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military saint marches, Wallonia, St. Roch military marches


Ritualized public processionals known as military saint marches thrive in popular memory and define local identity in Francophone Belgium (Wallonia). The annual processionals involve thousands of marchers dressed in Napoleonic-era military uniforms, carrying authentic muskets and escorting a statue of St. Roch, the patron saint of disease protection. Many of these marchers trace family participation through multiple generations and two St. Roch marches received UNESCO recognition as examples of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” in 2012. While participants claim there is no historical rupture between the modern marches and the processionals celebrated prior to the French Revolution, there is a fictive, inventive origin to these marches. Like many religious processionals in Belgium, the St. Roch marches ended during the radical phase of the French Revolution (1794) and only reemerged in the 1860s. The processionals evolved in structure, rituals, and costume through the 1930s. Participants and spectators share in the creation of historical memory, infuse the marches with notions of local identity and socialization, and create new narratives that legitimize ritual elements and participant costuming. This paper explores the tension between historical experience and modern commemoration of St. Roch military marches, as expressed by their organizers, marchers, and spectators.