The former Walser settlement of Sapün, below Arosa GR.
The former Walser settlement of Sapün, below Arosa GR. Wikimedia / Andres Passwirth

The Walser Migrations

The Walsers migrated outwards to settle and tame uncultivated pastures in the harsh high altitudes of the Alps between c. 1150-1450. This migration represents one of the last great movements of peoples during the Middle Ages, and the legacy of Walser resourcefulness still looms large in Swiss culture.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a world historian, Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia, writer, and PR specialist, who has taught as a professor in Europe and North America.

The Romans usually avoided the high mountains of the Alps, referring to them as “terra maledicta” or “cursed earth” in Latin. Populated by hostile, barbaric peoples and characterized by unforgiving landscapes, the Alps seemed a world apart from the cultivated fields and urban centers the Romans found familiar. After the retreat of the Romans from Switzerland, the Alemanni settled the Swiss plateau, while the Burgundians settled in Valais in the fifth century. Over the course of the seventh and eighth centuries CE, the Alemanni penetrated Upper Valais, and they continued onwards towards the vicinity of Goms in the ninth century. Invasions by the Magyars and the Arabs briefly stymied migration from the Bernese Highlands into the upper Rhône valley in the tenth century, but by c. 1000, favorable circumstances enabled further settlement and accelerated population growth. Transalpine trade began to increase in volume – this helped stimulate the growth of new towns and villages alongside critical mountain passes. Toll stations, hostelry, and transportation services emerged alongside the old Roman roads and passes, while new routes were established in rapid succession. In the upper Rhône valley, large peasant families began to traverse the higher altitudes of what is now Upper Valais with small herds of cows, goats, and other livestock in search of fresh pastures. Many medieval farmers already owned “alps” or high mountain pastures, where they left their animals to graze during the summer. Used to facing considerable hazards, including avalanches, bears and wolves, and sudden, inclement weather, these farmers began farming the high mountains up to 1600 m.
People fleeing an avalanche, woodcut in a wall calendar from 1721.
Due to avalanches, wild animals and the climate, living and working in the high mountains was dangerous. The Walsers knew how to deal with these dangers. People fleeing an avalanche, woodcut in a wall calendar from 1721. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

Äss ischt kchei Vogil no so hoo gflogu, är hei nit Bodo bizogu.

Walser Proverb: “No bird flew so high that it did not reach the ground again.”, similar to “Pride comes before the fall.”
Migrating outwards in all directions, the Walsers established farms and small-scale settlements in an area stretching some 350 kilometers in length across what is currently France, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, and Germany. In sum, around 150 locales are believed to have been settled or founded by the Walsers between c. 1150-1450. While there are historical parallels and similarities between Walser migration and that of the near contemporaneous Ostsiedlung of Germans into Eastern Europe, the reasons behind the Walsers’ migration out of Valais remain a matter of intense conjecture, debate, and research. The overpopulation of the upper Rhône Valley was likely a major contributing factor as was the end of the Medieval Warm Period (c. 800-1300). Agricultural and economic pressure played a role too. The rapid growth of urban centers in northern Italy and in the Swiss Mittelland, after 1100, heralded a major shift in the agricultural output of the Alps. Meat, milk, and fresh cheese from Swiss farmers in the Alps and Prealps met increased demand in these emergent cities and towns. Farmers thus needed not only more animals but new land to till in order to keep up with growing demand. The intense competition for space prompted the Walsers to take their chances elsewhere, as they already had developed a type of subsistence farming suited to the high mountain terrain.
Proven (dark arrows) and suspected (light arrows) migrations of the Walsers in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Proven (dark arrows) and suspected (light arrows) migrations of the Walsers in the 13th and 14th centuries. Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz / SNM
Undated illustration of a Walser march across the Alps.
Undated illustration of a Walser march across the Alps.
Ecclesiastical disputes over land and bloody feudal rivalries also compelled the Walsers to relocate elsewhere. In the Bernese Highlands, feudal overlords ruthlessly sold the residents of the Lötschental as serfs to the monastery of Interlaken during the High Middle Ages. On the other hand, many feudal barons and ecclesiastical elites welcomed the Walsers as they staked unsettled lands in places like Davos, Langwies, and Safien. Feudal charters and other medieval documents attest to the enfranchisement of the Walsers in Graubünden’s Rheinwald as early as the late-1200s. The subsequent increase in population, as well as the Walsers’ steadfastness, gave feudal magnates in the Rheinwald an added sense of heightened security. In turn, the Walsers exercised a high degree of self-determination to live independently from their neighbors. The Walserrecht (feudal permissions of colonization), conferred land to the Walsers in exchange for moderate interest and a commitment to military service. In Davos, the Walsers even received the right to their own judicial bodies in addition to full freedom of individual movement. The Walsers proved so adept in handling their own affairs that it was not until 1805 that all Walser courts in Switzerland were dissolved. Written records demonstrate that the Walsers held important military and political positions throughout the Three Leagues, and some historians postulate that the Walsers therefore played a crucial role in building democratic institutions in the region. Those Walsers who migrated south towards Italy encountered nobles keen to use them in order to defend mountain roads and pasturelands. In the Val Formazza, they obtained the rights not only to settle and cultivate the land, but they also received charters to clear forests. In later centuries, they occupied an important role as seasonal laborers. The Walsers who migrated westwards along the Rhône River, to towns like Raron and Saillon, reduced the powers of the prince-bishops of Sion and local feudal lords by force of arms.

Weer fer as güets Woort nit tüet, dem geits säältu' güet.

Walser Proverb: “Those who do nothing for a good word rarely do well.” This implies that if you don't show charity or mercy, you will one day experience what it's like for yourself.
View of the Walser village of Bosco Gurin TI, around 1935.
View of the Walser village of Bosco Gurin TI, around 1935. Swiss National Museum

Walser Traditions and Legacies

Contrary to popular belief, Walser architecture is quite diverse and varied. Depending on the topography of the land and available raw materials, the Walsers built their houses, barns, stables, and churches of timber or stones and on top of wood or stone piles. They did this to protect themselves from bandits; they also sought to protect their livestock from wild animals and wind storms. When constructing their homes of wood, the Walser used the Blockbau system, which is characterized by larch logs slotted in between one another. The most important room in traditional Walser houses was the kitchen or “fire house.” Here, the Walsers lit their fires, cooked their meals, and made cheese or other dairy byproducts. The kitchen served additionally as the room in which the Walsers socialized with their neighbors or visitors. Steep roofs prevented the collapse of Walser homes in heavy snows, and the ubiquitous stacks of firewood kept outside provided a much-needed resource for baking bread in large overs. Sturdy sheds and warehouses made from larch trees stored hay to feed animals over the long winters. Most Walser settlements contained small, one-room schools and miniscule cheese factories knows as sennerei. The most unique aspect of Walser architecture is perhaps that of the “soul beam.” This was supposedly an opening at the top of a window of a house from which the souls of the deceased could pass peacefully through on their way to heaven.
Walser house in the village square of Vals GR.
Walser house in the village square of Vals GR. Wikimedia
Language is the most distinguishing aspect of Walser cultural identity. Around 10,000 people still speak one of the Walser dialects, which are rich in proverbs and colorful colloquialisms. Noticeable divergences in pronunciation and grammar differentiate Walser German from other Alemmanic dialects. A common feature that one finds in Walser German is the shift of the Germanic "s" to "sch" in spoken language. One must acknowledge that the migrations of the Walsers had an immense impact upon the Romansch-speaking communities in what is today eastern Switzerland and northern Italy. Romansch communities became so divided and isolated as a result of the Walser migrations that different dialects of Romansch began to emerge soon after their arrival. Communal autonomy ensured that the Walsers and Romansch communities lived next to one another in close proximity for hundreds of years. Although the Walser formed unique cultural pockets in Romance-speaking and Alemannic regions, intermarriage with locals precipitated the assimilation and subsequent disappearance of many Walser communities during the early modern era. One observes a similar pattern in the Bernese Oberland and in Savoy, where the Walser colonies have long since disappeared. The deprivation of life at the highest altitudes and the social change brought about by the 19th-century Industrial Revolution further eroded Walser cultural identity. Nonetheless, by virtue of their independent spirit and ability to live in harmony with nature deep in seclusion, Swiss poets, philosophers, and artists have long celebrated the Walsers. Albrecht von Haller’s poem “The Alps,” from 1729, is a panegyric to pastoral living; many of the great minds of the Enlightenment, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, admired the Walsers’ rugged self-determination and freedom from the excesses of a degenerate urban civilization.
This is how the Walser dialect was spoken in Upper Italy a hundred years ago: "Die lustige Fasnacht", narrated by Gaspare Pala, farmer and mountain guide from Macugnaga (Piedmont), 1929.

We mu de Liit der chlei Finger git, welluntsch di ganzi Hant.

Walser proverb: “If you give people the little finger, they want the whole hand.”

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