Chapter 21 - Kermesses, Fetes, and Legends

Last Updated: Saturday, 22 April 2017 Written by Administrator Print Email



THE first buildings of any permanent construction in Belgium were churches, or in the Flemish tongue, "kerks" ; round these clustered the wattle huts of the people. When trade commenced to occupy the time and attention of the inhabitants of the land, markets, or "messes" were held under the church's shadow and protection. The church and the market-place supply the origin of the compound name of "kermesse," which has come to mean in the course of centuries, a fair. The Flemings were given to pollity, and they enjoyed themselves in the days of their prosperity with high living, somewhat boisterous games, and "all the fun of the fair." Nor have they changed, as any one may discover by a visit during the Carnival, more especially to Binche on Shrove-Tuesday. Kermesse is essentially a Flemish institution, and is not to be met outside of the Flemish-speaking provinces which includes Brabant. In the Walloon part of the country, where "free-thought" and unbelief are alleged to have made great progress, all the popular fetes have a religious basis, and are immune from the noisy licence that seems to characterize the kermesse. In Brussels no one would discover any difference between a kermesse and an English country fair, and the only matter that appears strange is that a great city should see in its midst the celebration of a country fair with booths, merry-go-rounds, menageries, and stalls for the display of much tinsel and gawds. As each commune of Brussels holds its own kermesse, and a fair generally lasts a week, the air seems to be impregnated for a good portion of the summer with their influence, and if one's domestic returns home late or not at all, the cause is alleged to have been the kermesse. The fairs are held in some open place like the Boulevard Jamar, near the "gare du Midi," so as to interfere as little as possible with the general traffic. The kermesse fete of the city of Brussels concentrates its effect on a procession through the streets and boulevards of the lower town to the Grand Place. The famous statuette known as the Mannikin Pis is taken down from its pedestal, dressed up in a fancy costume as a Gard Civique, and paraded in triumph. Gigantic figures of Gog and Magog follow in the cortege at a respectful distance, but all the honors of the day are reserved for the Mannikin, who has been called "the oldest citizen of Brussels." This statue, the work of Duquesnoy, dates from 1619, and is said to be only a freak of its author. The uniform in which it has always been dressed for the fete has changed with each form of government, and its wardrobe now numbers eight separate costumes, the person who has charge of them receiving a salary of $40 a year.

The most characteristic of all the kermesses is that celebrated every year at Binche on Shrove-Tuesday. It has more of the spirit of the old kermesse and less of the modern fair than perhaps any other still held in Belgium. Binche is a small town of Hainaut with a population of about 12,000 people, situated about half-way between Mons and Charleroi. As it is situated on a branch line, it is seldom visited by the English tourist. The fetes of Shrove-Tuesday are said to have originated with Mary of Burgundy, who celebrated them for the first time in the year 1477, on the occasion of her establishing a hunting seat in the neighborhood. They have consequently been held for 433 years. Additions were made under her succesors, notably the regents Margaret of Austria and Mary of Hungary; but the fundamental idea of the fete, viz., disguise, was supplied by the young Duchess, who, it may be supposed, proposed it as the only way in which she could take part in it. The consequence is that no one may appear in their ordinary clothes on this occasion. The ;'cung men and women of the place appear as Pierrots and Pierrettes, while a special band figures as "Gilles." The precise origin of this name is obscure; by some it is considered a reference to St. George, and by others a term for a silly fellow. But in any case the Gilles of Binche are a select society, and apparently membership is hereditary. The costumes are valuable, and include a plumed hat which is estimated to cost not less than twenty pounds.

The participants in the fray that follows, for the feature of the affair is the pelting of onlookers at the windows or balconies with oranges instead of confetti, are not merely disguised, but generally put on false noses and hunchbacks. The Gilles Society has its own band, which plays its own special music, and the mad dances of the Gilles and the Pierrots down the long high street to the gardens where the Carnival ball takes place, savors of pandemonium. All the time the dancers are pelting the windows and people in them with the oranges carried in straw baskets. It is not etiquette to pelt any one in the streets, but those in the houses are considered fair game. At Binche one sees the kermesse pure and simple combined with the orgy of the Carnival, but free of all the accessories of the fair. It is usual for as many as twenty thousand visitors to come into the place from the neighboring towns of Hainaut and France, but prudent residents close all their shutters, and take their chance with the crowd in the streets. The festivities begin on the Monday evening and do not terminate till the sun is up on the Wednesday morning.

The nearest approach to what may be called the wild kermesse at Binche is the parade of Lumecon, which takes place at Mons on Trinity Sunday. These fetes are familiarly known as those of "doudou," but no one can give any better reason for the name than that it rhymes with "chou, chou," the familiar term for driving or chasing something or somebody which is used as the cry of those marching in the procession. Lumecon is the Walloon of the French word limagon (a snail), but the snail of Mons is a dragon which is carried at the head of the procession in effigy. This is a gilt dragon over thirty feet in length, and when the legend on which the parade is based is critically examined, it turns out to be nothing more or less than our old friend of the nursery, St. George and the Dragon. It is impossible to assign a date to the first celebration of this fete, but it was certainly anterior to the battle of Crecy, at which a contingent from Mons fought on our side with much distinction. It has always been said that they took with them into the battle an enormous cannon which was brought home to Mons, and ever afterwards, as long as it held together, it figured in the procession, and when it came to pieces a wooden facsimile was provided. For some time, however, the cannon does not seem to have figured in the procession. The fete ends on the Grand Place with the slaying of the dragon by the modern representative of St. George, who is called Gilles de Chin in the local history.

While the fete at Mons and Binche are annual affairs, those at Hasselt, in Limburg, are held only once in seven years, and consequently they gain in elaborateness. The religious element is also more prominent. The celebration takes place on the day of the Assumption (August 15th), which is not only a great day for the Church, but also one of the three national holidays established by law in Belgium. The last fetes were held in 1905, so that the next fall due in 1912.

The celebration is really in honor of the Virgin Mary, and is called that of Virga Jesse - the patois for Virgin and Jesus. It seems to be as old as Hasselt itself, and the origin of the legend is thus described. Hasselt derives its name from hazel-bosch (hazel wood), and was situated in old days in the center of an immense hazel wood. The town began with a shrine to the Virgin, which, as some say, was attached to a large tree at cross roads in the heart of the forest. Travelers were so rejoiced at getting thus far in safety that they made offerings for the happy termination of their journey. In this way the shrine, to which before long a chapel was added, became rich, and in a clearing of the forest a town gradually sprang up which is the modern Hasselt. The shrine with the Virgin's statue was transformed from the wood to the church, where it may still be seen black with age. On the occasion of the celebration the statue is taken down, dressed in costly robes, and crowned with a jeweled crown given by one of the Popes, and carried under a canopy through the streets.

That is the religious side of the ceremony, but the popular is still more obtrusive. In the first place the streets are lined with hazel trees placed in buckets, and the houses are embowered in branches and foliage gathered by the young from the neighboring woods. This is to recall the time when Hasselt itself was a wood, and the practice is said to date from the fourteenth century. Indeed, the fetes were held annually down to the eighteenth century, and it was only under French and Dutch rule that they were restricted to a septennial celebration.

The embowering of Hasselt may be termed the preparation of the scene for what follows. The first inhabitant of Hasselt is supposed to have been a countryman named Hendrich, who lived there in a hut with his pigs and his goats. He and his wife and his animals are carried in triumph through the streets, but his modern representative is allowed to smoke his pipe, which would have somewhat astonished the original Hendrich of the tenth or eleventh century. There also figures in the procession the knight who has lost his way in the forest and is led by the Virgin to Hendrich's hut. This incident has a very important bearing on the fortunes of Hasselt, for the knight kills the giant, or ogre, who dwelt in the recesses of the forest and rendered the routes unsafe for the peaceful traveler.

The reader will have no difficulty in concluding that of all the personages in the procession the one that attracts most popular interest is the Giant himself. He is called the "Lounge Man," the long or tall man. He is so big and tall that his part in the play cannot be filled, and he is therefore carried in effigy. He is shown in armor, seated on the trunk of a tree, placed in a wagon, or chariot, drawn by four horses. So far the procession can be interpreted in all its detail, but for the final touch in the arrangements no reasonable explanation has ever been offered. In the car behind the Giant is an immense barrel with a tap and an attendant. He serves all who wish, 'and who present basins, with thick pea-soup! Why it should be pea-soup no one has ever attempted to explain beyond suggesting that it might be intended as an object-lesson in the practice of sobriety. Be that as it may, the fetes of Hassalt enjoy an immense popular success, and are attended by as many as 30,000 curious visitors from Holland and Dutch Limburg. The fetes of the Walloon region are even more distinctively religious than those of Hasselt. They are based, as a rule, on a miracle, and partake of the character of a pilgrimage. Typical of these may be chosen for a brief description the procession once in seven years from Rochefort to Foy Notre-Dame, near Dinant. The history of this procession is fairly well authenticated, and dates no further back than the early years of the seventeenth century. The country was then visited with the plague. Many deaths had occurred, and failing the remedies of science those of faith alone offered. It was reported that some one who had made an offering at the Virgin's shrine at Foy Notre-Dame had been cured of the disease, whereupon the Count of Rochefort led his people in solemn procession to the shrine, which lies about fifteen miles out of Rochefort. The plague was stayed, and there does not appear to have been any further outbreak at Rochefort since that time, but the procession is still faithfully kept up.

Every year devout persons pay their homage at the miraculous shrine at Foy, but it is only once in seven years that the processional march is held. Long preparations and much drilling precede the expedition, which is made in military order. Those who are selected for the responsible position of the Count's bodyguard are carefully trained by an ex-soldier, not merely in the goose-step, but in the use of firearms, for a good deal of firing is indulged in on the return. The local worthy who represents the Count de Rochefort is very proud of himself, as clothed in armor he takes his place at the head of the procession on a spirited horse. He, too, has been carefully trained for his important role, for not every one accustomed to broadcloth can wear armor without making himself ridiculous. However, thanks to the careful preparation, all goes off very well.

The date of the procession is Whit-Monday, and it will next take place in 1913. As the distance is considerable, for the majority in the procession walk the whole way there and back, a start is made shortly after the sun rises. The Count heads the procession, then comes his bodyguard, followed by the Catholic band playing religious and secular music. Then appear the clergy resplendent in chasuble and attended by acolytes, but they only attend the cortege to the limits of the town. The procession includes farmers on horseback, townsmen and villagers on foot, women and children in carts, wagons, and vehicles of all descriptions. The old women are even more keen to be present than the young, and count up the number of processions they have attended in the course of their lives. Sometimes the procession is quite a mile in length, and on that day Rochefort is left practically empty.

At Foy the procession is received by the local clergy and a crowd of curious sightseers from Dinant. A special service is held in the church, offerings are made at the shrine, and then the processionists picnic in the neighboring woods. Late in the afternoon the order of march is re-formed, and the party return to Rochefort. Darkness has long set in before they reach it, buf the little town is lit up in their honor. The priests are again there to receive and bless them before they disperse, and as a final honor an old cannon is brought out from its hiding-place and fired several times on the approach to the old castle. It is said that the Count was thus received on his return from the original procession in 1610. There are many other pilgrimages or marches of a similar character carried out today in the region between the Sambre and Meuse. Llere, if anywhere in Belgium, may be found the old folk-lore of the Belgian division of ancient Gaul. Chimay, Couvin, and Mariembourg are samples of mediaeval townlets not to be seen in any other part of the country.

Belgium is the home of legend. There is that of John of Nivelles and his dog. John was a Montmorency, and the ancestor of Count Horn. There is the story of Caracol and Bristecol (the history of Punch). But the most popular of all is the story of Aymon and his four sons and the wonderful horse Bayard. The Duke Aymon was one of the rebellious vassals of the Emperor Charlemagne, and when he was summoned to attend his sovereign to the wars, he sent a curt refusal, believing that his castle of Aigremont was so strong and inaccessible that the Emperor could never take it. This castle in the Houyoux valley of the region called Condroz exists today, partly as an imposing ruin and partly as the residence of the Counts D'Oultremont. It looks now inaccessible enough ; no wonder it seemed to its owner in the ninth century beyond the reach of the most powerful assailant. Charlemagne having conquered his external foes, decided to chastise his vassal, and directed a host to level Aigremont with the ground. The defenders were overmatched. Aymon was taken prisoner and carried off to Aix-la-Chapelle, and his brother Buves was slain.

But Aymon's four sons escaped by mounting all together on the wonderful horse Bayard, which flew like the wind and soon outdistanced all pursuers. They took refuge in the Ardennes forest, where they built a stronger fort than Aigremont at Montfort on the Ourthe, and here again they defied the Emperor. The four sons were named Renault, Allard, Guichard, and Richard. They were all of gigantic stature, Renault, the biggest, being sixteen feet high, and Bayard was his personal property, having been a gift from his cousin Maugis, the son of Buves. Although the castle was surrounded by a triple wall, it fell to the Emperor's arms, and again the brothers had to mount Bayard and flee. They are next heard of in Gascony where they fought for King Yon, who, little grateful for their aid, surrendered them to Charlemagne. They succeeded in escaping, but their subsequent adventures are obscure. Renault entered the cloister at Cologne, and was one of the first architects of the cathedral. He is said to have been thrown into the Rhine by some of his masons whom he had offended. If this could be accepted as fact, it would be the first "strike" on record. He was eventually canonized, and there is a fine monument to him at Dortmund, in Westphalia.

Of the other brothers there is little to tell, but report says they were all killed at different times and places. The last of them let Bayard loose, and he rushed into the forest, for the party had returned to the Ardennes. After a time Bayard himself was caught and brought before Charlemagne, who thus apostrophized him: "You have often upset my plans and now you shall do so no more. ,, He ordered a heavy stone to be attached to his neck and then that he should be driven from the cliff at Dinant into the Meuse. The exact scene is supposed to have been at the Rocher Bayard, near Dinant. But when the gallant horse was forced over the cliff, he succeeded in ridding himself of the stone, and swimming across the river, escaped into the woods, and was never more seen by mortal eye. The old belief was that the steed was immortal, and in some of the villages within recent times, when the wind blew loudly at nights and children were querulous, they were silenced by being warned to listen to the noise of the steed Bayard as he raced through the village.

Source: Boulger, Demetrius C. Belgium. Detroit: Published for the Bay View Reading Club, 1913. Print.

Hits: 48