Yellacat Ranch Under a Western Sky

Remembering Conrad

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Grant, O Gods, that the earth may lie soft and gently upon the shades of our ancestors, and may their urns be filled with a perpetual springtime blooming with the sweet scents of crocus. – Aulus Persius Flaccus, Satura VII, 207-8

On this date each year, I honor the memory of Conrad Hauri, the founder of my patrilineage. He was a wealthy peasant in the village of Steffisburg, in the Interlaken district of Switzerland. I know about him only because his lord, Werner von Steffisburg, leased some lands to the church at Interlaken 723 years ago, on 8 February 1282. The lease mentioned Chuondradus dictus Hovri (Conrad called Hauri), who owed 9 shillings per year for his lands. The fact that he owed a rent for his land tells us that he was a peasant. The amount he owed, a percentage of his holdings, tells us that he was very well-to-do. (In the absence of a genuine money economy, he probably paid his rent in produce and labor.) His by-name, Hauri, meant loud or boisterious in the Alemannic dialect of Switzerland, giving us a fleeting glimpse of Conrad as a person. Conrad’s by-name became the surname of his lineage, a family that came to specialize in those most lucrative (and shady) of medieval occupations, miller and bailiff. They profited by the explusion of the Habsburgs from Switzerland, and by the time Napoleon unified the Swiss in 1798 the Hauris dominated local politics in a dozen Swiss villages. Their ancestral mansion at Reinach, called Schneggen, is now a hotel.

There was probably nothing remarkable about Conrad; he just happened to live at a time when by-names were becoming hereditary surnames. So, he became the ancestor of the Hauris. He lived at a time when Switzerland was solidly Christian and had been for centuries. The area in which he lived had been home to the Helvetii in the 1st millenium BCE. Their La Tène culture was an Early Iron Age culture of the continental Celts. Roman incursions began as early as 107 BCE, and the area was conquered by Julius Caesar in 58 BC with his victory at Col d’Armecy during the Gallic Wars. The region became the Roman province Helvetia, and was a favorite area for retired soldiers. The Romans withdrew and in 406 the area was overrun by the Alamanni, who had previously been settled north of the Rhine. The Alamannian kingdom was conquered by the Franks in 496. (This was the victory that led to the Frankish king Clovis becoming a Christian). The Franks divided Alamannia into Gaue (districts) such as Aargau and Thurgau, which they ruled through royal deputies (counts). The Alamannians were converted to Christianity in the 7th century by the Irish missionaries, Saints Columba and Gallus. The Frankish king Charles Martel incorporated Alamannia into the Frankish realm in the 8th century; thereafter, it was part of the Eastern Frankish kingdom. It became briefly part of the Kingdom of Upper Burgundy when Rudolf the Welf founded that kingdom in 888, but was incorporated into the Duchy of Swabia, one of the stem duchies of the German kingdom, in 912. In 1033, it became part of the Holy Roman Empire. In Conrad’s time, the Duchy of Swabia was disintegrating, and this area was coming the control of various local dynasties. It was ruled by the Counts of Zähringen until 1218, by the Counts of Kyburg 1218-1264, and by the Counts of Habsburgs thereafter. This area was controlled by the Imperial Free City of Berne, founded by Berthold V, Duke of Zähringen in 1191 and made a Free Imperial City in 1218.

Once upon a time, genealogists thought that Conrad was an illegitimate son of one of the Counts von Reinach, who in turn were supposed to be a branch of the Counts von Habsburg. Such tidy explanations for the devolution of power are now out of favor. In 1960, one of my distant cousins in Switzerland wrote an article purporting to prove that Conrad was one of a group of Russian merchants given a license to settle at Steffisburg. I suspect that personal politics had a bit to do with that theory, too. It’s interesting, but I don’t buy it. I prefer to imagine Old Conrad as a descendant of the Alamanni, or perhaps of the Romans, just another man of his village, high-spirited enough to merit his nickname, with a healthy dose of the slyness and acquisitiveness that were said to characterize the medieval peasant.

Whoever he was, I honor his memory, and with him, the memory of all the other members of my patrilineage, known and unknown.

Yellacat Ranch Under a Western Sky
Justin Swanstrom

Justin Swanstrom

Made in America. Retired attorney. Bookseller at Shining Lotus. No Nazis in Valhalla. He/him.

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