In all probability the legend of Tell and the apple originated in Scandinavia, and was brought by the Alemanni into Switzerland; as into other lands.
Continuing First Swiss Struggle for Liberty,
our selection from The Model Republic; a History of the Rise and Progress of the Swiss People by F. Grenfell Baker published in 1805. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in five easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in First Swiss Struggle for Liberty.
William Tell is supposed to have performed his heroic deeds in or about the year 1291, and not till between 1467 and 1474 are his acts recorded, when in a collection of the traditions of the Canton of Unterwalden, transcribed by a notary at Sarnen, an account is given of the apple episode and the subsequent escape of the famous archer, and his murder of Gessler, though nothing is said of his having taken part in a league to free his country or of his being the founder of the confederation. A little prior to the compilation of the White Book of Sarnen, as this collection is called, an anonymous poet composed a Song of the Origin of the Confederation, in which, although no reference is made to Gessler, the other details are related concerning William Tell shooting at the apple, the revolt of the peasants, the expulsion of the bailies, and the formation of a patriotic league. It is, of course, quite possible that a Gessler was killed by the peasants, as the name was common enough at the time, but no member of that family — the records of which have now been most carefully traced — held any office under the Austrians at that period in any of the Waldstaette, nor is it at all probable that Austrian bailies governed the districts later than 1231. Neither is it possible for a bailie named Gessler to have occupied the castle at the date assigned, the ruins of which have so long been pointed out as being those of his former abode. So, also, the celebrated Tell’s Chapel on the Vier Waldstaette See, at Kuesnach, was certainly not built to commemorate the exploits of Schiller’s and Rossini’s Swiss hero.
“The fact is that in Gessler we are confronted by a curious case of confusion in identity. At least three totally different men seem to have been blended into one in the course of an attempt to reconcile the different versions of the three cantons. Felix Hammerlin, of Zurich, in 1450, tells of a Hapsburg governor being on the little island of Schwanan, in the lake of Lowerz, who seduced a maid of Schwyz, and was killed by her brothers. Then there was another person, strictly historical, Knight Eppo, of Kuesnach, who, while acting as bailiff for the Duke of Austria, put down two revolts of the inhabitants in his district, one in 1284 and another in 1302. Finally, there was the tyrant bailiff mentioned in the ballad of Tell, who, by the way, a chronicler, writing in 1510, calls, not Gessler, but the Count of Seedorf. These three persons were combined, and the result was named Gessler.”
Moreover, it is extremely doubtful whether the green plateau of the Ruetli below Seelisberg, and some six hundred and fifty feet above the lake, with its miraculous springs, ever witnessed the patriotic gathering of the thirty-three peasants who, tradition asserts, there formed the league against Austrian rule, or heard the solemn oath they and their leaders, Stauffacher, Fuerst, and Arnold, mutually swore.
In all probability the legend of Tell and the apple originated in Scandinavia, and was brought by the Alemanni into Switzerland; as into other lands. Saxo Grammaticus, in the Withina Saga, places the scene of a very similar story in that country, some three hundred years before the appearance of the Swiss version, and tells of a certain Danish king named Harold, the counterpart of Gessler, and one Toki, who played the same rôle enacted by Tell. Like legends are also related of Olaf, Eindridi, and an almost identical one to that of William Tell of Egil, who, being ordered by King Nidung to shoot an apple off the head of the son of the former, took two arrows from his quiver and prepared to obey. On the King asking why he had selected two arrows, Egil replied, “To shoot thee, tyrant, with the second, should the first fail.”
Neither are similar narratives absent from the legends of other countries. Thus Reginald Scott says: “Puncher shot a penny on his son’s head, and made ready another arrow to have slain the Duke of Rengrave, who commanded it.” So also similar incidents occur in the tales of Adam Bell, Clym of the Clough, and William of Claudeslie in the Percy Ballads, and in the legends of many places in Northern Europe. On this subject Sir Francis Adams mentions, in a note to his valuable book on the Swiss Confederation, that a well-known citizen of Berne, in answer to his inquiry as to whether Tell ever existed, replied: “Not in Switzerland. If you travel in the Hasli districts you will find a distinct race of men, who are of Scandinavian origin, and I believe that their ancestors brought the legend with them.” To this it may be added that philologists have long since traced the rude dialect of Oberhasli to its Scandinavian sources, and the physical characteristics of the people mark them as of different racial origin from those around them.
At the period these events were in progress, or, rather, about the time that the Austrian bailies were expelled, toward the close of the thirteenth century, the Emperor’s attention was too fully occupied conducting a war against the Bishop of Basel to allow him to enforce his authority among the revolted Waldstaette. He did not, however, allow the peasants for long to enjoy the fruits of their energetic and successful action, as some six months later he headed a large army with which he intended to enforce obedience. The expedition thus begun led to Albert’s tragic death, and reared another step leading to the final independence of the Swiss. On reaching Baden, in the Aargau, a halt was made in order to deliberate on the best mode of punishing the rebels. Here a general council of nobles decided, after careful deliberation, on the route to be taken, and the nature of the measures best calculated to enforce Albert’s authority. On May 1, 1308, the Emperor, with a few followers, returned to Rheinfelden, in order to visit the Empress Elizabeth, preparatory to marching against the Waldstaette. Shortly before this time Albert had had a violent quarrel with his nephew John, son of Duke Rudolph of Swabia, touching the youth’s paternal inheritance, which he persistently declined to allow John to take possession of, and whom he had, moreover, publicly insulted by offering him a coronet of twigs as the only recompense for his just claims.
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