating in the 18th century? That was open to splendid debate. The Greeks and Romans of course put themselves forward. But Jean-Jacques Rousseau had introduced a new concept for discussion: He described the civilized man – and many readers will have nodded their heads in agreement with these words – as selfish, insincere and vain. The noble savage, on the other hand, he considered to be unspoiled. Nature itself had educated him to be the best possible man.

The Oath of the Confederates on the Rütli. Painting by Johann Heinrich Füssli, a friend of Johann Jacob Bodmer. Kunsthaus Zurich.

So Where is the Noble Savage?

But where was this noble savage to be found? In 1771, shortly after Bodmer’s booklet appeared, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, whom we really only know today because of the flower named after him, published his travelogue in which he located the earthly Garden of Eden in Tahiti.

Johann Jacob Bodmer had a different view. For him, the inhabitants of the Swiss Alps were at least as noble as the naked Tahitians. He considered them to be the only Swiss who, until his lifetime, followed the example of the old Swiss Confederates. (We may assume that Bodmer probably did not associate with any genuine Swiss mountain people.) The old Confederates of the late Middle Ages were to Bodmer what the South Sea islanders were to the French: Those people who hadn’t yet been corrupted by civilization in their natural morality. Everything that came after the Late Middle Ages was pure degeneracy for Bodmer.

Johann Jacob Bodmer was the first to compare the Swiss mountain people with Rousseau’s noble savages. And he conveyed his idea to the many visitors who frequented his Zurich “Haus zum Oberen Schönenberg”. Klopstock, Wieland, the two Weimar greats, probably told Johann von Goethe enthusiastically about the clever Swiss man with whom they had exchanged such excellent conversation. And so Goethe also visited Bodmer on one of his Swiss journeys.

Freedom Lives on the Mountains!

Bodmer influenced many people with his ideas, perhaps also – via Klopstock, Wieland and Goethe – Friedrich Schiller. His idea of the noble Swiss mountain dweller had virtually become common knowledge around 1800. His stories, which we find in this booklet, also contributed to this. For their young readers, they were a credible reflection of the past. Even though Bodmer of course admitted that he had selected and sugar-coated them, they were considered to be the true core of what happened, which, apart from tedious details, conveyed the spirit of the Middle Ages.

Bodmer is one of those who, with their work, fuelled the medieval longing of the Romantic period. Even though the Romanesque Middle Ages had just as little to do with the time of the Ottonians and Staufers as Bodmer’s Middle Ages.

But every era rewrites its history anew, just the way it needs to.


You can digitally browse through Bodmer’s booklet “Historische Erzählungen die Denkungsart und Sitten der Alten zu entdecken” yourself.