Swiss Bishopics and Cultural and Linguistic Plurality
3 April 2023
In the centuries between the (slow) dissolution of the Roman Empire (5th century) and the rise of the great Monarchies (from the 10th-13th centuries), the Church, abbeys and dioceses were the most important social, economic and political institutions with great secular power on the territory of what is called Switzerland today.
The diocese was a new sovereignty based on a church area (the (diocese) and (land) ownership and secular, political and military power in this area and sometimes far beyond.
The bishop was the highest religious authority, with formally the archbishop of the archdiocese and the Pope in Rome as his superiors and with local secular rulers and princes as direct competitors or allies. The division into dioceses and their archdioceses give a good impression of Switzerland’s rich cultural heritage.
Abbeys also played an important role, as abbots were appointed by the political rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, Burgundian dukes or French kings.
The first bishop of Basel had his seat in the Roman city of Augusta Raurica, today’s Augst (canton of Basel-Landschaft). The bishop probably left this city in the fifth century for security reasons (because of the Alemanni raids). The hill in Basel, on which today’s cathedral was built (the consecration of the Münster, the cathedral, took place in 1019), offered more protection.
The diocese of Basel fell under the archdiocese of Besançon from the Middle Ages onwards. The French-speaking culture was prominently present in this area. The diocese of Basel reached far into Alsace and north-western Switzerland. Kleinbasel, however, was under the bishop of Constance and the Archbishopric of Mainz until 1803.
The bishop of Basel, also a prince in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, moved his seat to the French-speaking Porrentruy (today’s canton of Jura) because of the reformation in 1529. Since 1828, Solothurn has been the seat of the Diocese of Basel.
In the small farming village of Arlesheim (today’s canton of Basel-Landschaft), with a few hundred inhabitants, the chaplains built a huge cathedral and palaces in 1670-1680. Catholic Arlesheim was not far from Protestant Basel.
The Roman city of Aventicum, the capital of the Helvetians, today’s Avenches in canton Vaud, was the bishop’s seat in the sixth century. The diocese was first located in Vindinossa, present-day Windisch (canton of Aargau). Lausanne (Lousonna) became the episcopal city at the end of the sixth or beginning of the seventh century.
The Diocese of Lausanne was dissolved in 1536 after the occupation by Protestant Bern. The bishop fled to Savoy. Today, the cantons of Fribourg, Geneva, Neuchâtel and Laussane form the Diocese of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg, named after the three cathedrals in Lausanne, Fribourg and Geneva.
The red church in Neuchâtel, Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, was officially elevated to the rank of minor basilica in 2008, following a positive response from the Vatican. Neuchâtel joined Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg, which already had a minor basilica in the same diocese.
Until 1801, the diocese of Konstanz (Germany) also extended over areas in central and north-eastern Switzerland, including Kleinbasel. The diocese was part of the Archbishopric of Mainz from 843. The bishop fled to Meerburg in 1527 because of the Reformation. The Bishopric of Konstanz was abolished in 1821.
The Cathedral of Konstanz
The Cathedral of Chur
Bishopric of Chur
Chur (Curia in Latin) is a bishopric from Roman times onwards. Chur’s first bishop, known from sources (451), bore the name Asinio. Chur is one of the oldest episcopal cities north of the Alps. The diocese of Chur was under the Archdiocese of Milan until 843 (Treaty of Verdun).
During this period, there were many cultural influences from Lombardy and the dioceses of Como and Aquilea. From 843, the diocese of Chur fell under the Archdiocese of Mainz. It increased German influence.
The diocese survived the many political upheavals and even the reformation, although the town of Chur also switched to Protestantism, as did most towns and inhabitants of present-day Graubünden.
In the canton of Valais, the Roman city of Forum Claudii Vallensium, today’s Martigny, was the first episcopal city. In the sixth century, the bishop settled in Sion/Sitten (Sedunum). The bilingual diocese of Sion (Sitten) was under the archdiocese of Tarentaise (France) until 1801. The diocese was in direct contact with Savoy and its French-speaking culture on one side and the German culture of the Oberwallis on the other.
The Diocese of Geneva was part of the Archdiocese of Vienne in France. Consequently, Provençal culture and language had a significant influence in Geneva. Isaac is the first bishop mentioned in written sources around 400. The first foundations of the cathedral date from the first half of the fourth century. The archaeological site offers a fascinating overview of the beginnings of this diocese and cathedral.
However, Geneva has not been an episcopal city since the Reformation (1536). On the contrary, the city became the capital of Calvinism (a museum dedicated to the Reformation in Geneva recounts this history).
Today, the former bishopric is part of the diocese of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg.
From 1801, the dioceses of Switzerland (then the Helvetic Republic 1798-1803) fell directly under the authority of the Vatican and were no longer part of an archdiocese outside Switzerland.
This diocese only came into existence in 1847. Its diocese (the cantons of St. Gall and both Appenzeller) originally belonged to the diocese of Constance. The famous abbey of St. Gall has existed since the seventh century and has always played an influential role in this region. The diocese of St. Gall was created in 1847 and included the cantons of Appenzell.
This diocese has existed since 1971 and comprises the canton of Tessin. After independence from Italy in 1884, Tessin was under the Diocese of Basel until 1971. In 1971, the first bishop was appointed for the diocese of Tessin, which thus effectively became an independent diocese.
Swiss dioceses have directly interacted with various languages and cultures since the early Middle Ages. The six current dioceses (St Gallen, Lugano, Sion, Basel, Chur and Lausanne, Fribourg and Geneva) still reflect the country’s multicultural character.
(Sources: K. Speich, H. Schläpfer, Eglises et Monastères suisses, Zurich 1979; F. Mazel, L, Évêque et le territoire. L´invention médiévale de l´espace (Ve-XIIIe siècle, Paris 2008).