Basel (Fr. Bâle, but Basle is a wholly erroneous form; Ital. Basilea), the capital of the Swiss half canton of Basel Stadt or Bâle Ville. It is now the second most populous (109,161 inhabitants) town (ranking after Zürich) in the Swiss Confederation, while it is reputed to be the richest, the number of resident millionaires (in francs) exceeding that of any other Swiss town. Both facts are largely due to the opening (1882) of the St Gotthard railway, as merchandise collected from every part of north and central Europe is stored in Basel previous to being redistributed by means of that line. Hence the city has an extremely large and flourishing transit trade, despite the rather dingy appearance of its older portions. The city is divided by the Rhine into Gross Basel (south) and Klein Basel (north), the former being by far the larger. There are several bridges over the river, the old wooden bridge having been replaced in 1905 by one built of stone. The central or main railway station is in Gross Basel, while the Baden station is in Klein Basel. The most prominent building in the city is the cathedral or Münster, built of deep red sandstone, on a terrace high above the Rhine. It was consecrated in 1019, but was mainly rebuilt after the disastrous earthquake of 1356 that nearly ruined the city.
The public meetings of the great oecumenical council (1431-1449) were held in the choir, while the committees sat in the chapter-house. Erasmus lived in Basel 1521-1529, and on his death there (1536) was buried in the cathedral, attached to which are cloisters, in which various celebrated men are buried, e.g. Oecolampadius (d. 1531), Grynaeus (d. 1541), Buxtorf (d. 1732). The 16th-century Rathaus or town hall has recently been restored. In the museum is a fine collection of works of art by Holbein (who lived in Basel from 1528 to 1531), while the historical museum (in the old Franciscan church) contains many treasures, and among them the fragments of the famous Dance of Death, wrongly attributed to Holbein. The university (founded by Pius II. in 1460) is the oldest in Switzerland, and of late years has been extended by the construction of detached buildings for the study of the natural sciences, e.g. the Vesalianum and the Bernoullianum. The university library is very rich, and contains the original MSS. of the acts of the great oecumenical council.
There are a number of modern monuments in the city, the most important being that set up to the memory of the Swiss who fell in the battle of St Jakob (1444), won by the French. Basel is the seat of the chief missionary society in Switzerland, the training school for missionaries being at St Chrischona, 6 m. out of the city.
The town was founded in A.D. 374 by the emperor Valentinian, from whose residence there it takes its name. In the 5th century the bishop of Augusta Rauricorum (now called Kaiser Augst), 7&FRAC12; m. to the east, moved his see thither. Henceforth the history of the city is that of the growing power, spiritual and temporal, of the bishops, whose secular influence was gradually supplanted in the 14th century by the advance of the rival power of the burghers. In 1356 the city was nearly destroyed by a great earthquake. After long swaying between the neighbouring Rhine cities and the Swiss Confederation, it was admitted into the latter in 1501. It later became one of the chief centres of the Reformation movement in Switzerland, so that the bishop retired in 1525 to Porrentruy, where he resided till 1792, finally settling at Soleure in 1828, the bishopric having been wholly reorganized since 1814. As in other Swiss towns the trade gilds got all political power into their hands, especially by the 18th century.
They naturally favoured the city at the expense of the rural districts, so that in 1832 the latter proclaimed their independence, and in 1833 were organized into the half canton of Basel Landschaft, the city forming that of Basel Stadt.
See Basler Biographien (3 vols., 1900-1905); Basler Chroniken (original chronicles), (5 vols., Leipzig, 1872-1890); H. Boos, Geschichte von Basel, vol. i. (to 1501) alone published (1877); A. Burckhardt, Bilder aus d. Geschichte von Basel (3 vols., 1869-1882); Festschrift z. 400ten Jahrestage d. ewig. Bundes zwisch. B. und den Eidgenossen (1901); T. Geering, Handel und Industrie d. Stadt Basel (1885); A. Heusler, Verfassungsgeschichte d. Stadt Basel im Mittelalter (1860), and Rechtsquellen von Basel (2 vols., 1856-1865); L. A. Stocker, Basler Stadtbilder (1890); L. Stouff, Pouvoir temporel des évêques de Bâle (2 vols., Paris, 1891); R. Thommen, Gesch. d. Universität B., 1532-1632 (1889); Urkundenbuch d. Landschaft B. (pub. from 1881), and ditto for the city (pub. from 1890); W. Vischer, Gesch. d. Universität B., 1460-1529 (1860); R. Wackernagel, Gesch. d. Stadt Basel (3 vols., 1906 sqq.); K. Weber, Die Revolution im Kanton Basel, 1830-1833 (1907); G. Gautherot, La République rauracienne (1908).
(W. A. B. C.)