In many ways Geneva is a transitory place, with so many people coming and going, that it is hard to get a sense of this city’s unique identity. However, the city recently celebrated “l’escalade”, a tradition exclusive to Geneva that locals cling to and tourists flock to.
Eager to get an insight into what makes this town tick I signed up for another guided walk, this one unveiling the history behind the festivities.
L’escalade in a nutshell
Geneva had been a province of Savoy until the Protestant Reformation the previous century. L’escalade commemorates the night in 1602 when Geneva was attacked by the Duke of Savoy and his troops in a bid to reclaim the city. In the middle of the longest night of the year (then the 11-12th December) the Duke led 2,000 Savoyard troops, with blackened armour for stealth mode, silently towards the city for a surprise attack.
At that time Geneva was protected by two walls of fortifications that surrounded the city, and above the inner walls were a number of buildings containing homes and businesses. The soldiers planned to send an initial party of troops to climb the outer walls (escalade means to climb in French) and blow open the city’s outer gates from the inside, letting in the rest of the soldiers.
However a sentry spotted the advance party and raised the alarm, alerting the city. Residents rose from their beds and, without having time to dress for the occasion, went out to face their foes in their night-wear.
18 Genevans lost their lives as a result of the attack but 67 Savoyard soldiers died and an army of 2,000 was repulsed by people in their bed clothes and, allegedly, a pot of soup.
As the attack was during a time of peace the captured soldiers were executed as robbers, rather than treated as prisoners of war. Their heads were placed on spikes at the entrances to the city to serve as a warning to any other would-be attackers.
Mère Royaume and her soup
There are a number of key figures that have become integral to the memorialisation of this event inluding Isaac Mercier (reacted quickly to drop the iron portcullis to the main gates preventing the advance party from being able to let in the other troops) and Dame Piaget (captured a group of soldiers by locking them between two gates of a walkway into the city).
But most famous of all is Mère Royaume and her soup. After breaching the outer-walls a number of troops tried to break into the inner part of the city through one of the internal gates, known as La Monnaie Gate (money was minted there), above which lived Mère Royaume and her family. She helped to repel the attackers by throwing a cauldron of soup (known as a marmite) down onto the soldiers below; scalding them with the contents, injuring them with the pan and contributing to the successful defence of the city.
An important part of today’s l’escalade celebrations involves the annual breaking of the marmite (a chocolate cauldron filled with marzipan sweets resembling vegetables), a 19th century commercialisation only made possible by the popularity of this unlikely hero. There are also numerous artworks dedicated to this woman and a public fountain, made from Savoy stone, where Mère Royaume is clearly identifiable. It’s fair to say, this Madam captured the public imagination.
However the heroic actions of this integral character were probably more fiction than fact, as it was pretty unlikely she would have been cooking soup at 2am in the morning.
It’s interesting how legends can develop and become integrated into historical memory. Mére Royaume’s story, that must have been the mere whisper of a fable a few years after the attack, took on a life of it’s own to be adopted and incorporated into the very fabric of this heroic Genevan defence against the odds.
Legend-building is by no means solely a Genevan phenomenon (England has King Arthur, for example) and this idolising of heroes becomes the model of what it means to belong to a certain group. Legends can become something for people to hang the hat of their identity on and can be powerful enough to bind people together, enhance a sense of nationality and inspire loyalty to one’s neighbours.
Fact behind the fiction
Part of the celebrations involved a number of parades, the largest of which took place on the Sunday evening and involved around 1000 participants dressed in 16th century gear and processing through the old town of Geneva, stopping at key sites to recreate specific moments including Mére Royaume’s celebrated actions. There were also some geese, although I’m not sure what role they played in l’escalade – unless they were in the imaginary soup.
But there was also a smaller procession on the Friday evening to the church where the Genevans who had died during the attack were buried. At the Church a speech was given but it was hard to hear and my French remains negligible so I wasn’t really following it, until I realised that they were naming the dead and citing the ages at which they had died; some in their sixties, some in their twenties.
It was then that I remembered that whilst this annual event has evolved into legendary proportions the fact behind the fiction was that a horrible event happened to a peaceful city and resulted in unnecessary deaths. In the moment’s silence that followed the recital of names, I thought of the fear and confusion the inhabitants must have felt during the attack and of those ordinary men who lost their lives defending their families and home. I felt the tug of a very real history from 400 years ago pulling at me through all the trappings of the modern day revelry, I remembered the tragedy behind the traditions.