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Namur stilt jousting becomes part of Unesco's intangible heritage

10:58 17/12/2021

Unesco has officially registered the Namur tradition of stilt jousting on the list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity, five years after a support petition garnered 26,000 signatures.

Stilt jousting is a 600-year-old tradition in the Walloon city, in which costumed people on stilts joust one another. There are stilt walking competitions, as well.

It was rumoured that the designation was coming, according to RTBF, but the 16th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which opened on Monday, made it official. 

The Wallonia-Brussels Federation launched its support in April 2019. It can only submit an application to Unesco once every four years, and the Échasseurs de Namur competed against other iconic examples of Belgian cultural heritage, including the Brussels Ommegang, the Malmedy carnival and the Liège puppets, all of whom also sought recognition.

“It is impossible to describe all the emotions that run through us: the joy, the relief, the pride, the satisfaction,” said Patrick Dessambre, president of the Namur Échasseurs, the stilt walkers of Namur. 

“It was a very long preparation,” he told RTL. “The pride is simply for the involvement and the work we have done, namely a very complete application that talks about the present, the future, but also the actions and the objectives we have set ourselves to perpetuate and safeguard the practice of stilt walking in Namur.”

According to legend, the tradition dates back to the time when the city was regularly flooded by the Meuse and Sambre rivers and in order to stay dry, the inhabitants walked around on stilts. The first official record of stilts was formally identified in an archive of 8 December 1411, in a reference to the Count of Namur forbidding the practice for anyone over the age of 13.

Every year, during the weekend of the Walloon Festivals, the stilt walkers compete in a joust organised in the shadow of Saint Aubain Cathedral, often dressed as characters from history or folklore. 

The Unesco designation lends the celebration a prestigious level of recognition for its cultural importance. 

“This official Unesco list contains 492 practices worldwide and we are now part of it,” said Dessambre. “It is a recognition of our work, the equivalent of a quality label and a certificate of confidence that will allow us to perpetuate and safeguard this practice. It is very important for our youth, for our city, because stilt walking is part of Namur's DNA.”

Photo: Maxime Asselberghs/Belga

Written by Helen Lyons