The Story of Zürich and Me

Lisl Zlitni has kindly invited me to write a guest post on her blog, Before the Second Sleep, in connection with a series she’s doing on my novels. Here’s Journey to Zürich.

Zürich Through Time and Space

by Martha Kennedy

Grossmünster (Great Church)

My relationship with Zürich did not start well. On my first visit in 1994, the labyrinthine passageways in the Niederdorf, Zürich’s old town, felt sinister and claustrophobic. The whole thing was “topped” by a barren, stone cathedral called the “Grossmünster” or Great Church. The few images in the church — such as Jesus whipping himself with a cat-o-nine tails — were horrific. I could not have imagined that someday those streets would fill my imagination, the church would become a place of dreams, or that the city held within its long history people who belong to me.


Three years later, on my second visit, I was with two friends at a famous bar, the Bodega Española. The Neiderdorf, yes, the bar was in the Niederdorf, now seemed less sinister (but equally labyrinthine). We were drinking Spanish red wine as people have done there for a century or so, including Lenin who lived for a time in Zürich. A professor, a Scandinavian man who said he taught Norse literature at the University of Zürich, leaned across one of my friends and asked me, “What brings you to the cross-roads of western civilization? James Joyce’s grave?”

“James Joyce’s grave?” I asked, incredulous. This was strange, and ghoulish.

“He lived here after he fled Trieste and the fascists,” said the professor.

I barely heard the professor. I was still hung up on the idea of Zürich as the “crossroads of western civilization.”

The wonder of complete ignorance, such as mine, is that you get to learn things.

Zürich is an ancient city, but most don’t think of it as they do other ancient European cities such as Rome, Athens or London. Zürich has been around in some form for more than 6000 years as village of lake dwellers, a Celtic settlement, an Allemani town, a Roman trading center. On one narrow lane, Thermengasse, leading to the Lindenhof, where the Romans had their palace, a visitor can look through a grating to see ruins of a Roman bath.


Before that second Zürich journey, I had read How the Irish Saved Civilizationby Thomas Cahill (I bought it thinking it was a joke) and was flabbergasted by the fact that Switzerland’s patron saint is an Irishman, St. Gall. With my last name being “Kennedy” it is probable there is at least one Irishman in the woodpile of my ancestry, so I was curious about this Irishman. My curiosity about St. Gall drew me into an old world that was new to me.

Back in the day (the 7th century) St. Columbanus and St. Gall, and ten other monks, had crossed the English Channel and walked to the Lake of Constance where Gallus became ill and decided to stay behind. Gallus lived as a hermit with twelve converted Germanic monks whom he taught.

Gallus’ hermitage is now (and has been for centuries) an enormous abbey whose library contains  some of the world’s oldest manuscripts. Over the doorway is inscribed, in Greek, “Medicine Chest of the Soul.” Many of the manuscripts are written in languages known to only a few scholars. It touched me deeply that people had, long ago, written important messages to the future that the future could not read.


Martin of Gfenn is an indieBRAG Medallion Honoree (click image)

When we returned to Zürich, my friend’s mother, knowing of my new interest in all things medieval, said, “Take Martha to see the little church at Gfenn.” Gfenn, pronounced “fen,” (a medieval German word meaning “swamp”) is a village north of Zürich.

We arrived at dusk, and the church was locked. But the stone medieval building captured my imagination. We returned the next day, and I learned that it had been built in the 13th century as part of a community of the Knights of St. Lazarus; the Leper Knights of Jerusalem.

Looking at the faded frescoes surrounding the east window of the chapel, I began a journey in space and time that became Martin of Gfenn. It was as if the protagonist of the story, Martin, a young artist with leprosy, had been waiting centuries for someone to tell his story, and I had practiced writing all my life in preparation. The thing is, I knew NOTHING about the crusades, Catholicism, the organization of the military orders, leprosy, fresco painting, medieval European history or about Zürich.


I began writing Martin of Gfenn in 1998 and had a completed, but not “finished,” manuscript by 2004. I went online hoping to find a Swiss medievalist historian who might be willing to read the book. I found Rainer Hugener, then a graduate student at the University of Zürich. He’d grown up only a few kilometers from Gfenn and had already specialized in the history of the very place where Martin of Gfenn was set. He was excited that anyone — never mind an American — was interested in this tiny dot on the Swiss map. He read the novel. I was concerned about the quality of my research, and Rainer replied that he was stunned by its historical accuracy. I was relieved and happy.

I decided to visit Zürich in March 2005 and I met Rainer on the steps of St. Peter’s church. Rainer had an early map of Zürich, and we used it to go around the city in our own 13th century time machine. This amazing day culminated in a trip north over the Zürichberg (where the zoo is now located) to Gfenn, mostly on foot, a journey Martin had made. Just beyond the zoo are ruins of a medieval Augustinian cloister, St. Martins, a place of which I had no knowledge, but where Rainer imagined the protagonist of my novel had been raised. It was the perfect place.

Martha at Gfenn

We reached the chapel at Gfenn just before sunset. We took photos and talked about the paintings, about the ruins of Castle Dubelstein on the hillside across the fields, about Rainer’s research. Afterward, I went home with Rainer whose girlfriend at the time, also a historian, had prepared dinner. We sat around the table, sharing fondue and champagne, and I asked them, “How do you guys like being identified as Swiss medievalist historians?”

They laughed and Rainer’s girlfriend said, “What do you think YOU are?”

Wow. I was a Swiss medievalist historian! Martin of Gfenn had brought me there; Zürich had brought me there.


Second cover edition for Savior, also winner of an indieBRAG Medallion (click image)
Second cover edition for Savior, also winner of an indieBRAG Medallion (click image)

The Commander, one of the characters in Martin of Gfenn, seemed to cry out for me to tell his story, so I had begun Savior in the summer of 2004. In my mind was a location, a hillside, with a castle ruin that I had seen on one of my trips to Switzerland in the 1990s. I made that the location of my story, rebuilt (in my mind) the ruined castle, put a family in it. The location was on the Albis Mountains, a small range of high hills southeast of Zürich, in the Sihl Forest, on the “back” of the Üetliberg, the highest mountain in the Albis chain. Because I’d hiked there, the setting I was imagining felt familiar to me. I imagined the family to be that of a very minor noble, a knight and his wife and sons. One of the sons, the older of the two, would become Commander of the community at Gfenn after a long journey that would include fighting in the Holy Land. I imagined it as a prequel to Martin of Gfenn. By 2005, I had more or less finished what was then called Rudolf when life hit me hard. Writing took a back seat for the next five years.

When Martin of Gfenn was finally published in 2011, I sent several copies to newspapers in and around Zürich, hoping for reviews. The book was received enthusiastically, and I was interviewed by several papers. It was read by English-speaking Swiss, one of whom sent me an email suggesting I had Swiss ancestry. He said many Americans did. In the 18th century Swiss Anabaptists, Mennonites and Amish, had fled Switzerland.

After eating macaroni and cheese in Appenzell in 1997, a dish that, in the first bite, took me back to my grandmother’s kitchen in Billings, Montana, I’d suspected my grandma of being Swiss. At that time, I did a little search, but found nothing. I gave it another shot at this man’s suggestion and there they were, a family named Lunkhofen with close connections to another family with the nickname “Schneebeli.”

The Lunkhofens had lived in a small castle fort on the Albis Mountains above the town of Affoltern am Albis, or “Appletree Village on the Albis,” the very location in which I had envisioned the family. They had two sons. The names I’d given the characters in my story were, all but one, the names of the members of my own family. My family tree provided an ending in which I could believe. Down the road, this discovery led to The Brothers Path.

Learning that part of my OWN story began in this complex, ancient and beloved place made me inexpressibly happy — but it was eerie, too.


This past summer I returned to Zürich for the first time since 2005. I saw the streets as familiar old friends I knew not only as they are today, but as I had come to know them through time, through old maps and the footsteps of the characters in my novels.

I met Rainer and his wonderful girlfriend, Kirsten, for dinner. As we planned our meeting, we decided to meet in front of the Grossmünster. Because the focus of my writing had moved on some three hundred years, Rainer met me with maps of 16th century Zürich and surrounding towns. We had dinner in a sidewalk cafe in the Niederdorf. It turned out very “Swiss” as a group of Alphorn players came by and serenaded everyone on the patio.

Martha pointing at the navel of the world
Martha pointing at the navel of the world

We talked as, in my life, only Swiss medievalist historians can.

“How long has it been since you saw each other?” asked Kirsten.

“Ten? Eleven years?” Rainer answered.

“That’s a long time.”

When our dinner was over, and I really had to go, we all walked to the parking garage.

We passed the Cabaret Voltaire, the home of DADA. In 2005 Rainer took a photo of  me pointing up to the “Navel of the World.” That evening, Kirsten took a photo of both of us pointing.

Rainer and Martha

As we said goodbye, Kirsten said, “Don’t wait another eleven years.”

I’m nearly 65. I quickly did the math.

“I won’t. I love Zürich. I’ve missed it.”

“Zürich loves you,” said Rainer.

And I kind of think that might be true when I look at all the gifts Zürich has given me.


Martin of Gfenn — An Artist’s Story

Martin of Gfenn


In Martha Kennedy’s quiet, intensely moving novel Martin of Gfenn, the title character is given at a young age by his father to the Augustine Canons of St. Martin in thirteenth-century Zurich. The boy quickly demonstrates a talent for art, which the Augustinians encourage with formal training. At the threshold of his adult life, Martin contracts one of the scourges of the Middle Ages, leprosy (the disease is described with a rhetoric that borders on the poetic and a degree of detail that’s almost clinical), but he initially believes it will remain in remission. He achieves some public success as a painter in the following years, but eventually his symptoms return and accelerate; his life is derailed and he ends up at the Knights of St. Lazarus sanctuary in the village of Gfenn.

Kennedy invests this grim story with a great deal of pathos and a surprising amount of resigned optimism; her characters are richly textured, none more so than Martin himself, who gropes toward self-knowledge and a kind of acceptance even as his nightmarishly worsening physical condition makes it harder and harder for him to exercise his artistic talent. The research behind Martin of Gfenn, both sociological and biological, is evident, but the novel’s true genius lies in its insight into the fragile nature of hope itself.

An outstanding work, highly recommended.

Editor’s Choice, Historical Novel Society, Indie Review

HNS Eds_Choice




Martin of Gfenn is the story of a young artist named Martin living in Zürich, Switzerland, in the mid-thirteenth century. Left by his father (a minor knight) with the Augustine Canons of St. Martin, Martin shows promise as an artist at a very young age. The Provost finds a teacher for Martin in the person of Michele, an Augustine Canon and artist from Verona, who has been sent to Zürich as punishment and penance. Michele teaches Martin everything about fresco painting, infusing him with his own passion for drawing, color and the plaster itself. After a few years, Michele is called back to Verona.

At nineteen, primed to begin his life as a master painter, Martin contracts leprosy. He is given the rite of separation and sent away from the Augustine Canons of St. Martin and told to go to the leper community of the Knights of St. Lazarus in the village of Gfenn, one day walk to the north. Unable to bear the thought of this, he goes in the other direction, to the city of Zürich.

Featured Image -- 344


Though he could not have known it, it is only when he accepts his condition that Martin can be who he really is. Believing it his destiny to paint a sanctuary, he undertakes the newly built chapel at the community of the Knights of St. Lazarus.

An Excerpt

Before daylight, Martin reached a walled group of stone buildings on low hill. The name of the place, Gfenn, was nothing more than the word in common use for swamp. Following ecclesiastical and temporal law, the communities of the Knights of St. Lazarus, the Leper Knights, were built downwind from everything so that the lepers’ breath would be trapped in the marshes.

A lay sister wearing white and a brother dressed in black answered Martin’s knock. Over his robe, the brother wore a black smock with a white cross appliquéd to one shoulder. His face was gruesome beyond the power of Martin’s imagination, but he moved and spoke as if his nose were not corroded and blanched, as if lips covered his teeth.

“Come in, brother,” he said. “You are hurt,” he said looking down at Martin’s foot with its bloodstained dressings. “What happened?” The voice was kind, the solicitude genuine.

“Dogs,” said Martin, his eyes down.


“On the mountain. Hunters’ dogs.”


“Yesterday? No, the day before? I don’t know.”

“Let me see,” he said, leading Martin inside to a large room with a huge fire over which hung kettles of boiling water. “Sit.” The brother pointed to a bench just inside the door. “Ah, you had a bad time there,” he said unwrapping the chewed foot and ankle. “It must hurt. You walked here?”



“The mountain. The Zürichberg. What month are we in?” he asked the man. “It was full spring when I, or nearly, when I…”

“When you?”

“Left Zürich,” said Martin.

“I will get dressings for that foot. Brother Heinrich!” he called out to another who was passing the back door. “I need your strength.”

Brother Heinrich came and reached his stump to Martin, “Here, brother, let me help you to stand. I am Brother Heinrich.”

“How,” thought Martin, “can you help me to stand?” He carried an image of himself as he had been, powerful, broad and heavy. To lean on this wraith who seemed about to crumble into dust? He shook his head.

“I am not so weak as you might think. I wore full armor in battle, day after day, on horseback in the burning sun. Some power remains. And, I know what you are thinking,” he said, “but all you fear is written on your own person. Here. Let me help you.”

Martin reached for the stump, and then hesitated.

“Grab me, do not grab me, but if you do, I will help you stand, and if you stand and come with me, you will be able to bathe.” Brother Heinrich seemed to smile. “Looks like it’s been a while!” Martin took a deep breath and grasped the arm above the stump. Brother Heinrich half-lifted Martin to his feet, and led him to a closet built against the wall. Martin discovered he was weaker and in greater pain than he had realized. “Undress here. When you’re ready, I’ll help you into the water.”

Martin drew the ledger book from inside his clothing and undressed. His worn and dirty tunic had been ripped only at last in his tussle with the dogs. His body — except for the lesions — was exactly that of the thin youth sent from St. Martin’s.

“Cover yourself with this.” Brother Heinrich tossed a woolen blanket into the closet. Martin wrapped himself and dragged his aching leg some steps forward. “Take my arm. The bath will make you feel better. We bathe often here; it soothes our distress.” Brother Heinrich helped Martin into the tub. The hot water burned Martin’s ravaged foot, and he cried out. “That is a nasty bite. I am sure it hurts. I will leave you for a moment and get Brother Hugo.”

Martin looked at his bare left arm resting on the side of the tub. His empty stomach lurched. He leaned over the side of the basin, convulsed in dry heaves.

A voice behind him said, “Come on, my friend. Steady yourself. It will pass. You will soon forget all about it. None is unclean where all are unclean. Within a very few weeks you will no longer notice. You will feel better when you wash.” Martin closed his eyes while the man scrubbed the crust of forest from his back. 

Swiss Press about Martin of Gfenn

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