Basel makes its first historical appearance in the fourth century as Basilea, a Roman post, which rose to importance on the decay of the neighboring Roman city of Augusta Rauracorum, the site of which is marked by the village of Augst. From Linz, half-way between Bonn and Coblenz, the Romans had built a wall of earthworks and palisades, 350 miles long, to Reginum or Regensburg on the Danube, cutting off the Black Forest, which they colonized as a sort of buffer state. Augusta Rauracorum commanded the roads of communication between this region, the Agri Decumates, and Italy, and therefore it was a military post of great importance. But what served for the Romans in the time of their strength gave an opportunity to their enemies at the decline of the empire, and it was through the gap at the crook of the Rhine that the Huns came down upon Gaul and Lombardy.
By the middle of the tenth century, Basel was a free city of the German Empire. In 1356 most of the buildings were destroyed by an earthquake, and in 1444 Basel was visited by the Plague, which raged so violently here that it was sometimes spoken of as the “death of Basel.” This visitation followed the battle of St. Jacob on the Birs, in which 1600 Swiss were slaughtered almost to a man after offering a desperate resistance to 20,000 French troops whom the Austrians had called to their aid. Although the Swiss were defeated, the French were glad to retire, and in 1460 the war with Austria terminated in favor of the Swiss Confederation, which, though still a portion of the German Empire, covered all the territory that is now Switzerland. With the Peace of Basel in 1499 the Swiss, who had not looked to the empire for protection for 200 years, had their independence recognized. They were freed from the jurisdiction of the imperial chamber and were not included in any of the circles of the empire which Maximilian I of Austria had established. In 1501 Basel and Schaffhausen, and in 1513 Appenzell, were admitted into the full federation, bringing the number of cantons up to thirteen.
Basel is intimately associated with the religious history of Western Europe. Between 1431 and 1443 meetings of the General Council were held here, and with the advance of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, Basel became a center of propaganda. Luther’s writings were printed here from 1519 onwards.
During the Thirty Years’ War and the French Revolution Basel suffered like other Rhine towns, but in 1815 the eight powers of Europe proclaimed the perpetual neutrality of Switzerland and the inviolability of its soil. From then onwards the troubles of Basel were merely domestic
Being built upon hills, Basel presents a very attractive appearance. The center of interest is the Munsterplatz, a high terrace overlooking the Rhine between the two principal bridges. Round this are grouped the minster—it is no longer a cathedral—the museum, and the university. You descend from the Munsterplatz into the Marktplatz, where stands the famous town hall, and from here pleasant elevated suburbs radiate in every direction. Although the principal buildings of Basel are not very important, the general run of architecture is extremely picturesque, with high-pitched roofs covered with scale-shaped tiles, and dormer windows. The faded blues and greens of the wooden shutters against the creamy walls of the houses give a happy effect of color, which is enhanced by the presence of little gardens and window-boxes—for Basel is a very flowery town. Some of the streets are so steep that they have become stairways, and this always gives character. We discovered two good fountains in Basel, one of carved, painted, and gilded wood in the fish-market, and another, exquisitely graceful, on the little hill called the Gemsberg. Both fountains were filled with growing plants. The Spalentor gateway on the high suburb to the westward, by the playing field, is dignified and well-proportioned.
The principal figures connected with Basel are those of Erasmus and Holbein, who were contemporaries. Erasmus was born at Rotterdam and was buried in the cathedral at Basel.
It has been well said that Erasmus laid the egg which was afterward hatched by Luther, and this should be borne in mind when recalling; the circumstances that sent Erasmus to Basel. The Praise of Folly shows that he did not lack courage in exposing the abuses within the Church. As compared with Luther he was the man of intellect as against the man of action, and he probably advanced the cause of the Reformation farther by keeping a tolerant attitude than if he had noisily taken aside. Each to his own weapons. In reality, Erasmus hit harder than Luther, but his blows were intellectual blows, and consequently, they were not so immediately applauded by the common intelligence. He mined and sapped where Luther used the battering-ram.
Luther had just amazed the world at the Diet of Worms (in 1521) when Erasmus left Louvain, where he had been for some years. He has been accused of running away, but a moment’s consideration of his movements shows that he was in no hurry to hide himself. In the spring of 1521 he was at Antwerp; in the summer at Bruges, where he foregathered with his English friends, Tunstall, More, and Mountjoy, and saw for the first time Henry VIII’s book on the Seven Sacraments in answer to Luther, which is commemorated on our pennies. One can imagine Erasmus’s amused contemplation of the whole business. He speaks ironically in his letters of “hiding himself” at such and such an inn. What attracted him to Basel was the printing-press of his friend Froben, or Frobenius. It had been publicly known for six months that he was going to Basel, and the Emperor’s treasurer had allowed him to draw his pension before it was due, to clear up his affairs in Louvain and pay for the journey. While Luther was blustering about Germany Erasmus was quietly preparing the intellectual basis of a reformed church. He was constructive where the other was destructive; like Duerer and, in later years, Wesley, he believed in mending rather than ending. At this time, he had several books in hand for Froben. The latter had printed his edition of Cicero’s Offices in September 1519, and Erasmus now wished to superintend the passage through the press of his third edition of the New Testament.
On his fifty-fifth birthday, October 28, 1521, Erasmus mounted his horse to start for Basel. As far as Speyer he had as escort a large party of soldiers, horse, and foot, transporting their wounded and also their plunder. At Worms he met his friend Hermann Bursch and was taken ill through the presence of a stove in his room— a thing that all his life he found insupportable. He was able to push on to Speyer, where he rested two days before proceeding to Basel, where he was received with every honor.
His letters give all sorts of intimate details of his life in Basel. Apparently, he was ill all the first winter but continued to work at the Familiar Colloquies, which he had begun in 1519. He was living in a house of his own, with—he notes with satisfaction—an open fireplace, instead of a closed German stove. He kept three servants, and his annual expenditure was 600 golden florins. Though his pension as Councillor of the Emperor was constantly in arrears, he seems to have had enough money for his needs from other sources—his pension from Lord Mountjoy, for example, continued for life. His days were given to reading and writing, and he often spent the afternoon in Froben’s garden. Whether on account of his health or the disturbed state of the country, he seldom ventured outside the city. In one of his letters, he gives a description of his bedroom. On one wall was a cast of his friend Willibald Pirkheimer, who was also a friend of Albert Duerer and the recipient of his Venetian letters, and on the other a painting of Pirkheimer by Duerer; so that Erasmus could see him “whichever way he looked.”
Froben died in 1527, and Erasmus said: “I bore my own brother’s death with the greatest calmness, but I cannot endure the loss of Froben.” Apparently, he never recovered from the blow, and the jangling of parties in Basel making his life there uncomfortable, in 1529 he went to Freiburg. He was too fine and far-seeing to tolerate the arbitrary and iconoclastic methods of Luther’s followers. Basel was no longer “the peaceful abode of the Muses.” Like Duerer and Holbein, Erasmus was loyal to the Church he wished to see reformed; he would not countenance the abolition of the Mass, and in several other respects he was a striking anticipation of the “Modernist” of today. The “Modernist” of any period is never understood at the time, and is almost invariably accused of insincerity by both “sides”—the conservative and the crass “progressive.”
Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois
Blumenrain 8, 4001 Basel
The Hotel Les Trois Rois is one of the oldest in Switzerland dating from 1026. The hotel is also very historical having been the site of the famous meeting of the three kings who drew up the treaty for the transference of territories that are now western Switzerland and southern France. The location of the hotel on the River Rhine is terrific. Not only can you enjoy watching the ever-changing drama of the river traffic passing by the hotels, but you are also steps away from the center of Basel.
The hotel is close to the Pharmazie-Historisches Museum, Basel Town Hall and 1.4 km from the Congress Centre Basel. This 101-room hotel offers a bar, restaurants and conference facilities. The air-conditioned rooms are comfortable, warm and modern with all the comforts of home.