William Tell, Switzerland's legendary national hero, is in trouble...


GENEVA -- William Tell, Switzerland's legendary national hero, is in trouble again.

Historian Fritz Mathys claims that even if Tell existed, he never used a crossbow to fight 13th century Austrian occupiers.


Crossbows did not come into use until 100 years later, Mathys argues in a study.

So if Tell really existed he must have done battle with a spear, sword or slingshot, Mathys said.

And that would mean that Tell could never have used a crossbow to fire an arrow to slice an apple on his son's head, although a more primitive bow and arrow could have been used.

Traditionalists were quick to react -- angrily.

'What does it matter if Tell had a crossbow or not?' said Rudolf Keller, leader of the strongly conservative National Action party. 'William Tell is a symbol of courage and independence and should be left alone.'

As every Swiss child -- and a lot of non-Swiss, too -- well knows, the famous archer and fighter for independence was taken prisoner by the Austrian occupiers and sentenced to die.

But the infamous Austrian governor, Gessler, offered Tell his freedom if he was prepared to risk his son's life by slicing the apple from 80 paces.

William Tell naturally succeeded, was set free and later returned to take care of Gessler.

Statues abound in Switzerland of Tell with crossbow on shoulder and arm around son.

The story has been questioned several times in recent years by various historians.

One of them, Sergius Golowin, claimed in 1981 that William Tell's son was really his daughter because the ancient wooden statue in Buergelin, in the canton or state of Uri where Tell lived, shows a child in a smock.

'Complete nonsense,' retorted Thomas Christen, the town recorder. 'Our statue certainly shows Tell with a child in a smock but all children wore smocks in those days and still do in some areas. Even I wore one as a child.'

A more serious controversy involving the majority German-speaking Swiss and the French-speaking minority erupted in 1984.

A school textbook issued to French-speaking children said no trace can be found of Tell or the Austrian tyrant Gessler in documents and chronicles of the times the bowman was supposed to have lived.

The book also said later poems and legends do not always portray Tell as a freedom hero. Some call him a 'disturber of public order.'

German-speaking school authorities denounced the textbook, saying they would leave the William Tell legend alone, whether or not he ever existed.

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