Johann von Reinach (1360-1425), knight, left, and Petermann von Gundoldingen, Schultheiss (mayor) of Lucerne (†1386). Reconstructions in the Museum zum Rathaus Sempach.
Johann von Reinach (1360-1425), knight, left, and Petermann von Gundoldingen, Schultheiss (mayor) of Lucerne (†1386). Reconstructions in the Museum zum Rathaus Sempach. wapico Bern

From castle to city – upheaval in the late Middle Ages

Ill-matched adversaries from the same corner of the country. In 1386, erstwhile ‘neighbours’ faced each other on the battlefield at Sempach. The age of knights and castles was coming to an end. The future belonged to the burgeoning cities and towns.

Kurt Messmer

Kurt Messmer

Kurt Messmer is a freelance historian with a focus on history in public space.

In the run-up to the Battle of Sempach, an explosive situation had arisen in Switzerland’s Mittelland. A number of cities, mainly Bern and Lucerne but also Solothurn and Basel, were expanding their territory. Lucerne was admitting more and more Austrian country dwellers into the city’s Burgrecht, an agreement between a town and its surrounding settlements, usually including citizenship rights; these people ‘mit rechte Herzog Lewpolten angehörtten’ (properly belonged to Count Leopold). This was a violation of imperial law, and undermined the authority and livelihood of the nobility.

A showdown was inevitable

When Lucerne intensified this policy in January 1386, first incorporating Entlebuch and the little town of Sempach into its Burgrecht, and then the towns of Meienberg, Richensee and Willisau, the conflict came to a head. On one side was Lucerne, which sought to go from being an Austrian country town to achieving the status of free imperial city, meaning the city and its surrounding hinterland would be under the direct authority of the Holy Roman Emperor; on the other were the Habsburgs, who wished to consolidate their scattered properties to create a duchy of Swabia. City versus nobility; you or us.
Central Switzerland in about 1385, before the Battle of Sempach.
Central Switzerland in about 1385, before the Battle of Sempach. The eight old towns are shown in colour; the white area is mostly Habsburg. At this point, the cities of Fribourg, Bern, Solothurn, Basel, Lucerne and Zurich are poised to expand their territory. The relevant considerations are a nearby supply base, safe transport routes, military recruitment, and revenue: levies, fines, taxes. Wikimedia

History is always tangible

‘City versus nobility’ – as a phrase it’s catchy, but abstract. To understand the past, we need accounts that bring us closer to the decisions and destinies of the people who lived that past. A few comparisons can give us a clearer view – for instance, a look at two of the opponents in the Sempach War: the knight and Austrian liegeman Johann von Reinach, and Petermann von Gundoldingen, leader of the Lucerne forces.

Erstwhile ‘neighbours’

In July 1386, an army of knights from Swabia, Alsace, Aargau, Thurgau and Tyrol joined Duke Leopold’s contingent. The force also included mercenaries from Italy, France and Germany, as well as members of the ruling elite from southern German cities. The Habsburgs recognised the seriousness of the situation. They decided to put the ‘grobe torisch bawern volck’ in their place. A devastating war of the most uncivil type. Alsace and Tyrol are far away; Obere Reinach is close by. Barely an hour’s journey separated the upper castle of the Austrian knights of von Reinach in Römerswil from the hamlet of Gundoldingen near Rain, place of origin of the family of the Lucerne leader Petermann von Gundoldingen. Some of his family members still lived in the countryside until around 1500. Another tried his luck early on in the city of Lucerne, covered by the Burgrecht agreement in place there since 1312.
The knight Johann [Hemmann] von Reinach (1360-1425)
Petermann von Gundoldingen, Schultheiss (mayor) of Lucerne (†1386)
The knight Johann [Hemmann] von Reinach (1360-1425), (left, or top); Petermann von Gundoldingen, Schultheiss (mayor) of Lucerne (†1386), (right, or bottom). Two epochs, two worlds. Around 1400 the centres of power shifted from the castles to the cities. Reconstructions in the Museum zum Rathaus Sempach. Atelier Marcel Nyffenegger, Flurlingen ZH / wapico Bern

The lords of Reinach – prosperous nobility

The first records of the von Reinach lineage date from 1210. Originally a free family, the von Reinachs entered the service of the higher nobility, initially the Kyburgs and then the Habsburgs, and the family spread to three ancestral castles within close proximity: Untere Reinach in Burg (Canton of Aargau), Obere Reinach in Römerswil (Canton of Lucerne), and Hintere Reinach in Rickenbach (also Canton of Lucerne). Until 1386, this noble family was one of the most important in the area of present-day Lucerne. Its scattered properties extended across the Wynental into the Aare area.
The three ancestral castles of the house of Reinach in the area of Beromünster
The three ancestral castles of the house of Reinach in the area of Beromünster, destroyed in the Sempach War and never rebuilt; to the south, just 6 km from the Obere Reinach castle, the hamlet of ‘Gundolingen’ near Rain, place of origin of the von Gundoldingen family which produced several Schultheissen (mayors) of Lucerne. Kurt Messmer / Alexander Rechsteiner
In this class-based society, marriage placed the protagonists on an equal standing. The von Reinachs had ties with people of their own station as far away as Austrian territories on the other side of the Rhine. Also as befitted their status, many of the family entered convents and monasteries. Hesso von Reinach († about 1280) became provost at Schönenwerd Abbey, Jakob (†1363) at the nearby Beromünster Abbey, and Wernher (†1383) in Zurich.

The Battle of Sempach: a tragedy and a turning point

9 July 1386 was a catastrophe for the knights of Reinach. From the Obere Reinach castle, Rutschmann, recently turned 14, died at Sempach along with 38-year-old Ulrich, his son-in-law Hans von Hallwyl and von Hallwyl’s brother Thüring. Heinrich von Reinach died of his injuries six weeks after the battle, aged 40. From the Untere Reinach family, the same ‘sudden death’ befell 19-year-old twins Günther and Friedrich, and their brother-in-law Albrecht von Mülinen. Death, sorrow, despair. Only Johann von Reinach of the Lower Castle survived; we don’t know why. Where the sources are silent, local lore has plenty to say. One legend has it that Johann injured himself while cutting the tips off his fashionable but impractical shoes, and therefore did not participate in the battle. What is fact is that he became the sole son and heir of the dynasty. The other lines died out in the 15th century.

A fine example: away from the Swiss Confederation, careers abroad

The von Reinach example is perfect fodder for textbooks: there was no longer any room for chivalric dynasties like the von Reinachs within the territorial dominion of the ambitious city of Lucerne. Their three castles were razed, and were never rebuilt. In 1464 the family sold its holdings in Michelsamt, followed shortly afterwards by those in Aare and Wynental. The last of the family’s manors in its ancestral homeland was sold in 1545. The family went on to create a new existence in Alsace and Breisgau, once again in the service of the Habsburgs. The von Reinachs acquired numerous bailiwicks (Vogteien) and lordships (Herrschaften), and advanced rapidly through the social ranks. They became earls of the French king and imperial barons (kaiserliche Reichsfreiherren). In foreign countries with a princely class this was possible; in the cities and towns of the Swiss Confederation, it was inconceivable. Here, the only routes open to service nobility would have been the town council and public offices of a city. But where the von Hertensteins succeeded in Lucerne, the von Hallwyls failed in Bern.
Hesso von Reinach (†around 1280) in the Codex Manesse, produced in Zurich around 1310.
The world of the knight Johann von Reinach. One of Johann’s forebears, Hesso von Reinach (†around 1280), is portrayed here as a distinguished nobleman who lets beggars and the disabled into his house. The Codex Manesse, produced in Zurich around 1310. UB Heidelberg, Codex Manesse 113v.
The world of Lucerne Schultheiss Petermann von Gundoldingen. ‘Der Läderer’, tanner, removing the flesh from a hide. From Jost Amman’s Ständebuch (the Book of Trades), Frankfurt am Main 1568.
The world of Lucerne Schultheiss Petermann von Gundoldingen. ‘Der Läderer’, tanner, removing the flesh from a hide. From Jost Amman’s Ständebuch (the Book of Trades), Frankfurt am Main 1568. This is a Leipzig 1975 edition, p. 56.

‘Oh, if you will not comfort me with your red mouth, oh, I shall die’

Johann von Reinach, the survivor of 1386, was the family’s heir. But the minstrel Hesso von Reinach, who lived in the 13th century, is better known. Two minnelieder, or minstrel songs, with seven verses are known under his name. Here is a loosely translated excerpt: Sweet consoler, comfort my senses with your love. I am burning with love, from the fire of love I am suffering the pain of desire. hey red lips, if you will not comfort me, oh, I shall die.

The von Gundoldingen – advancement the Lucerne way

Lucerne grew out of a monastic settlement. When the Habsburgs acquired the city in 1291, Lucerne became an Austrian country town, and remained so after it entered into an alliance with the ‘drei Waldstätten’, the three forest cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, in 1332. Austria’s rights were not affected. It goes without saying that two camps now developed. One camp sought to align itself more strongly with the Habsburgs, while the other favoured strengthening ties with Central Switzerland. In 1343 there was a violent gathering – an ‘uflouff’ – an event about which little can be gleaned from the sources, but which set the scene nicely for a tale of high drama: night of murder! Not a bad illusion – except that a similar conspiracy story is told in 14 other Swiss cities.
Furnace, furnace!
‘Furnace, furnace! I must lament to you, because I am not allowed to tell anyone: Scores of people are gathered under the [Lucerne] Egg. They are carrying weapons and wearing armour and red [Austrian] sleeves. They seek this night to murder all those who hold with the Confederates! Furnace! Furnace! That is the honest truth!’ Who doesn’t like a good story? But the real story is better, as the example of von Reinach and von Gundoldingen shows. History teaching materials by Franz Meyer, Lucerne, 1961, drawings: Godi Hofmann
Like no other family group, the von Gundoldingen embody Lucerne’s transition from Austrian country town to politically autonomous entity in the era of the Sempach War. After 1300 the family climbed the social ladder rapidly, in political, economic and social terms. Marriages into the upper echelons of society contributed to this exemplary rise. According to the tax register, in 1352 Werner von Gundoldingen, probably a tanner, was Lucerne’s wealthiest citizen. Economic and political power go hand in hand. From 1346 he was the Schultheiss, a rank equivalent to modern-day mayor, a number of times, as was his brother Niklaus. Werner’s son was Petermann von Gundoldingen, who held the office of Schultheiss continuously for 24 years. So for 40 years in total, three representatives of the family were in control of Lucerne’s fortunes. The dynasty came to a dramatic end: in 1384 a constitutional amendment forced Petermann to step down. Two years later, however, the city put him in charge of the military in its war against Austria. Petermann von Gundoldingen led the Lucerne fighters at Sempach, and fell on 9 July 1386.

Gundoldingen – a pivotal role in history

It is significant that the leading families in Lucerne did not emerge from the old nobility. This applies to the city’s patrician class not just since the 16th century, but from as long ago as the 14th century. The von Gundoldingen were country folk who moved to the city, used their talents and seized the opportunities that came their way. In 1379, a few years before the Sempach War, Petermann and his son took over the Ebikon and Rotsee bailiwicks on lease – from the Habsburgs! The two worlds were not so far apart that they did not permit business dealings in the interests of both parties. In 1380, this time for Lucerne, Petermann acquired the bailiwick (Vogtei) of Weggis and pressed ahead with the admission of Austrian Landsassen (citizens of Lucerne without community rights). The fact that he also acted as an arbitrator both for the Confederate towns and for Austria shows him to have been a political figure who sat on, or even hovered above, the fence.
The von Gundoldingen family crest: blue-and-white Lucerne shield with red Austrian sash – a perfect symbol of Petermann von Gundoldingen’s significant role in history.
The von Gundoldingen family crest: blue-and-white Lucerne shield with red Austrian sash – a perfect symbol of Petermann von Gundoldingen’s significant role in history. Wikimedia
The municipal coat of arms of Rain, Canton of Lucerne, based on the von Gundoldingen crest. The present-day hamlet of ‘Gundolingen’ sits on the municipal boundary between Rain and Römerswill.
The municipal coat of arms of Rain, Canton of Lucerne, based on the von Gundoldingen crest. The present-day hamlet of ‘Gundolingen’ sits on the municipal boundary between Rain and Römerswill. Wikimedia

Not a break, but an overlap

For the Habsburgs, the Battle of Sempach was the beginning of the end in the land of the ‘groben bawern’; for Lucerne, it was the dawn of the city state. When an event takes centre stage, the background to that event, the larger arc, often features an overlap, as here: the ‘rebirth of the cities’ began in the 12th century; societies of knights were still formed in the 15th century. However, this was more of a flare-up. The cities had already won through. PS: After the ‘battle for freedom’ of 1386, the Lucerne council called the inhabitants of the surrounding countryside ‘Unsern’ (ours). That didn’t last forever. Since the 16th century, the country dwellers have been ‘subjects’.
‘Battle season’ in Sempach
‘Battle season’ in Sempach. While trying to assemble his Lucerne fighters into a respectable marching order in 2013 Schultheiss Petermann von Gundoldingen, identifiable by his coat of arms, seems rather doubtful of the ‘discipline’ of his men from the Saffron Guild. Or is he perhaps pondering why he’s always overshadowed by Arnold von Winkelried, someone who never actually existed? Hugues de Wurstemberger / Museum zum Rathaus Sempach

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