An Alpine Turncoat


Or, ‘exit, assassinated by a bear…’

The alpine region of the Grisons (the modern Swiss canton of Graubünden) was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a region of supreme strategic importance, a key passage of through the mountains between Italy and Northern and Central Europe. It formed a part of the Spanish Road, the caravan that led between the fortress-city of Milan and the Low Countries, where from 1572 until 1648, with a handful of interruptions, the armies of Spain were engaged in war with the Dutch Republic. For this entire period, the Valtelline pass was the main route for troops and provisions from Iberia to the North, since most of the alternatives, whether overland or by sea, were blocked by enemy troops and ships.Yet, despite the fact that the region was so central to the strategy of Philip II and his successors, and lay only a day’s journey from one of the capitals of the Catholic world, the local power base was almost entirely in the hands of Protestants who exercised considerable religious and political autonomy and were not averse to making deals with the political rivals of Spain, including France and Venice.

This situation became explosive in 1618, after Jörg Jenatsch, a Calvinist pastor, led a raid on the estates of an important Catholic family, the Planta, and had several of its members put on trial and executed. The Catholic response was even more drastic: over a few days in July 1620, hundreds of Protestants were massacred in all of the major centers of the Valtellina- Bormio, Sondrio, and Tirano-by Italian and Austrian troops in what came to be known as the ‘Sacro Macello’, or Holy Butchery. The attack severely weakened the Protestant faction in the valley, and moved it more closely into the orbit of the Spanish crown.

Jenatsch himself escaped the reprisal, and spent the years afterward exacting a slow vendetta against the Planta, earning a reputation as a folk hero, a protector of his people who was capable of using his knowledge of the territory, popular support, and ingenuity to confound a much stronger enemy. For posterity Jenatsch became a symbol of local patriotism who was resurrected by nineteenth century historians and novelists, alongside other Swiss and Tyrolean heroes like William Tell or Andreas Hofer.

However, Jenatsch’s life was marked by a profound rupture that fits uncomfortably into the traditional narrative of the folk hero. In 1635, he became a Catholic, a religious conversion with clear political implications. Jenatsch’s change of heart, though he insisted that it had been motivated by a reading of the church fathers, came in the midst of negotiations with the Spanish governor to establish peace in the region and restore some of its autonomy.  It was clear that his religious transformation would palliate the nervousness of the Spanish over any disengagement from the Valtellina and allowed Jenatsch to position himself as the guarantor of an eventual settlement, an undeniably shrewd move that his detractors saw as motivated solely by opportunism.

Whatever the case, his enemies were unwilling to be indulgent, and they eventually dealt Jenatsch an end which was worthy of his violent and colorful life: in 1639, in the midst of the carnival celebrations in Chur, the capital of the Grisons, he was assassinated by a man dressed as a bear.

Read more:

Randolph C. Head, Jenatsch’s Axe: Social Boundaries, Identity, and Myth in the Era of the Thirty Years’ War (University of Rochester Press, 2008)

Geoffrey Parker, The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659. The Logistics of Spanish Victory and Defeat in the Low Countries’ Wars (Cambridge UP, 1972)

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