Myth & Reality

The current history more

Morgarten Terrain

The historic Morgarten Terrain more


Myths and legends

Various myths and legends exist in connection with the Battle of Morgarten: these adopt the historical events, places and personalities involved and dress them in fanciful garb. The myths and legends feature out-of-the-ordinary events and figures, as well as divine interference. Many are tinged with a moralising, didactic tone.

The knights of Morgarten
First and foremost, the fate of the Habsburg knights drowned in Lake Ägeri forms a strong element in the classic Morgarten myth and popular oral history. Central Switzerland is home to a myth whereby Lake Ägeri turns blood red at midnight on the anniversary of the battle and a knight on horseback is seen rising from his watery grave; the apparition then disappears at one o'clock sharp. Another myth tells of how two knights on horseback manage to escape the slaughter by steering their steeds across the lake to a headland known as Naas. When one of the horses reaches the shore, its rider declares: "I have managed to escape thanks to, or despite, God!" at which point his mount sinks backwards and both drown. This demonstrates not only the moralising aspect and the intervention of higher powers – so typical of myths – but also an aspect very specific to Morgarten: the lake as an ally to the people of Schwyz. This myth does not stand in isolation: the Battle of Gubel (1531) features a similar story.

Tumbling logs and boulders
The account of logs and great blocks of stone raining down features as a motif in almost every pictorial depiction of the Battle of Morgarten. It is probably based on a misinterpretation. Confederates in late medieval times threw fist-sized stones at their opponents' horses at the start of a battle. The resulting hail of objects unsettled the horses and left the riders in disarray. The stones in later chronicles became boulders and logs, the hail of objects a veritable natural disaster.

Fortifications at Arth; the gap at Morgarten as a deliberate trap
The erection of fortifications at Arth and Oberarth has still not been dated with any accuracy. It is questionable whether the shoreline at Arth, as chronicled by Diebold Schilling in 1513, was also fortified. It is thought that the Oberarth barrier was built first, followed by the one at Arth – and current thinking has this occurring in the latter half of the 14th century at the earliest. What is certain is that the two walls should not be seen as an integrated, vertically staggered defence system. It follows that it was impossible for the barrage at Arth to influence Duke Leopold's choice of route, nor could it have played a role in steering him towards the trap at Morgarten.

Women and children of Arth
The myth regarding the women and children of Arth should be seen in the same light: after the wall's garrison pulled out and made their way to Morgarten, they were said to have given the enemy the impression that the fortifications were still occupied by lighting fires and making noise.
This is one of a number of so-called "wandering" legends surrounding the Morgarten conflict. Other sources feature similar descriptions. As early as 1298 the women of Zurich were said to have saved the town from a Habsburg attack adopting similar tactics.

Pincer movement by the Habsburgs
It was long held that the Habsburgs had a master plan featuring a strategic pincer movement involving simultaneous attacks on Schwyz and Obwalden. This would have meant Duke Leopold I and his forces advancing on Schwyz and Count Otto of Strassberg negotiating the Brünig Pass to attack Obwalden.
Otto of Strassberg was the Bailiff of Burgundy and thus had nothing to do with Swabians who ruled over Central Switzerland. It is documented, however, that a local conflict did take place between Interlaken Monastery and the people of Obwalden. Otto of Strassberg, as patron, was obliged to act, and thus might well have advanced over the Brünig. This manoeuvre would have not have occurred until 1318 (if at all), as Strassberg died that year of wounds sustained in battle. Either way, there is no connection with Morgarten, and later chroniclers describe Strassberg's raid as a standalone campaign.
The concept of the strategic pincer movement, which fired the imagination mainly of older military historians and soldiers, exceeded the capabilities of medieval warfare and is not supported by the sources.

"fool's myth"
The so-called "fool's myth" ranks arguably amongst the best-known and oldest of the myths. After consulting his followers on how best to gain a foothold in Schwyz, Duke Leopold asks his fool what he thinks of the plan. According to the chroniclers Cueni (Kuoni) and Jenny of Stocken, the fool replies: "Terrible! […] they have all shown you the best way in, but none has shown you the best way out!" (Konrad Justinger, anonymous Bernese chronicle)
The myth is seen as an ironic and anecdotal commentary on the Habsburgs' plan. It is also another of these wandering legends: an almost identical scene is described by Diebold Schilling in respect of the Battle of Sempach, and it appears again in the Valais myth Thomas in der Binen.

Betrayal legend (advance warning for Schwyz)
The unexpected defeat of the Habsburgs at Morgarten at the hands of a supposedly far weaker opponent soon brought with it a search for reasons capable of explaining Leopold's military failure. Early on, Count Friedrich of Toggenburg emerged in the chronicles (Vitoduranus) as informing Schwyz of the Habsburgs' intentions. He had endeavoured, in the so-called Marchenstreit quarrels, to strike a balance between Schwyz and Einsiedeln and was therefore, so the argument goes, sympathetic to the Schwyz cause. Johannes of Viktring, too, makes express mention of four noblemen of Toggenburg who had fallen at Morgarten – was the chronicler implying the intervention of divine justice as a punishment for the betrayal? As for Konrad Justinger, he had "people from Hünenberg" as sounding the alarm to help Schwyz; they are even said to have fired arrows to which warning messages were attached. Later chroniclers name just one Hünenberger, identified in Heinrich Brennwald's Schweizerchronik (1513) as Heinrich of Hünenberg; he becomes the Knight of Henneberg in the annals of Hirschau Monastery.
The legend of the message arrows should be treated with caution. It has not been possible to locate a Heinrich of Hünenberg at the time of the Battle of Morgarten. The name Henneberg also frequently emerges elsewhere in connection with betrayals. One of the stories involves a Count of Henneberg initiating the rout at the Battle of Sempach.

Exploit of the outlaws and offenders
As with all great battles, that of Morgarten also featured heroic acts. Konrad Justinger was the first to tell of a group of 40 outlaws and offenders; Tschudi and Brennwald held their number to be 50. Later chroniclers transformed what was no more than a side show into the main action on the battlefield by describing boulders and logs raining down on the main Habsburg forces like a natural disaster. Those men characterised as renegades and transgressors (Tschudi even called them bandits), whose misdemeanours remain a mystery, were destined to become a "select multitude of warriors" hurrying to the aid of a threatened Schwyz homeland and contributing hugely to the Schwyz victory through their exploits at the exposed flank of Figlenfluh. Some chroniclers charged this episode with even more meaning by suggesting that their contribution came without the knowledge, or even against the wishes, of the people of Schwyz. This heroic act became a patriotic and moral byword for courage, loyalty and solidarity, while the outlaws and offenders themselves became the "collective heroes" of Morgarten due to the lack of any individually identifiable acts of heroism.