Switzerland: A Village History

David Birmingham

Ohio University Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010 http://dannyreviews.com/
A history of the Swiss commune of Château d'Oex, in the eastern highlands of what is now Vaud, A Village History covers social and economic history in a regional context, as well as the complex intertwining of local, cantonal and national politics.

Château d'Oex lies in the valley of the Sarine, just on the French side of the language border.

"The tenth century Alemmanic colonisation of the eastern Gruyère highland never reached Château d'Oex but stopped at the gorge on the Sarine river called Vanel."

The local lords originally paid fealty to the House of Gruyère. But as the city state of Bern grew more powerful it extended into the highlands and reached for control of a route over the mountains to Italy. This brought a period of "dual citizenship" and in 1554 the transfer of Château d'Oex to Bern, after Gruyère fell into the hands of its creditors.

Incorporation into Bern brought a forced Reformation and the imposition of puritan social mores, notably in observance of Sundays, courtship and marriage customs, and attitudes to witchcraft and gambling. Birmingham also touches here on charitable works and the rudimentary public welfare system.

A chapter on the dairy industry describes changes in land use, how Gruyère and whey cheeses are made, and the seasonal and daily life of dairy workers. It features individuals such as Samuel Henchoz, "a landowner as well as being a soldier, a public servant, a moneylender, a farmer and an all-round entrepreneur", and Charles-Victor von Bonstetten, a Bernese noble who served as lord-bailiff at the end of the 18th century and who wrote an analysis of Swiss mountain society.

Fairs and markets were important events. Château d'Oex needed to export cheeses and to import the tools and salt needed to make them, which led to trade links with Vevey, Geneva, and even Lyon.

"The greatest change in transport policy in Château d'Oex, at least until the digging of the Jaman tunnel in 1904, was the eighteenth century construction of a cart track from the plain to the highland. This track was built on a wave of prosperity which led both Bern and Fribourg to build roads across the Swiss plain."

The French Revolution saw the defeat of Bern and the transfer of Château d'Oex to Vaud, confirmed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Religious conflicts were influenced by English dissenters, most notably the Plymouth Brethren who founded Darbyite churches. In 1845 a Radical government brought schism in the National Church of Vaud itself, with a Free Church surviving semi-clandestinely in Château d'Oex. And 1847 saw a broader Swiss civil war, on religious and political lines; Château d'Oex became one of three thousand boroughs in the resulting Confederation.

Returning to economics, Birmingham describes the shift to meat production and the rise of butchers, the role of bakers and millers, and candlestick-makers and other artisans.

"Since little or no vegetable oil was available the traditional fuel had been butter. ... The use of candles in a village built exclusively of timber was rigorously controlled by the police."

This is the opening for an account of the catastrophic fire of 1800. Other topics covered here include logging, with timber hauled down from the mountains and then floated down the river, cut paper art, and the failure of cottage industries other than the making of black lace bonnets.

The primary loyalties in Château d'Oex remained to Vaud long after the 1848 creation of the Swiss Confederation. Here Birmingham considers some of the national myths: the 1291 union, for example, became the founding date for Switzerland quite arbitrarily, as a convenient replacement for the 1191 founding of Bern, which was originally chosen for a 800th anniversary celebration. The First World War was the first real test of the national army, and food rationing and other controls greatly increased the presence of the federal state in Château d'Oex.

The Second World War brought general Guisan to unusual prominence for a Swiss leader. Château d'Oex hosted the Bank of International Settlements, relocated from Basel. But mobilisation failed to break down class boundaries or change the status of women. A Village History ends with a glance at some of the changes the next fifty years were to bring.

Birmingham draws on account books, records of legal cases, canton and commune histories, oral history, and an extensive range of other sources. These are described in seventeen pages at the end of A Village History with short summaries of the sources for each chapter, of interest even to those who won't ever consult the works mentioned. Other supplements include sixteen pages of b&w photographs, depicting landscapes and people and artifacts, and some simple but useful hand-drawn maps.

Switzerland: A Village History conveys something of how people have lived in Château d'Oex and how that has changed over time. This local history is nicely integrated into political history, with the details giving a feel for what the broader events actually meant "on the ground". It should interest anyone curious about Swiss rural history, but it could also be useful for students of broader European rural history.

August 2010

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- Jonathan Steinberg - Why Switzerland?
- more social history
%T Switzerland: A Village History
%A Birmingham, David
%I Ohio University Press
%D 1999
%O paperback, sources, index
%G ISBN 080401065X
%P 225pp