L’escalade part 2


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.

20141212_192719But 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.



Is the world mad or is it just me?

I’m sure we have all had moments of shocked incredulity at a situation seemingly accepted by others but which seems totally incomprehensible to ourselves. But the acceptance of others might ask us to question whether this really is a mad situation or whether it is in fact us. When confronted with this madness what do we do: do we protest in the bewildered face of others or simply keep our heads down and wonder in silence?
This is a bit different to my usual postings (if after two months of blogging you’ve identified a trend) and it’s not really about me but is inspired by three men unable to accept the madness of the world around them and in protesting this perceived insanity earned the ridicule of others.
This week, whilst undertaking a spot of filing, I came across a number of letters from a Mr Garry Davis. He was a very public and active promoter of his cause, that died around this time last year, so I think it’s okay to reference him by name.

Mr Garry Davis

At first glimpse I thought these are just the ramblings of your average fruitloop. There was an excessive use of capitalization and exclamation marks, which I tend to interpret as a mark of crazy. (Let me just re-type that last sentence and you’ll see what I mean. There was an EXCESSIVE use of CAPITALIZATION and exclamation marks, which I tend to INTERPRET as a mark of CRAZY!!!!!)
But then I started to read his correspondence more carefully and did a bit of research (for ‘research’ read ‘I Googled him’) and what I discovered wasn’t as mad as I had first thought. In a nutshell Mr Davis was an American World War 2 veteran who, disgusted by the senseless killing he himself participated in, decided to renounce his US citizenship and declare himself a citizen of the world. He believed that lasting peace could only be obtained if nationhood and the accompanying violence of territorial wars ceased to exist.
Mr Davis was committed to his cause for which he was arrested, deported and probably subjected to more assumptions of crazy than just mine up until his death at the age of 91. He promoted world citizenship and produced world passports in the belief that there should be no borders and people should be free to come and go as they pleased. For many stateless refugees he was an inspiration and to this day the One World Vision has many hundreds of thousands of followers. He was a man committed to his visions in a world that didn’t want to listen to him.
Will there ever come a time a century or two from now when all the world citizens, devoid of nationality, look back at this part of history and question why everyone else was so happy to accept what is patently a very bizarre set-up in the form of statehood?

Mr Brian Haw

Next on my list of uncompromising protestors is Mr Brian Haw. I used to work at Parliament and as someone frequently subjected to the torrent of words spilling forth from Mr Haw’s megaphone it was easy to dismiss him as a nutter and nothing more than a nuisance.
In 2001 he set up camp on Parliament Square in London protesting against US and UK foreign policy in relation to the situation in Iraq. Parliament tried to get rid of him by enacting new legislation to prevent permanent protests in that area, but as Mr Haw’s protest was ongoing and established prior to legislation he became the only person legitimately entitled to camp outside Parliament. And camp there he did, through all weather extremes, until his death in 2011.
Mr Haw claimed he was protesting for a better future for his children. That’s probably not the only reason behind his actions and how happy his children, who he left behind to undertake the protest, were with this argument is another matter. But if Mr Haw genuinely believed his protest was the only means he had at his disposal to ensure a better future for his children, that it wasn’t possible for him to be quiet and accept the reality of war, was he really as mad as so many dismissed him to be?

Mr Siegfried Sassoon

Finally I come to my last of those champions of lost causes and my personal favourite: Mr Siegfried Sassoon. Siegfried Sassoon real life fox-hunter, poet and Great War Veteran reached a point when he could no longer not protest at the futility of war and the waste of life he saw all around him. Knowing full well the futility of his actions he threw away his medals and wrote a letter to a national newspaper protesting against the war. His actions earned him a spell in a mental hospital for shell-shocked officers.
(Regeneration by Pat Barker is a great book that blends history and fiction in exploring the madness of war and will tell this part of Sassoon’s story better than I can.)
In the mental hospital Sassoon encountered Wilfred Owen and encouraged him to express more forcefully the horrors of war in his poetry. So he may have failed to stop the madness of war but at least through his own poetry and through the encouragement of better-known Great War poet Owen, he managed to communicate the madness to others despite the heavy censorship both poets were subjected to. (Interesting piece on BBC news about censorship of Sassoon here)
Whilst the wastefulness of young lives during the Great War is now widely accepted, at the time Sassoon’s protest was not. Far easier to dismiss him as mad than accept the truth of what he had to say. Time has vindicated Mr Sassoon and perhaps it will also vindicate Mr Davis and Mr Haw in the future? Undoubtedly there will be many things we accept now that future generations will consider utter madness.