The Ros Beiaard of Dendermonde
by Nicola Polloni
Sor Baiart chevauça Renaus, li fiuz Aimon,
Aalars et Guichars sens nule arestisson
Et Richars li menor, ki ot cuer de lion;
Il sunt venu sor Saine trestot droit, d’un randon.
Quatre fils Aymon, ll. 1855-1858
Every ten years, in the Flemish town of Dendermonde, Belgium, something unique takes place. The quiet town is suddenly invaded by thousands of people coming from all over Belgium and abroad (more than eighty thousand in 2022). Starting from the banks of the river Scheldt, a historical costume parade of hundreds of Dendermondenaars (the town residents) and actors slowly marches through the streets of Dendermonde, representing with costumes and chariots the long history of this town and the legend of the Ros Beiaard.
The majestic parade is crowned and closed by the Ros Beiaard, from which the festival takes its name. A gigantic wooden horse is brought around by the pijnders, three groups of twelve people that in turns carry the huge beast around and simulate the moves of a real horse. On top of it, four kids ride the horse. They are four brothers (also in real life) that represent the heemskinderen – Renaud de Montauban and his three brothers from the legend of the Beiaard. A huge crowd cheers the passage of the Ros Beiaard singing an old Flemish song (’t Ros Beyaert doet zyn ronde, in de Stadt van Dendermonde, ….) while an ecstatic feeling permeates tourists and locals alike.
The Ros Beiaard Parade commemorates the legend of Renaud de Montauban and his horse, Bayard (Beiaard in Flemish). The legend dates back to the medieval chanson de geste cycles, the first known account being given by the 12th-century poem Quatre Fils Aymon. As usual with this literary genre, there are many versions of the legend, which nonetheless share some fixed points. First, Bayard was a special horse, provided with intelligence, able to become bigger and even to talk. Second, Renaud had to flee from Charlemagne with his three brothers and they rode Bayard to safety (here’s the reason of the four heemskinderen of Dendermonde). Third, appeased with Charlemagne, Renaud’s punishment was to attend the killing of Bayard: with stones chained to its body, the horse was thrown into a river (which the Dendermondenaars identify with the Scheldt) and sentenced to be drowned while Renaud was watching. According the Quatre Fils Aymon, the horse survived and lives since in the woods. The story of Renaud and Bayard is a fascinating, paradigmatic case of pure medieval fiction steeped in chivalric code with hints of drama that get into anyone’s imagination.
The town of Dendermonde constantly prepares for its Ros Beiaard. The parade brings about the strange feeling of experiencing something that only happens once per decade – a feeling that is far stronger for the people of Dendermonde, as Hanna Desmet brilliantly depicts in a letter to De Morgen. The criteria adopted by the city of Dendermonde for the organisation of the Beiaard could not be stricter. The four heemskinderen not only have to be brothers, as mentioned above, but consecutive brothers, with no sister in between. They cannot be older than 21 nor younger than 7 when the Ros Beiaard takes place – and, of course, they must be Dendermondenaars. In addition, they have to train for months in order to stick on top of the huge horse while the Beiaard is brought around. Even more difficult is the training of the thirty six pijnders, who are the only people allowed to carry the Beiaard and have to move the bulky horse for hours through the streets of Dendermonde while instructed by a director.
Held on 29 May (with Maarten, Wout, Stan and Lander Cassiman as heemskinderen), the 2022 edition of the Ros Beiaard was even more special than usual. The parade was originally planned for 2020, the first year of the covid pandemic. The city of Dendermonde had to wait two full years to hold the event – twelve years from the last Beiaard. Given this special occasion, I have contacted the office of Mr Piet Buyse, the mayor of Dendermonde for an interview. A special thank to Mr Joost Pinnoo for having facilitated the process.
Interview with Piet Buyse, mayor of Dendermonde
The interview took place on 8 June 2022
What is the importance of the Ros Beiaard for the city of Dendermonde and its population?
It may be hard to believe but every citizen of Dendermonde has been longing very much for this parade: schools have been preparing their pupils for the parade, organisations have put their activities in the Ros Beiaard theme, most houses have hung the red-and-white flag, and so on. This is the most important event happening every 10 years. Most of all, the Ros Beiaard is a ‘connecting’ event: it connects people in a very warm way. For many citizens of Dendermonde, the Ros Beiaard Parade is an emotional issue because every parade could be the last one they see. Many people count their age by calculating how many times they have seen the Ros Beiaard in their lifetime. And the eldest are doubtful whether they will see the next Parade in 2030…
How has it been for the city to have to postpone the 2020 celebration because of the pandemic, when so much preparation is given to this unique event?
From the start of the pandemic, we have agreed that a corona-proof version of the Parade was not possible. We could not organise this ‘connecting’ event with social distance rules, with obligatory masks, etc. For us the parade could only take place without any restrictions. So we postponed to 2021 and then to 2022. This was not pleasant for our staff but they managed this well and in a very professional way.
Was the 2022 edition more unique because of this?
In fact it was, probably because two years later equals to twenty percent more enthusiasm! We have felt very much that after the pandemic everybody wanted to party and wanted to connect with friends, family, and so on. So the Ros Beiaard Parade of 2022 was the right time and the right way to do this!
The Ros Beiaard joins together history and society, enlivening the latter through the former: do you believe the same approach can be extended to other cultural and artistic aspects of the European society?
The Ros Beiaard Parade is enlisted on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It is not the Ros Beiaard artefact (the horse) that is enlisted by Unesco, it is the people’s lively adoption of this old tradition that is very special. This recognition by UNESCO celebrates the exquisite historical value of the parade and the way it is encapsulated in the tradition of the entire local community. The tradition in Dendermonde is very much alive and treasured by the young as well as the old, the rich as well as the poor, the newcomers as well as the old residents. The Ros Beiaard committee takes the recognition by UNESCO as a quality label and a motivation to set the bar in the development of parades that combine the old and the new, by using innovative ways, but always with utter respect for ancient traditions. Probably (of hopefully) also other events on the UNESCO Lis of Intangible Cultural Heritage can have a likewise approach.