It was the year 1602, and the democratic city of Geneva was a precious bauble that had caught the eye of the ambitious Charles-Emmanuel I, the treacherous Duke of Savoy. Geneva was also a prosperous trading center; a valuable prize for any would-be conqueror. In the late 16th century, Calvin had spread the Protestant heresy to city’s noblemen, and Geneva was seen as the “Citadel of the Reformation.” Charles-Emmanuel hoped to please Rome with his capture of Geneva, returning it to the welcoming arms of the Catholic Church.

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It was on the night between December 11 and 12, 1602, that the Duke’s new lieutenant general Lord d’Albigny launched a secret attack against the city. He moved over two thousand Savoyard troops into position. Just after midnight an advanced guard of the Duke’s men tried to scale the city’s walls while its citizens were asleep. The clandestine climbing of the city’s ramparts gives this famous event its name: The Escalade.

The invading Savoyard were discovered by a Genevois patrol and a lucky sentry managed to fire his arquebus, raising the alarm. Woken from their slumber, the citizens of Geneva collectively took up arms against their attackers.

Men and women rushed to the ramparts to defend their home against more than two thousands troops, some of them tipping boiling cauldrons of soup over the walls to scald the unlucky Savoyard. Over the course of the night, the Genevans successfully defended themselves, losing only 18 lives. It was considered nothing short of a miracle.

Each year since 1926, the historical society of Geneva has organized three days of events on the weekend nearest to the 10-11 of December. From all over Europe, tourists come to witness the recreation of 17th century Geneva life in the old city center. The modern metropolis, famous for its banking industry and luxury shopping streets, is transported back in time from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, with thousands of revelers in attendance.

The highlight is the final procession with over 800 costumed men and women: musicians, musketeers, pikemen, and a full cavalry patrol on horseback. There are cannons and bonfires, choirs and concerts, lectures and exhibitions, spits of roasting boar and vats of spiced, mulled red wine.

The Escalade is Geneva’s protestant answer to Carnivale. It is the city’s largest cultural event; participants plan and practice all year. The festival unites Genevans in one great celebration of their shared history and culture; armor, weapons and costumes are passed down from one generation to the next. Bankers and lawyers encase themselves in platemail to commemorate Geneva’s proud Protestant heritage. In 2013, the Escalade was celebrated on December 6 and 7, a visual spectacular that could fascinate even the most jaded of cultural anthropologists.

Kristen Ghodsee (kghodsee@bowdoin.edu) and Rose Wellman (rew3p@virginia.edu) are the contributing editors for SHA’s column.

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