City on the Language Divide: Fribourg

The city of Fribourg is located only 20 miles from Bern, but is today mainly French speaking though it started out as a German (or Alemannic) speaking city. It boasts the only Catholic University in Switzerland and has retained its medieval character throughout the city to this day. If you want to get a feeling for the lifestyle 600 years back, this is the place to visit.

Fribourg was founded in 1157 by the Dukes of Zähringen. After the last Duke died in 1218, it passed as part of an inheritance deal to the Counts of Kyburg who sold it to the Counts of Habsburg in 1277. In the 15th century, the town was shortly in the hands of the Counts of Savoy, until it freed itself with the help of its Swiss allies. For the pains, Fribourg was made a free Imperial City in 1477 and joined the Swiss Confederation. Along with the rest of that organisation of countries, it became part of modern Switzerland in 1848.

Fribourg started out as a German (or rather Alemannic) speaking city, but over time more and more French speaking people settled in it. Today it is commonly seen as the language divide between the so called German and the French speaking parts of Switzerland. The Republic and Canton of Fribourg is part Alemannic and part French speaking, and all communications from authorities come therefore in both German and French at all times.

Fribourg was a center for textile and leather goods renowned across Europe into the 16th century, when they managed to lose contact with what was asked for by their customers. Fribourg remained staunchly Catholic during the Reformation becoming the seat of the Bishop of Lausanne after he had fled from that city. Today, Fribourg is the seat of the bishop of Fribourg, Lausanne, and Geneva. The University is the only one in Switzerland offering Catholic Theology as part of its curriculum.

The city was at all times very church friendly and therefore has a Cathedral of Saint Nicholas which was built during 200 years until the end of the 15th century. It also boasts numerous churches and monasteries all squeezed into the confines of the medieval city. Large parts of the city’s defense walls and towers are still in place and add to its medieval charm. The best way to explore this gem of a city is on foot, as modern roads are built mainly around the center, rather than through it.

In 1818, 100 families were granted the right to settle in Brazil by King John of Portugal and Brazil. When 261 families made the way to the place chosen by the crown for their settlement (chosen to be in climate similar to their hometown), the King not only granted an exemption, but granted the new settlement the status of city. The name chosen for their new home by the settlers was very predictably Nova Friburgo (New Fribourg). Nova Friburgo became part of the Empire of Brazil which had declared independence from Portugal under crown prince Peter of Portugal in 1822.

Famous people that lived in the city of Fribourg were the saint Petrus Canisius, the author of the Catholic Catechisms, Jean Tinguely, artist and sculptor and Maurice Bavaud who had tried to assassinate Hitler during the Munich Rally in 1938. The eminent Czech mathematician Matyas Lerch was Professor for Mathematics at the University of Fribourg, to where he had been invited despite his inability to walk without a walking aid after a childhood accident. Matyas Lerch was one of the most widely read mathematicians of his time but had been denied professorships in his native country due to his perceived invalid status.

For further information on the city of Fribourg you may want to go to the official homepage of the city government

Further reading