Knit stockings at the Fête de l’Escalade

Today is a special day in the Swiss canton of Geneva.

This weekend, Geneva commemorates the Escalade (“the climb”), or the military victory against the Duke of Savoy’s attempt to seize the independent city-state in a surprise attack in 1602.

Coinciding with the holiday season, the Escalade celebrates Genevan independence – a spirit still very much alive in the canton. Street celebrations include mulled wine, battle re-enactments, a huge bonfire, and a torch-lit, 800-person procession through the cobble-stoned Old Town staged by Geneva’s Compagnie de 1602, the historical society of the Escalade.

The day is also steeped in history-making through story-telling. When I attended the celebrations in 2013, I remember overhearing a man in a café tell his children, for instance, the triumphal tale of Mère Royaume, the (fictional?) legendary local cook who warded off the Savoyard troops scaling Geneva’s city walls by pouring down a full cauldron of steaming hot vegetable soup (!), causing enough commotion to rouse the sleeping city in time to defend against the invaders. This is why, by early December, the Genevan chocolatiers fill their shop-windows with displays of le marmite – a chocolate cauldron filled with colourful marzipan veggies. This little soup pot has become a kind of edible emblem for the Escalade celebrations, and is broken to bits and relished at the opportune moment, like this Genevan duo below.

Chocolate-thoughts aside, I recently found myself looking through some of my old Escalade photos taken in 2013, when I lived in the city for research and to visit family. Specifically, my eye couldn’t help but be drawn to the very bright knit stockings worn by the musketeer and pikemen re-enactors. I wonder: did early 17th century Genevan troops really defend Geneva donning these playful palettes and colourful hosiery?

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I remember that it was a very cold day. The stockings looked up to the task.

It turns out, the Compagnie de 1602 acknowledges that there are colours and ornaments in the costumes that do not reflect the military uniforms of the early 17th century, shaped as they were by Geneva’s sumptuary laws – moral codes, in the spirit of the Protestant Reformation, intended to curtail the use and display of luxuries, including certain kinds and colours of fabric. In Calvin’s Geneva, I assume, hot pink might have been a no-go.

I dug a little deeper. I learned that the majority of the current costumes were made in the 1950s, and were inspired not by historically documented costumes but by a series of relatively recent paintings – the watercolour illustrations of Swiss artist Édouard Elzinger for the 1915 book, Nuit de l’Escalade (The Night of the Escalade). Elzinger’s own renderings of the soldiers’ 17th century uniforms was influenced by early 20th century Escalade costumes and Flemish painting.

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Bright stockings in Elzinger’s colourful aquarelle, La Nuit de l’Escalade (1915).           © Musées d’art et d’histoire de Genève

So, it seems, the costumes – like all practices of history-making – are a mix of the old with a dash of creative re-imagination. These stockings make me want to get my double-pointed needles and make a new pair of knee socks.

More 2013 Escalade snaps below.

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Bonne fête de l’Escalade!

Meanwhile, back in Chicago… (lots) more snow today and yesterday.

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*Rosenblatt, Helena. 1997. Rousseau and Geneva: From the First Discourse to The Social Contract, 1749-1762. 

**http://www.wikiwand.com/fr/Compagnie_de_1602#/Notes

Mr. Escalade

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Every December, in Geneva, the city celebrates the Fête de l’Escalade to commemorate its historical military victory over the Duke of Savoy who, in 1602, launched a surprise night-attack on the unsuspecting city-state.  To honour this event, there is an annual race and procession given by the Compagnie de 1602.  They don stunning 17th century garb and march through the old town with horses, torches, and pipers.  Men perform battle re-enactments, cannon-firings, and musketry demonstrations; women sell Escalade pins and plastic cups of mulled wine.  The night ends with a fiery speech in the town center declaring Geneva’s enduring independence.

One of the more colourful characters of the Escalade celebrations is Mère Royaume–the semi-fictional cook who, as the folk history goes, was preparing vegetable soup in a large cauldron on the night of the Savoyard ambush.  Seeing the approaching Savoyard soldiers attempting to scale the city walls, she roused the slumbering townsfolk, sent for help, and fended off the first attack by pouring her hearty soup–cauldron and all–down onto the approaching climbers.  So the story goes.  This little tale is why marzipan veggies in a chocolate pot have become one of the Escalade’s official treats.

For all of this clarion-calling spectacle, a memorable moment of last year was getting to watch a musketeer on his smoke break.  Having just finished a 17th-century style musketry re-enactment, he lit one up in his horn-rimmed glasses and kind of just stared off into space.  I imagine he was lost in a veggie-filled reverie.