French for cooking pot.

A marmite, filled with hot vegetable soup, played a decisive role for the defenders during the attempted siege of Geneva on the night of December 11 and the early hours of December 12, 1602. In Geneva this successful defense by pot is celebrated every year with chocolate marmite's, filled with marzipan vegetables, simulating the belligerent potted soup. In 2002 the 400th anniversary of the joyous incident (called locally "La belle Escalade" or simply "l'Escalade") is celebrated more thoroughly than usual.

Ducal aggression

In the beginning of the 17th century Geneva and Savoy were both independent states. Geneva was a Protestant republic and Savoy a ducal monarchy, a duchy. In 1602 Charles Emmanuel, the Duke of Savoy, decided to conquer Geneva, at that time a small walled city on a hilltop around the cathedral of Saint-Pierre, bordering to Savoy.

The attack was to be executed in two parts. First the elite of the Savoyan force, consisting of 300 native noblemen, would try to climb the city walls under cover of darkness and open the gates. Then the main force, 3000 French and Spanish mercenaries, were to take the city. The bold Savoyans were provided with foldable ladders, which were blackened to make them less conspicuous. They were to advance as silently as possible, in order not to be spotted too early.

Knowing the ropes

The 300 Savoyan commandoes left camp at 6 PM and arrived at the Geneva city walls at midnight. The sentinel passed without seeing them, but at 02.30 the guard in one of the towers, the Tower of Corraterie, heard a noise and called his superior. The alarm was sounded. Some Savoyans advanced toward one of the city gates, the Gate Neuve, which was held by thirteen Genevans. As soon as the guards saw the enemy, ten of them fled, two went into hiding and only one, Isaac Mercier, had the guts to do anything at all. He cut the rope holding the heavy vertical sliding door, which fell on the Savoyan demolition expert, who was just preparing to blow up the entrance. The Gate Neuve was saved. For knowing the ropes, Isaac Mercier got a Geneva street named after him.

Pot saves the day

The alarm had been sounded and by now thousands of armed Genevans were alerted and angry. The wife of a pot-maker and engraver, Pierre Guillaume Royaume, was apparently preparing vegetable soup in her marmite at this ungodly hour. Mère Royaume, as she is known to Genevan history, immediately took decisive action and threw the pot with hot soup on the Savoyans trying to climb up on their blackened foldable ladders. This, and maybe a few cannon shots, set the Savoyans running. Luckily, 67 of the Savoyans didn't run fast enough. The Genevans could treat themselves to 67 gory beheadings. The resulting 67 severed heads were on display in the city for several months, as tokens of the very first joyous celebration of "La belle Escalade", the Feast of the Marmite.

The 400th anniversary of "l'Escalade" (= the climbing of the walls) and the Marmite is celebrated by Genevan townspeople dressed in 17th century garb, enacting all the phases of their successful defense to the tune of trumpets, muskets and cannon, and - of course by consuming the traditional chocolate marmite's and their marzipan carrots, peas and similar imitated vegetables.

Ah, yes, and then you also have to remember to pronounce the French word marmite correctly: it is pronounced MARMITT, with the stress on the last syllable.


Luis Thévenaz: Abrégé de l'Histoire de l'Escalade, Chansons de l'Escalade, Edition Atar, Genève.

René Guerdan: Histoire de Genève, Edition Mazarine (1981).