The tithing rights of the Bernese patricians in the country of Vaud


Patrick-Ronald Monbaron

La dîme en contexte

A Swiss canton on its own since 1803, Vaud has actually been part of the Swiss Confederation since 1536, but as conquered territory belonging to the City of Bern. By conquest, its suzerainty went from the House of Savoy to the Bernese patricians. At the same time, Reformation was imposed, leading to the secularisation of all goods and revenues of the Roman Catholic Church. From then on, and until the Revolution of 1798, the majority of all the tithe rights belonged to the new power, thus submitting Vaud’s crop production to its own agricultural policy.

La dîme sur le métier

Before the 19th century, archives only offer very limited quantitative information about agriculture, although it is the dominant economical sector of any preindustrial society. This lack of information has often hindered historical research in this domain, although the use of tax sources has offered a satisfactory substitute, providing relevant data.

For this reason, since the 1960s, the ecclesiastical tithe has been the object of studies in several countries, as it was thought to be a possible indicator of the agricultural production. Its study in Vaud under the Bernese Ancien Regime tries to take them further, by offering historical insights not only about regional economical conditions, but also about Switzerland and Europe. Furthermore, it offers scholars a unique comparison material.

La dîme en question

In Europe, most tithe studies have been published between 1960 and 1980. The two economical history congresses, Paris in 1969 and Edinburgh in 1978, mark two milestones in this field, the first expressing all hope, the second hallowing doubts. Caught between contradictory debates and scholarly quarrels, tithe sources promised more than they finally yielded. However, methodological and analytical approaches have shown the limits of the genre, while leaving the field open for future research. A first path has been extensively explored, it remains to be taken further while taking into account previous experience.

La dîme sous contrôle

As soon as Vaud was conquered, the Bernese State was confronted with the old customs, choosing to deal with them rather than abolishing them. It inventoried them, codified them and influenced them with its own legislative will. It pursued the unification of the legal system with constancy, using law rather than imposing. Its obstinate legalism certainly preserved it from popular upheavals, even if did not avoid grudges and local resistance.

The same goes for the tithe and its capital importance for the Public Treasure. Using trials and sovereign judgement, the tithe legislation managed to distinguish lasting habits from particular or consensual abuse as far as imposition, franchise and perception goes. With its case law, it will manage to limit fraud and specifities, without eliminating a certain degree of vagueness, typical of the time.

La dîme en pagaïe

The accounting of the Bernese bailiffs are the principal source for the present research on the tithe in Vaud. In 615 volumes – 3'969 annual reports, they nearly cover the whole of the Ancien Regime, while following common accounting rules, which gives them a great coherence. A number of state directives will standardize even further the organisation of the different sections, the precision of the accounting and a certain structure of the annual balance sheet, though without completely standardising the accounting system. The simple economic common sense will forbid any radical changes to the management of the public finances, which were smartly adapted to local customs. For example, the multitude of local units of capacity is probably the most emblematic popular resistance against centralisation.

La dîme à tâtons

Succeeding both to the duchy of Savoy and to the Roman Catholic Church provided the city of Berne with a large loot of rights, which it had to list, sort out and describe as they best fitted its own economical interests. The successive modifications of tax bases and competences required a great deal of effort and work on the part of the Bernese administration to finally have a cadastral overleaping of fiefs, jurisdiction and tithe in the second half of the XVIIIth century. From one modification to another, the erosion policy – or make haste slowly – improved the public rights to the detriment of the private ones and provided the necessary cohesion to the sensible collection of feudal, seigneurial and tithe taxes.

La dîme en zestes

To what originality can the tithe in Vaud pretend? A measure of revenue, it certainly is; an indication of an economic climate, it might be. Its analysis is limited by the handling of serial data and the need for additional sources, all of which can help to make out and define – at least in terms of hypotheses – the agricultural context of the time, its production and its productivity. Could the decimal sudoku have a solution for Vaud? Could it even be applied elsewhere?


Séries chronologiques

Given the notion that raw data has a longer life than its analysis, it seemed important to publish all the data collected in the accounting of the bailiffs from the XVIth to the XVIIIth century, or even better, the complete chronological series, which can be immediately used for further analysis. For this reason, the numerous regional measures of grain capacity have been converted into hectolitres and then, for pure statistical ornament, into quintals.


The publication of the sources and of the bibliography respects the formal characteristics of any scientific study. As a less traditional bonus, a referential index of all the tithe rights offers many new archival paths, the exploration of which remains open to future historians.

Publication sous les auspices de la
Publication sous les auspices de la Société d'Histoire de la Suisse Romande

Patrick-Ronald Monbaron
Lausanne, Suisse

© Musée d'Histoire de Berne
Publication sous les auspices de la Société d'Histoire de la Suisse Romande
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