Swiss bewitched by magic of the Middle Ages

Visitors to Bern need to be wary of errant knights during the medieval festivities. Tjoster

The Middle Ages have an increasing fascination for the Swiss, who are falling over themselves to re-enact this dark period in history.

This content was published on August 22, 2003 minutes

The main aim is to entertain and appeal to the imagination, but re-enactments are also helping visitors to rediscover their cultural heritage.

To celebrate canton Bern’s 650th anniversary as part of the Swiss Confederation, the city’s historical museum set up the usual themed exhibitions.

But it went further than wheeling out more relics for its display cases. The event took over one of the city’s main squares to reconstruct scenes from medieval life, from banquets with medieval delicacies, craft and merchants’ workshops, jugglers, acrobats, plays and jousting tournaments.

Interest in the era of princesses and dragons is growing in Switzerland, as in other European countries. The trend was well underway even before the arrival on screen of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings.

Both heightened interest around the world in the tales and mysteries of the Middle Ages, and Switzerland – which has no shortage of towns with beautifully-preserved medieval centres – is a perfect place to bring the era alive.

Medieval core

The magic started in the French-speaking part of the country - at Estavayer-le-Lac in 1994 – and later became popular in German-speaking regions. More than ten towns with medieval cores have since staged similar pageants.

“At first, I thought it would be just a passing fashion. Then I realised that medieval fairs were appealing to, and attracting, increasing numbers of visitors,” recalls Jean-Daniel Rytz, founder of the Mesnie des Bousquines en Barbe, one of several medieval companies which have been formed in recent years.

Together with other groups, members of this Avenches-based company are regularly invited to entertain visitors at fairs held in medieval towns.

“Many of our members are craft workers striving to rediscover techniques and products that were on the verge of extinction. Often, they have researched ancient books or obtained help from archaeologists,” explains Jean-Daniel Rytz, whose day job is as a manager of a social institute.

Medieval fairs offer an almost unique opportunity to see a baker, potter, saddler, blacksmith or herbalist at work. Very often, these activities attract just as much public interest as the acrobats or the jousting tournaments.


Rytz grew up in Murten, a town with a distinctly medieval atmosphere. For him, it is a case of rediscovering his own heritage. “If you like, it’s my way of combating the standardised, pre-packaged products of today’s globalisation, which people are getting more and more fed up with”.

One of the main attractions at the Bern fair is the Company of Saynt George, Switzerland’s leading medieval company, led by John Howe, a well-known illustrator who has lived in Switzerland for some years.

The company uses faithful reproductions of costumes and other items to portray the daily life of a military garrison and its retinue of servants and craft workers.

“What we have from the Middle Ages is mainly fragments or precious objects in museums, which don’t tell us very much in their display cases. We try to give them back their meaning and put people at the centre of things,” explains Howe, who created most of the artwork and sets for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Canadian-born illustrator also maintains that Switzerland and Europe should protect their outstanding historical patrimony.

“Our company wants first of all to help open up a new vantage point on a period of history that is dominated by clichés, and to lend balance to the vision we have today of the Middle Ages,” stresses Howe.

“If the Middle Ages are fascinating, it’s partly because everyone imagines the period in his or her own way. You can’t have a clear-cut vision of a thousand years of European history”.

Middle Ages

Despite their darker side, the Middle Ages have a strong fascination for the modern world - perhaps greater than any other period of history, says Professor Agostino Paravicini, who teaches medieval history at the University of Lausanne.

“The Middle Ages have left behind a deeply negative image, but at the same time one that is highly romanticised and idealised. After 1968, in particular, the period was transformed into a sort of utopian space in history, into which all sorts of idealised expectations and feelings were poured”.

So it is no surprise that the jousts and other events at many medieval fairs stress values such as love, courage and loyalty. “Often, people are looking for values that they believe have been lost in our society,” affirms Professor Paravicini.

“Interest in the Middle Ages is a bit like a treasure hunt,” points out John Howe. “If we compare what we know about those thousand years with what we don’t, we realise that we don’t know very much at all”.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s important to know what actually happened during the Middle Ages. It’s what we want to take and learn from this period of history,” claims the artist who drew the world of Gandalf the wizard, the beautiful Arwen and the diminutive Hobbits.

swissinfo, Armando Mombelli (translation: John Purnell)

In brief

The first large-scale medieval re-enactment in Switzerland probably took place in 1976 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Grandson.

The trend really took off during the second half of the 1990s at Estavayer-le-Lac in the French-speaking part of the country.

Since then re-enactments have mushroomed right across Switzerland: at Saint-Jean de Gruyères, Fribourg, Saillon, Romainmôtiers, Bonneville, Saint-Ursanne, Morges, Burgdorf, etc.

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