Short History of Suevia (Swabia)

after Dieter Etzel's or R. Heli's version.


Swabia (German Schwaben, Latin Suevia), with its (former) capital at Augsburg, was a medieval duchy in the lands now forming southwestern Germany. Its territories covered the area now occupied by Baden-Württemberg (including the Black Forest) and parts of western Bavaria (to the Lech River) and northern Switzerland. It owes its importance to its strategic position between the upper reaches of two of Europe's most important rivers, the Danube and the Rhine. The region was first known to the Romans as Alemannia because at the time its settlers were the Germanic tribe of Alamans (or Alemanni). When the Romans began to conquer the area, it was incorporated as part of the Agri Decumates. It later received its present name from later German migrants, the Suevi, who became amalgamated with the Alemanni in the 5th century AD. For a detailed description of the Roman occupation of southwestern Germany and its ending see B. Hummel's page.

These Suevi are probably actually best thought of as a collective group of a number of German tribes (including the Marcomanni and Lombards), which are mentioned in the 1st century BC by Gaius Julius Caesar as dwelling east of the Rhine River. The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (1st century AD) described them as inhabiting all of central Germany. One group of Suevi, allied with the Vandals and the Alans, swept down on the Iberian Peninsula in AD 407, conquered it from the Hispano-Romans living there, and apportioned out the territory. As a result, by 411 the Suevi were established in present-day northern Portugal and Galicia, and by 452, in Castile. They adopted Catholic Christianity and ruled until 469 when they were subjugated by the Visigoths, who had been co-opted by the rulers at Rome. The Suevi, and Alemanni, who remained in Germany are the ancestors of the medieval Swabians. The name is also spelled Suebi.


AD 500 - 1000

Around AD 500, Alemannia came under the control of the waxing Frankish Empire. But its ruling house, the Merovingians, were not strong and by 689 Swabia was virtually independent. It was brought back under control in the 730's and 740's by Charles Martel, founder of the Carolingian Dynasty, who deposed the hereditary dukes of Swabia and subdivided it to be ruled by counts reporting directly to him. This situation continued until the 9th century and the dissolution of the Empire under the grandsons of Charles the Great (Karl der Große, Charlemagne). Between 900-11, largely because the central royal authority failed to stem the tide of invading Magyars (Hungarians) and Normans, the Alemannians were able to become an independent "stem-duchy", organized around the people of an historic tribe like those of the Bavarians, Franks, Saxons and Thuringians.

As in all the duchies, the dukes were those who proved they could meet the military demands of those anarchic times. The first duke's family were known by the sobriquet dux Raetianorum, i.e. defenders of the Alpine passes of Switzerland, reflecting their role as military leaders and organizers. During this period, Swabia controlled not only parts of Switzerland, but lands west of the Rhine River, i.e. including the Alsace (where the Alemannic-based Alsatian dialect is still alive).

Alemannia's forces raised its commander, Erchanger, to the dukedom in 915, after his forces defeated the German king Conrad I. When Erchanger was defeated and executed in 917, he was replaced by Burchard II, who had strong enough backing to actually have made a play for the monarchy. Instead, he decided to accept the choice of Henry I of Saxony made by the dying King Conrad I. In 919, Burchard was faced with the challenge of invasion by Rudolf I, king of Burgundy. Alemannia successfully repulsed the invaders and the peace that followed was sealed by the marriage of Rudolf and Burchard's daughter. The two formed an alliance and began expeditions to conquest in Italy about 922. When four years later Burchard died during one of them, his ally Rudolf pressed his claim to Alemannia through marriage. However, Henry was unwilling to see Alemannia alienated from the kingdom and instead appointed as duke, Hermann, cousin of Eberhard who hailed from Franconia. Hermann showed his gratitude in 919 by saving the fortunes of the king during the Saxon Revolt. But his installation had inaugurated a regular trend between 926 and 1080, only one duke was Alemannic, all the rest were either Franks or Saxons.

Meanwhile, to assuage Rudolf's ambitions, the town of Basel (Basle, Bâle) was severed from Swabia and given to Burgundy. In gratitude, Rudolf presented Henry with an artifact recovered from Italy - the Holy Lance, an important symbol of the inheritance of Constantine. But Swabia, as it now began to be called, still managed to be sovereign enough to pursue its own foreign policy. Liudolf became duke in 949, succeeding Hermann by marrying his daughter. In 951, Liudolf crossed the Alps, ostensibly to champion Adelaide of Burgundy, but in reality to take advantage of Italian weakness to expand his realm. He was pre-empted in this when the king, Otto I, himself invaded the region, secured the crown of Lombardy and married Adelaide. The duke, who was Otto's son, transformed his disappointment into first a conspiracy in 952 and in 953 an open revolt which could not be quashed until 955. Only following this did Otto feel strong and secure enough to go to Rome and become the first German king to be crowned by the pope as a nominal emperor. Another of the Burchards took over in 954. After Burchard died, Otto II appointed Liudolf's son Otto to succeed him.


AD 1000 - 1500

Swabia showed its strength yet again in 1027 when Duke Ernst of Swabia revolted against Conrad III. The king countered by allying with the counts in Swabia and thus quickly ended the episode. By 1039, Swabia was one of four duchies in the king's hands. From 1077-1080, Germany was roiled by the Investiture Contest, a competition between king and pope, which left local lords unchecked and free to engage in a massive land and property grab, especially regarding monasteries. The duke of Swabia, Rudolf, was even elected the anti-king during this time, but never gained widespread acceptance.

Following the Contest, true feudalism sprang up in the form of castle building all over Swabia and the rest of Germany. One of the most prominent was its duke, Frederick of Staufen, or Hohenstaufen. The Hohenstaufen family were very powerful and provided Swabia with its most illustrious dukes. Thus when King Henry IV was seeking supporters during the civil wars, Frederick was a natural choice to marry his daughter. When Henry's dynastic line failed in 1138, Frederick actually vaulted to the kingship, which the family held until 1250 (see Frederick II). Meanwhile, Frederick, now called Friedrich I Barbarossa, continued to build up Swabia to strengthen his position against the still-powerful dukes such as Henry the Lion, a practice which brought him into some conflict with the Bertolds.

After the Staufens, the Bertolds were the most prominent family of castle builders in Swabia. This family drew their early power and tax base from their control of monasteries, which they founded in the hitherto-uninhabited Black Forest. Once developed by monks, it began to be colonized and towns laid out, including Freiburg-im-Breisgau, founded by Conrad Bertold in 1120. By then, the castle had become so important that their owners began to name themselves after them, so it is as Conrad von Zähringen that Conrad appears in the records.

But as the castles went up, the duchies went down under this wave of particularism. After the Hohenstaufens fell out of power, Swabia was given to King Conrad III's son. After his death, it returned to the crown and was put in control of ministerials, a non-noble class of civil servants. The idea was that such men would be more tractable and less likely to alienate the fief from the crown out of their own greed. It is perhaps a recognition of the lesser power of the ministeriales that at the same time, the Zähringen family was also restricted in 1169 in terms of their activities in Burgundy. When the Hohenstaufen line entirely failed in 1268, it signaled the breakup of Swabia as a political unit as various portions were snapped up by families which were to play important roles in Germany's future: Zähringen, Habsburg and Hohenzollern.

Eventually, the margraves of Baden, located along the Rhine River and those of Württemberg, centered at Stuttgart (also Stuegart, Stuggart, a Swabian word meaning "Stuten garten" or Mare's Corral) became dominant. The idea of Swabia was not lost, however, and in 1376, 14 cities, for their own protection, organized themselves into the Swabian League of Cities. The League grew to eventually include over 32 cities from Basle in the west to Regensburg in the east, from Constance in the south to Nürnberg (Nuremberg) in the North. In 1488, a new grouping, now simply styled "Swabian League" was formed by these cities, the larger principalities and even individual knights, for the purpose of maintaining internal stability. When in the 16th century, the Holy Roman Empire began to organize around the Kreis, literally, "circle", these states called themselves the Swabian Kreis. The Kreis, more properly the Reichskreis or Imperial Circle, was an area similar to an English county within the larger whole. (The term originally originally referred to a a lined-off place were a battle was to take place. Within such a ring, different rules applied as compared with the outside of the ring.) The Kreis designated the Swabian Kreis comprised all of the inheritor Swabian states.



In the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as areas of eastern Europe were re-conquered from the Ottoman Turks, many from Swabia (and other parts of Germany) migrated to areas in the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. The Danube River, or Donau, was the most frequently used means of transportation for the trek and this group came to be known as the Donauschwaben. In the aftermath of World War II many of them fled to Germany and Austria or emigrated to North-America and elsewhere. With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 a steady flux of repatriating Donauschwaben can be observed bringing the century-long history of Donauschwaben slowly to an end.



The term Swabia nowadays is used in a more restricted way and does not refer to the whole area once encompassed by the medieval duchy. It is related to the custom of speaking the Swabian dialect, which is prevailing on the territory of Württemberg (old map), in the area south of the Danube (till the Lake Constance, or Bodensee, and the Rhine) called Oberschwaben, and the region between Iller and Lech, called Bavarian Swabia. Thus the more recent Swabian history is closely related to that of Württemberg, except for Bavarian Swabia, which belongs to Bavaria since 1815. The modern center of Swabia is thought to lie at Stuttgart and there one can often hear spoken the Swabian dialect, Schwäbisch, with its customary friendly greeting of "Grüss Gott" (sounds like 'Gree's Godd'). Those parts of the medieval Swabian duchy that are now located in Switzerland, Baden or Alsace are nowadays commonly refered to as 'alemannic' according to the kinds of dialects that are spoken there. Of course, the borders between Swabian and Alemanic (in the south-west) and Franconian (in the north-east) are not very sharp.

			see also Swabian recipes,  Württemberg history,  how to yell in Swabian,   my home page in Swabian

Last modified: January 18th, 2000