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Arnold Von Winkelried
Died, 1386

      The incident with which this name is connected is, after the purely legendary 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 by name, came to the rescue. Commending his wife and children to the care of his comrades, he rushed toward the Austrians, gathered a number of their spears together against his breast, and fell pierced through, having opened a way into the hostile ranks for his fellow-countrymen, though at the price of his own life. But the Tell and Winkelried stories stand in a very different position when looked at in the dry light of history; for, while in the former imaginary and impossible men (bearing 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 were a knightly family when we first hear of them, though toward the end of the fourteenth century they seem to have been but simple men without the honors of knighthood, and not always using their prefix "von." Among its members we find an Erni 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 landamman (or head-man) of Unterwalden, being then called Arnold Winkelriet. We have, therefore, a real man named Arnold Winkelried living at Stanz, about the time of the battle of Sempach. The question is thus narrowed to the points, was he present at the battle, and did he then perform the deed commonly attributed to him? The determination of this question requires 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.

Arnold Winkelried at Sempach.

      1. 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 sixteenth 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 getruewer 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 Helvetiae Origine," written in 1538 by Rudolph Gwalther (Zwingli's son-in-law), when the hero is still nameless, being compared to Decius 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 first rescension of the chronicle (1564) into "a man of Unterwalden, Arnold von Winkelried 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 Winkelried, ritter," this being in the first draft "Arnold Winckelriet."

      2. 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 sixty-seven 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 toward 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 Winckelriet being given.

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