Dendermonde: Meet the legendary Bayard Steed!
Text: Michiel Stol | Photos: Dendermonde
Once every decade, the quiet and beautiful town of Dendermonde becomes the roaring, folkloristic capital of Belgium, when tens of thousands of spectators witness the mighty Bayard Steed parade through its streets. On 24 May 2020, this legendary steed will ride once again.
Between Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent lies the historical town of Dendermonde. Its medieval city centre is one of the oldest in Belgium and is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites: the 14th-century town hall with its belfry, and the 13thcentury St. Alex beguinage. Normally, the town is not crowded with tourists, making it an ideal spot for an interesting, intimate and alternative city trip. But every ten years, when the gigantic wooden Bayard Steed ‘gallops’ through town, the streets are amassed with onlookers, to show their love for this beloved animal. “Outsiders sometimes mock the excitement, but the moment it gallops on the main square, it changes everything,” emphasises Greta Van Acker from Tourism Dendermonde.
The magical steed
The saga of the Bayard Steed dates back to the Middle Ages and the story goes as follows: “Aymon, Lord of Dendermonde, married the cousin of Charlemagne and had four sons. Each of them got a horse. The eldest son, Reynaud, was so strong that he killed his horse with one blow of the fist. So, Aymon brings him to the lockedup, frightful horse Bayard, which has never found a master,” Van Acker explains. Reynaud manages to tame this magical horse. Later, after a quarrel at the court of Charlemagne, the four sons of Aymon escape from his fury on the back of Bayard. “To restore peace at the court, Charlemagne agrees to make peace again if they hand over Bayard. Concerned about his father and his brothers and because of his mother, Reynaud gives in and sacrifices his horse. Heavy millstones are put around Bayard and he is thrown into the confluence of the rivers Dender and Scheldt. Thrice the steed breaks the stones and swims to Reynaud, who is standing ashore. Reynaud can’t stand it any longer and turns away. Thinking that Reynaud doesn’t want him anymore, Bayard gives a painful scream. If his master leaves him, he doesn’t want to live anymore. And he drowns…”
Thousands in the streets
Back then, stories like these were spread by travelling troubadours. In many cities, similar legends about the Bayard Steed are cherished. Yet, nowhere else does the tale live on so prominently as in Dendermonde. The first Bayard Steed Parade was held as far back as 1807. In 1986, the building in which Bayard was stabled was about to be demolished. The transport of the beloved horse became a small parade on its own, with thousands of spectators in the streets. “When we saw how enthusiastically the horse was greeted, the city started organising the mythical procession every ten years, at the break of each decade.”
800 kilogrammes plus four children
The Bayard Steed Parade is a succession of intriguing scenes. Where the theme of the first act varies with every edition, the second one traditionally acts out the saga of the Bayard Steed. In the last act, traditional characters like the guilds’ giants and the halberdiers prelude the arrival of the mighty stallion. A dazzling 2,000 characters play their part in the medieval festival.
The wooden Bayard Steed, the showpiece of the cavalcade, is no less than 4.85 metres tall and 5.2 metres long. It takes three groups of 12 strong men, called ‘de pijnders’, to alternately carry the horse of 800 kilogrammes along the route, which takes six and a half hours. Not just in a casual trot forwards, but with an impressive prance every now and then, as well. To do so, the first row of ‘pijnders’ lifts the front of the horse in the air while the last row bends their knees. The four sons of Lord Aymon are seated on Bayard’s back. “These roles are always played by four brothers aged between seven and 21 years old, who were born and raised in the city. The parts are very popular, since these boys remain local superstars for as long as they live here,” Van Acker smiles.
The Bayard Steed Parade will take place on 24 May 2020. Web: www.rosbeiaard.be
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