Politics Religion and State building (11th – 16th/19th centuries)

Geneva, Imperial city and Episcopal principality (11th-16th century)

Up until the 11th century, Geneva was part of the kingdom of Burgundy before passing to the Holy Roman Empire whereby she acquired the status of imperial city and Episcopal principality. Falling directly under imperial authority, Geneva depended only on the emperor and the prince-bishop, feudal lord of the city and holder of both spiritual and temporal powers. As a prince of the Empire, the bishop had regalian rights, namely the privilege of coining money, raising an army, along with the right to dispense justice and collect taxes. As a prince of the church, his spiritual position debarred him from the right to spill blood or to take military action. To remedy these restrictions, the bishop had this function handed over to lay lords born of two rival houses. The execution of judiciary sentences (high justice) was entrusted to the counts of Geneva while a vidame[1] from the House of Savoy[2]handled civil cases (medium and low justice). The Bishop further enjoyed the assistance of a cathedral chapter[3] which brought together the sons of aristocratic families or university qualified lawyers. The rivalry between the houses of Savoy and Geneva regarding both territorial matters and the functions they fulfilled for the bishop lasted until 1401 at which point the county of Geneva was irrevocably absorbed into the county of Savoy. With no rival of an equal standing, the house of Savoy henceforward set its sights on the bihsop's rights and possessions, not least Geneva but it had to reckon with the city's growing municipal muscle.

The city of Geneva and its surroundingsInformationsInformations[4]

Ever since the 13th century even as the rival houses fought it out, a communal movement had developed in Geneva. The increase of fairs and markets held on a regular basis, the city's expansion attendant on its economic and demographic growth, within and without its walls, contributed to the setting up of an assertive commune. A late-comer on the European scene, the commune originally consisted of a sworn association[5] of tradesmen and merchants. In 1387, Bishop Adhémar Fabry[6] legitimated communal power, confirming pre-existing Genevan « liberties, franchises[7], immunities, uses and customs ». The recording in written form of the « franchises » set down the city's rights and furthered institutional continuity. Right up to the end of the Ancien Régime[8], « Adhémar Fabry's franchises » would stand for Genevan autonomy. The Commune structured itself around two institutions. The first was the General Council[9] which brought together the Citizens[10], the burghers[11] and the habitants[12] twice a year in the cloister of St Peter : in February to elect the syndics and in November to fix the price of wine. Sole only competent authority to accept a new tax or to raise a loan, the General Council could be called outside those dates in order to make decisions at short notice on specific matters. The city's second decisional structure was the Little Council[13] which constituted the executive power and numbered four Syndics[14] supported by twelve or twenty Citizens. Members of the Little Council from whom four syndics were drawn on a yearly basis were appointed for life. The Little council administered criminal justice, managed city finances, dealt with public order and public works. The syndics, as chief magistrates had the authority to pass sentence in criminal cases and to swear in the vidame who committed to respect the Franchises. They may also declare a truce without the prince- bishop's approval though it must be ratified by the General Council. As from 1409, the Little Council's proceedings were recorded in writing. Thus the Councils amounted to municipal institutions that were to hold good throughout the Ancien Régime although the powers they were endowed with varied at different times and were source of frequent conflicts.

  1. Vidame

    Lay lord subordinated to the bishop, official charged with dispensing justice on behalf of the bishop. He judged civil cases and investigated criminal cases for which judgement was pronounced by the syndics. The procedure was accusatorial, that is spoken simply in the vernacular. The execution of sentences of capital punishment or of mutilation fell to one of the bishop's vassals granted the charge of advocate of the bishop. Until the beginning of the 15th century this charge fell to the counts of Geneva.

  2. House of Savoy

    The Savoys were counts until 1416 then dukes thereafter. From the 18th century the Dukes of Savoy would also bear the titles of kings of Sicily (1713) then Kings of Sardinia (1720) and kings of Italy (1861).

  3. Cathedral chapter

    A council of clerics known as canons leading a collegiate life and responsible for the solemnities performed in a cathedral church. They enjoyed enough authority to handle diocesan business if the need arose.

  4. The city of Geneva and its surroundings drawn from Cosmographie universelle de tout le monde after S. Münster, augmented and enriched by François de Belle-Forest, 1575, Paris. Provenance and classification: CH AEG Archives privées 247/I/100.

  5. Sworn association

    Craftsmen would form a sworn association with others with the same skills with a view to defend their common interests. Members were bound by an oath of allegiance to the group.

  6. Adhémar Fabry (?-1388)

    Prior of the Dominicans in Geneva in 1357, he became vicar general to the Bishop of Geneva. On 12 July 1385, he was ordained bishop of Geneva and died in Avignon in 1388. In 1387, he granted the Genevans a Charter of Franchises which he had recorded in writing.

  7. Franchises

    The franchises granted the city amounted to rights that curbed the sovereign authority.

  8. Ancien Régime

    The period in French history corresponding to monarchic government prior to 1789.

  9. General Council

    It was made up with male citizens and burghers aged over 25. Members of the General Council had the vote and were eligible. The General Council elected the syndics and the lieutenant of justice, the auditors and the attorney general.

  10. Citizens

    Born in Geneva of a father himself a citizen or a burgher, they enjoyed all political rights and could take up any trade.

  11. Burghers

    The burghers were foreigners or habitants who were directly admitted into the bourgeoisie for a consideration or in acknowledgment of service rendered to the city. Their descent would be citizen. They had the same political rights as the citizens baring eligibility to the Little Council.

  12. Habitants

    Individuals living in the city without the status of either citizen or burgher. They enjoyed no political rights. Starting in the 16th century, habitant status became a political category in its own right. Foreigners would be admitted as habitants a few weeks after their arrival. As stipulated in the heading of the “letter of habitation” they were granted, they thereby committed to live according to the “Holy Reformation”.

  13. Little Council or Ordinary Council

    Government of Geneva, which, theoretically an imperial city, still enjoyed total political autonomy. It counted 25 members and two secretaries of state, all citizens. The Little council drafted laws, heard appeals from the civil courts and acted as criminal court. It chose the members of the Council of the Two Hundred.

  14. Syndics

    In a free imperial city, the syndics were the populations' representative to the sovereign. In Geneva, there were four syndics; they presided over the Little Council. Their presence can be traced back to the 13th century.

AccueilAccueilImprimerImprimer Sonia Vernhes Rappaz, doctoral student, University of Geneva, Geneva (Switzerland), projet Sinergia (FNS), « La Fabrique des savoirs ». Paternité - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de ModificationRéalisé avec Scenari (nouvelle fenêtre)