Swiss Civilisation in the Age of the Reformation

Whereas during the epoch of the Reformation and CounterReformation the political development of Switzerland took an unsatisfactory turn, it was otherwise with the general civilisation of the country. Switzerland played a leading part in the moral and intellectual process of rejuvenescence which the Reformation signified for Europe. Side by side with Luther and Melanchthon, the Swiss Reformers Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bullinger, Calvin and Beza were the fathers of Protestantism; side by side with Wittenberg, Zurich and Geneva were its most notable centres. John Bale, the bishop of Ossory, wrote:

Had it not been that at Wittenberg Luther, the Atlas of the Christian doctrine, at Zurich Zwingli, the unconquered advocate of the pure truth and its confessor at the cost of his own blood, at Basel Oecolampadius, a shining light in God's house, opened for us the living sources of Holy Writ, there would have been no place on earth where Christ could lay his head.

In the sixteenth century the Swiss theologians occupied a position comparable to that held in the eighteenth by the French Encyclopaedists. Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin and Beza corresponded with the spiritual and temporal leaders of the Reformation in Germany, France, Great Britain, Hungary and Poland; with the landgrave of Hesse, the Elector Palatine, the prince de Condeé, King Anthony of Navarre and Queen Jeanne d'Albret, Christian II of Denmark, Edward VI and Elizabeth of England and Lady Jane Grey. Their writings were disseminated throughout the world in reprints or translations. Even the theologians of the second rank, such as Leo Judä, Bibliander, Gwalter, Pellicanus and Petrus Martyr in Zurich, Grynäus, Simon Sulzer and Borrhaus in Basel, and Viret in Lausanne, were men of European reputation. The Helvetic Confession, drawn up by Bullinger and printed in Zurich in 1566, was adopted by the Elector Palatine, by the Waldenses of Piedmont, by the Scottish Reformers, and by those of Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, Transylvania and Holland, being regarded as a summary of the commonly held doctrine of all the Reformed Churches, which all pastors had to accept upon oath.

Equally good was the repute of the Swiss high schools. In Basel the university, profoundly affected by the withdrawal of the Humanists, was now re-established; and its reputation continued to increase through the work of distinguished men of learning, until towards the end of the sixteenth century. The high school founded by Zwingli in Zurich, the Carolinum, was regularly attended by Frenchmen, Italians, Netherlanders, Germans, Bohemians, Poles and Russians. The Englishman, Thomas Coryat, wrote of it in 1611:

For though it be no Vniuersitie to yeeld degrees of Schoole to the students, yet it hath bred more singular learned writers (at the least in my poore opinion) than any one of the famousest Vniuersities of all Christendome, especially Diuines, and such as haue consecrated their name to posterity euen til the end of the world by their learned works. . . . Howbeit I doe not by this praise of Zurich derogate frome the learned men of mine owne country. For I am perswaded that our two famous Vniuersities of Oxford and Cambridge do yeeld as learned men as any in the world; but for the quantity (not the quality) of writing the Tigurines without doubt haue the superioritie of our English men.

The most celebrated of all was the Academy of Geneva. Here, besides great theologians, there were at work philologists and jurists of the first rank, who gave the place the highest renown. From all the countries of Europe where there were Protestants, from the courts of the princes and the castles of the nobles, young men greedy for learning flocked to Geneva. In an album which began in Geneva in the year 1581 giving the names of all the princes, counts and nobles who studied in the town, we find the arms and signatures of the counts and barons of Nassau, Salm, Sayn-Wittgenstein, Rutland, Ostrorog, Labischin, Zerotin, of Antony Bacon, the brother of the philosopher, of Robert Devereux son of the Lord Essex who was executed in 1601, etc. The Huguenot academies of Orthez, Orange, Saumur and Montauban, and the high school of Leyden, were all founded after the Genevese example; while the Scottish universities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen and St Andrews were reconstituted on similar lines.

The intellectual activity awakened in Switzerland by the Reformation was by no means wholly absorbed in theology. Classical and oriental philology was diligently cultivated as the necessary basis for the return to primitive Christianity. In Geneva the celebrated printers, Robert and Henri Estienne, were distinguished for their editions of the Greek classics, which covered almost the entire field of Greek literature, and became proverbial for their beauty and accuracy, while in their Thesaurus Linguae Graecae ( Geneva, 1572) they became the founders of Greek lexicography. Isaac Casaubon (born in 1559 at Geneva, died in 1614 in London), one of the greatest philologists of all time, taught in the Academy of Geneva until 1596, when he was summoned to France, and subsequently in 1608 to England. The brilliant Joseph Scaliger, the founder of the sciences of epigraphy, numismatics and chronology, taught for a time in Geneva.

In Basel there lived the versatile Sebastian Münster, first among Germans to publish the Bible in the original Hebrew, but still better known through his Cosmographia Universalis (1544), the first comparative treatise on man founded upon a geographical basis -- a work which speedily ran through twenty-four editions and was translated into most European tongues. Bibliander, the Zurich Orientalist, founded the study of Mohammedanism, publishing the Koran for the first time in 1543, after a severe contest with the Basel censorship. He had to secure the approval of Luther before the Basel Town Council gave permission for the printing of the Turkish Bible. Johann Buxtorf of Basel and his son were regarded as the first Orientalists of their time. The Lexicon Chaldaicum, Talmudicum, et Rabbinicum, the Concordantiae Bibliorum Hebraicorum and other works written by the father and published by the son, served in many respects to lay the foundations of Semitic philology.

In the transition from Humanism to the mighty development of the natural sciences, Conrad Gesner ( 1516-65) physician and professor at Zurich, was an intermediary. In many fields he was one of the most industrious scholars of the sixteenth century. In the endless series of his philological, medical and other scientific works, there may be mentioned as of leading importance the Bibliotheca Universalis ( Zurich, 1545-55), a huge collection in which Gesner laid the foundation of bibliography; the Historia Animalium ( Zurich, 1551-8), through which he became the father of zoology; and his great work upon plants, which was not published until the eighteenth century, the Stirpium Historia ( Nuremberg, 1753-9). Gesner discovered, named, and described a large number of animals and plants; he was the first to recognise the significance of the reproductive organs of plants; he was the first to draw and print illustrations in his scientific texts. He too was the first to make carefully planned botanical journeys in the mountains, and to give literary expression to the grandeur and beauty of the Alpine world. A remarkable figure, ranking beside the universal spirit of Gesner, is that of the physician, Theophrastus Paracelsus (born in 1493 at Einsiedeln, died in 1541 at Salzburg). He wandered over Europe like a comet, was a revolutionary genius in the domain of medicine, applied chemistry to pharmaceutics, discovered important medicinal remedies (such as the use of mercury in the treatment of syphilis), and expounded in his writings a number of fruitful ideas, although these were concealed in the dress of his fantastical views of nature. An honourable place in the history of medicine is also occupied by Felix Platter ( 1536-1614) town physician and professor at Basel; he was one of the founders of pathological anatomy. Caspar Bauhin ( 1560-1624) professor at Basel, was celebrated both as anatomist and botanist; in the latter sphere of scientific activity he was the creator of the binary nomenclature which at a later date was erroneously attributed to Linnaeus.

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