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Chablais Region (Switzerland, France)

Last modified: 2011-01-07 by rob raeside
Keywords: chablais | valais | wallis | vaud | france | lian rampant (black) |
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[Flag of Chablais Region] image by Pascal Gross

Argent Billety of Sable, a Lion rampant of the same langued and armed Gules.

Željko Heimer, 26 June 2000

See also:

Use of the flag

The Chablais region is split between two cantons, Vaud and Valais, and France (see to learn more).  This flag can be seen flying at the amusement park "Swiss Steam Park" which shows steam and electric railways at 1:4 scale in a reconstructed landscape with some typical monuments of the area.
Pascal Gross
, 25 June 2000

Chablais is one of the traditional provinces of Savoy, and also a region in Switzerland, the "two" Chablais having been in the past a single domain. The presentation of the history of Chablais given below is based on the lecture Vous avez dit Chablais?, given by Bernard Sache on 14 May 2002 in Douvaine, and unfortunately unpublished. Bernard Sache is a retired teacher in history and geography currently doing research on the history of Chablais. He has already published a book entitle Meillerie, ou les caillous de la gloire (Editions Le Vieil Annecy, 2003) and is preparing a more ambitious study on Chablais under the great Amedees. Additional information can be found in the presentation of Thonon.

Until the VIIIth century BC, human settlements were set up on the shore of the Lake Leman, mostly between Tougues and Thonon; the lakeside villages built on piles stuck into the lake are called palaffites. These early settlers knew how to work bronze, which were not available locally but was easily shipped via the lake. This was the only period in history where industrialization really existed in Chablais. During the late Bronze Age, settlement moved inland, along the line Veigy-Douvaine-Thonon as far as the foothills of the Voirons massif, and even to Lullin, beyond this massif.

There are very few remains of these settlers, who were replaced by new Celtic settlers classified among the Ligurians. The newcomers came from the East of Europe, spoke an Indo-European language and worked iron. They came in two waves, the first one between 900 and 500 BC, the second one between 500 and 50 BC. The latter wave is the only significant one for Chablais. The settlers, called the Allobroges, most probably colonized the lower territories whereas the earlier settlers moved up into the mountains and developed a civilization based on cattle breeding. The Allobroges were subjected by the Romans in 121 BC and helped them to held the Hevetes in check.

During the Gallo-Roman period, Chablais was mostly settled by villae (big estates) and a few urban centers, the most significant being Douvaine, Bons and Thonon. The river Dranse constituted a natural border to colonization: no significant settlement seems to have existed beyond the Dranse, including in Evian, which is one of the few French thermal cities without a Gallo-Roman history.

After the Great Invasions, Chablais was incorporated into the Kingdom of Burgundy, which was one of the most stable "states" at that time. In 1032, King Rodolphe died without a male heir and was succeeded by German Emperor Konrad, who claimed to defend the interests of Rodolphe's widow. Count Humbert, who owned domains near the cities of Chambery and Bellay, in Lower Dauphine and in Val d'Aosta, supported Konrad, who awarded him "gatekeeper of the Alps", with the title of Count of Chablais. Humbert was also the protector of the Christian religion, which had flourished in Chablais since King of Burgundy Sigismond founded the St. Maurice's abbey in Agaune in 515 to emphasize his conversion. Humbert's successor, Pierre I, increased his position by helping Emperor of Germany Henri IV to cross the Alps on his way to Canossa. He was rewarded the permanent protection of the St. Maurice's abbey and the domain between the cities of Martigny and Vevey (today in Switzerland, shared between the cantons of Valais and Vaud). A place called Pennoslacos, located on the lakeshore on the road linking the rivers Rhone and Rhine, was part of this domain. The Celtic toponym Pennoslacos, meaning the lake's head (end) was Latinized by clerks into Caput Lacis, which later gave Chablais. Caput Lacis was then used to designate the St. Maurice's abbey domain, which equaled the territory granted by the Emperor to Pierre I. The late toponymist Albert Dauzat relates Chablais to chable, the name given locally to a corridor opened in a mountain forest in order to retrieve cut trees, but this hypothesis does not seem to be supported by any evidence.

The further history of Chablais is linked to the big ambitions of the Counts of Savoy, who attempted to become Kings as the "natural heirs" of the Kingdom of Burgundy and to reunify their domains scattered all over the Alps. In the XIth and XIIth century, the abbey of Agaune set up daughter abbeys in Abondance, whereas the Cistercians founded an abbey in the Val d'Aups. In the same time, the Counts of Savoy, from their castles of Chillon and Villeneuve (today in Switzerland) attempted to control the valley of Rhone, lake Leman and the neighbouring areas. Count Pierre II (1263-1268) set up the Bailiwick of Chablais; in 1325, Chablais included the chatellenies of Entremont, Saint-Maurice, Saxon, Saillon, Conthey, la Tour de Peilz, Vevey, Chatel-Saint-Denis, Payerne, Morat, la Corbiere, Versoix, the Island's Castle in Geneva (all of them constituting significant parts of the modern cantons of Geneva and Vaud and a part of Valais), Yvoire, Thonon-Allinges and Evian Feternes (the three of them constituting the modern French Chablais). The build-up of Chablais was made through marriages, agreements, debt payments and pressures, but did not involve war actions. However, the Counts of Savoie had strong challengers in Western Chablais, that is the Count of Geneva, who hold the fortresses of Hermance and Beauregard on the lakeshore and of Ballaison and Langin inland, and the Sire of Faucigny, who hold the fortresses of Rovoree, Nernier, Avully and Allinges-le-Vieux. In the beginning of the XIVth century, the Count of Savoy suppressed the fortress of Rovoree and took the control of most other fortresses owned by Faucigny. The treaty of Paris (1355) confirmed the leadership of Savoy on Chablais, and the fortresses lost their strategic importance, allowing the development of the cities.

During the reigns of the three great princes of Savoy Amedee VI (1343-1383), Amedee VII (1383-1391) and Amedee VIII (1391-1451), Chablais was the political center of Savoy. Since Savoy then completely controlled the lake Leman, the court moved from Chillon to Thonon, which became the preferred residence of the princes (at that time, Savoy had no capital city). Bonne de Bourbon, Amedee VII's wife, made of the castle of Ripaille her main residence. Marie de Bourgogne, Amedee VIII's wife, set up beautiful castles in Ripaille, Thonon, Amphion and Evian. Chablais was also a center of art and science: the cloister of the abbey of Abondance was decorated with frescos, whereas laboratories were set up in the castle of Ripaille in order to find control measures against the black plague.

The decline of Chablais started at the end of the XVth century, under the reign of the nefarious Duchess Ann of Cyprus and her personal councillor Valperga. The political center of the Duchy moved to Chambery, the see of the Government Accounting Office and the Archives, until the capital city was transferred to Turin (1563). Savoy took the party of Burgundy against France and paid a high price for this unfortunate choice: Valais, that is the historical Chablais, was lost in 1476. Duke Charles III (1504-1536) attempted to take control of Geneva, completely underestimating the increasing power of the Swiss canton and the independence feelings in Geneva. Accordingly, Bern set up an alliance with Geneva and invaded Savoy, including Chablais, in 1536. For a few decades, Chablais was shared between the Protestants of Bern and the Catholics of Valais, the border being the river Dranse. By treaties signed in 1564 with Bern and 1569 with Valais, Chablais was reincorporated to Savoy. The eastern border of the Duchy was fixed as the river Morge, crossing the village of Saint-Gingolph, thus confirming the 1476 loss of the caput lacis. The occupation by Bern is often described as the worst period in the history of Chablais, but it seems that Bern administrated the area much better than the Duke of Savoy.

In the rest of this description, Chablais must be understood as Chablais Savoyard. The Chablais ancien (the old caput lacis) followed the destiny of the cantons of Vaud and Wallis.

Duke Charles-Emmanuel, crowned in 1580, had the obsession of reincorporating Geneva to Savoy. His clueless ambitions caused another two invasions of Chablais in 1589 and 1591: the castles of Thonon and Ripaille were trashed and the city of Evian was burned. In 1602, the pathetic expedition of L'Escalade ended Charles-Emmanuel's ambitions and allowed Geneva to develop without the Savoy threat. Chablais reflourished in the XVIIth century but lost its strategic importance: the Dukes were only interested by the thermal sources of Chablais and used the region as a base for light attacks against Geneva. The main role of Chablais was then to spread the Counter-Reformation in the neighbouring Protestant Swiss cantons: St. Francois-de-Sales reorganized the abbey of Abondance, moved a Cathusian foundation from Vallon (in the mountains) to Ripaille, and welcomed the monks and nuns expelled from Switzerland. However, the center of the operations was Annecy, where the Bishopric of Geneva had it see.

In the XVIIIth century, Chablais was occupied by the French (1703-1709) and Spanish (1742-1748) troops. The economical situation was very bad: the farmers needed to sell their products in Geneva, whereas trade with the Protestant countries was restricted and even forbidden by the Duke under the pressure of the Catholic church. Chablais was the poorest province of Piemont, administrated by an intendant. It is therefore not surprising that Chablais massively voted for the incorporation to France in 1865. During the Second World War, Chablais, which until then had not really fought against any invader, violently opposed the German occupation. The tragedies of Saint-Gingolph and Habere-Lullin are the main symbols of the Resistance to the Nazi barbary.

Chablais has kept a lot of local words and expressions, some also used in the rest of Savoy, Jura and Switzerland. Some of these words are listed and explained in a very pleasant way in:  Dictionnaire du chablaisien by Andre Depraz (Jean-Claude Fert, Yvoire, 1998) It includes the famous panosse, a floorcloth, but does not say that panosse verte et blanche (green and white floorcloth) is the nickname of the flag of canton of Vaud.

Ivan Sache, 24 January 2005