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The giants of Leuven

I picked up an interesting story in the news yesterday morning: a group of enthusiasts in Leuven had decided to revive / invent an old (or new) tradition, of constructing giants to parade through the streets of the city. Belgium is a place where ancient civic traditions and pagan ceremonies are often rather weirdly linked, and this seemed worth checking out, so young F and I ventured into town to see what was going on.

The giants were to process from the railway station to the town hall, so going the other way we intercepted them en route. The procession was led by a bloke in town crier costume, who I didn't get a good picture of, and followed by a group of men carrying banners:
As the sound of drumming from behind them intensified, I wondered if this was goiing to be something like the drumming exercises prescribed in Iron John, especially since the basis for the event was a group of men born in the same year (1973). Also the banners combined with the drumming were vaguely reminiscent of Orangemen marching, back home.

But any such impression was dispelled when the percussionists themselves came into sight.
Definitely not orange, and mostly not men either.

The next group of marchers were again mostly women in costume, holding up garlanded arches and occasionally pausing to have their pictures taken.

And after them came the actual giants.
The tall chap with the hat is Jan Van den Graetmolen, a fifteenth-century mill owner, or at least a personification of him.

Next up is amateur rifleman Kobe Koeienschieter, who commemorates a military adventure of the 16th century when the Leuven militia attacked a herd of cows instead of the French, though tradition is a bit hazy on the details.

And finally the new giant, Fiere Margriet (Proud Margaret), whose story is actually rather a grisly 13th-century legend (here, potentially triggering), but who remains popular in tradition without people worrying very much about what actually happened to her.

The parade ended at the town hall with Fiere Margriet being registered as an inhabitant of Leuven, the other two giants looking on.


Stalls were set up all round the square with our best known local product widely available (I don't like it that much myself). I think we also narrowly missed meeting up with blueboxfever when my phone battery died.

It's interesting that this is billed very much as a Flemish, rather than Belgian, tradition. Of course this sort of thing goes on all over this corner of Europe, not only in Belgium but in nearer bits of the Netherlands and Germany. But I'm getting to sense a particular local twist to it, where for instance the festivals I knew as Beltane, Lughnasa and Samhaim continue to be celebrated in their own special way. Maybe these traditions go back a hundred years; maybe two thousand. Who knows?


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 2nd, 2013 09:12 am (UTC)
I've seen these giants by the side of the road during many cycling races in Belgium and possibly northern France and wondered what they stood for. Now I know. Thanks!
Jun. 2nd, 2013 02:07 pm (UTC)
It happens in England too. It was recently revived in Chester after a hiatus of more than 300 years.
Jun. 2nd, 2013 06:53 pm (UTC)
I saw the Ypres/Ieper cat festival in 1977 that would have had giants, alongside many floats and so forth.

Did the tradition feed into It's A Knockout/Jeux sans frontiere
Jun. 2nd, 2013 06:56 pm (UTC)
Hmmm, good point!
Jun. 2nd, 2013 07:09 pm (UTC)
Strange Cargo had a project with giants in Herne Bay - although no particular pagan undercurrent: http://www.strangecargo.org.uk/portfolio/consultation/reflect/lily-herne-bay-giant/
Jun. 2nd, 2013 07:00 pm (UTC)
Brussels has its giant too! Again it's a foul trick of the inhabitants of Leuven tot take something from us, as they did with the Meiboom. ;-)
Jun. 3rd, 2013 02:53 pm (UTC)
Nice photos. I do like the flower garlands.

I've seen similar giants in Barcelona in September - they have a parade as part of their patron saint's festival. Their giants seem to range from the historical style, to the cartoon style. And there was the just plain weird one that had a woman's body, with bare breasts, but the head of a bird wearing a crown.

They do make for an impressive parade.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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