St. Roch Processionals in Wallonia, Past Versus Present: Historical Memory, Commemoration and Identity Construction

From well-known celebrations of Carnival and la ducasse, to obscure saint commemorations, ritualized festivals and processionals in Francophone Belgium survive in popular memory and influence contemporary conceptions of local identity. Several St. Roch military marches in the l’Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse region in Wallonia received UNESCO recognition as examples of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” in 2012. The annual, multi-day processionals involve hundreds of marchers from local communities dressed in Napoleonic-era military uniforms, carrying authentic muskets and escorting a statue of St. Roch. Many of these marchers trace family involvement back through multiple generations. There is a fictive, creative element to these modern-day ‘authentic’ military saint marches. Like many ritualized processionals in Belgium, the early- modern St. Roch marches ended during the radical period of the French Revolution (1790s) and only reemerged in the mid-19th century. The processionals continued to evolve through the 1930s. The current structure, rituals, membership and historical costume standards date to the post-WWII era, particularly the 1960s-70s. Modern-day participants see no historical rupture between the present-day marches and the Old Regime processionals celebrated prior to the French Revolution. Participants and spectators thus share in the creation of historical memory, infuse the festival with notions of local identity and socialization and create new narratives that legitimize contemporary ritual elements and participant costuming. This article explores the tension between the actual historical experience of St. Roch processionals (two eras, from 1636 to 1794 and 1860-1939) and the post-war standardization of these processionals in their present-day, UNESCO-recognized form, as expressed by their organizers, marchers and spectators.