History of the Basler Herbstmesse (Fall Fair)

© anne kohler

The Basler Herbstmesse (fall fair) is not only an absolute highlight in Basel’s annual calendar but the oldest and largest fair in Switzerland. Did you know that this year’s fair is actually the 551st edition of this event? So let’s take a brief look back on the origins of Basel’s Herbstmesse!

The Beginning

Privilege of Emperor Frederick III to open and hold two annual fairs, 11 July 1471. Source: “500 Years of the Basel Fair”, Helbing and Lichtenhanhn, 1971.

In the 15th century, Basel was already a thriving, prosperous city and trade center. From 1431 to 1448 it also was the site of one of the councils, or synods, of the Catholic Church. One of the dignitaries attending this council and enjoying his stay in the city was an Italian named Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who a few years later became Pope Pius II. Therefore, when Basel’s government approached the new pope in 1458 with the request that he may grant them the right to establish a “higher school” and an annual market or fair, Pius II quickly agreed to the former, resulting in the founding of the University of Basel in 1460 as the first university in Switzerland. The right to hold a market, however, could not be granted by the pope but had to be bestowed by the Holy Roman Emperor, the German Friedrich III. The pope supported Basel’s request and even sent a letter to the emperor to that effect. Nevertheless, Friedrich III took quite a bit longer to convince, and so it was only in 1471 that he granted the city of Basel the right to hold two markets per year—one on the 14 days preceding Whit Sunday and one on the 14 days preceding Martinstag (St. Martin’s Day).

At that time, the right to hold a market or fair was a big privilege because it allowed merchants from far-away places to sell their wares that otherwise would not have been available to the citizens. As a result, people from the entire region would flock to the city to obtain these goods, enjoy unusual entertainments (in the 17th century, there was a report that even a lion had been brought to town and displayed for the market visitors’ enjoyment), and hear news and stories from distant places. However, not everybody was entirely happy with the new fairs: Local merchants feared for their profits because during the fairs, any protectionist local customs duties and taxes that normally were levied on out-of-town merchants and craftsmen were to be lifted. Thus, those out-of-towners could sell their wares at competitive prices, hurting local business. As a result, the market held in the springtime was abolished again by the guilds after only about 20 years (The custom of a springtime market or fair was revived in 1917, with the inception of the “Schweizer Mustermesse,” later known as MUBA, which was held yearly until it was ended in 2019.)

The autumn fair, however, was here to stay and has been held every year since then, with few interruptions because of the plague (1721 and 1722), a cholera epidemic (1831), the Spanish Flu (1918), or the coronavirus pandemic (2020). Only the date has been changed slightly in modern times. Initially the market was to be held on the 14 days preceding Martinstag, which is celebrated on November 11; thus, it always started on October 27. Since 1926, however, the beginning of the Herbstmesse has been set to the last Saturday in October. Yet what hasn’t changed is how the fair starts.

Ringing in the Herbstmesse

© wikimedia commons / malhiermalda

Since its earliest days, the Herbstmesse has been opened in the middle of the starting day, at exactly 12 noon. This relatively late hour is thought to be related to the fact that during the Middle Ages, Christian citizens were not allowed to consume alcohol before noon. Business deals, however, typically were sealed with a handshake and a drink of wine or other alcoholic beverage. Thus, to avoid any potential moral conflicts, the market simply didn’t start until it was acceptable to make and seal business transactions.

The second peculiarity associated with the opening of the Herbstmesse is that it has been, and still is, done by ringing a bell on the tower of the St. Martinskirche, which is located on the hill between the Rathaus (city hall) and the Rhein. This tradition likely is related to the previously mentioned fact that normal tax and customs regulations were suspended during the market so that local and out-of-town merchants had equal rights. To make sure that everybody knew exactly when this period started and when it ended, the bell was rung that could be heard by all merchants attending the market. And although this reason is no longer valid, the tradition of ringing the bell to signal the start of the Herbstmesse has been maintained.

What has also been maintained is how the bell ringer is paid for his services: He doesn’t receive a monetary compensation but is still paid in natural goods—specifically with a pair of mittens! The mittens these days are donated by the Freiwillige Basler Denkmalpflege (Voluntary Monument Preservation Basel), an organization dedicated to preserving old buildings. So if you happen to be around for the ringing of the bell, you will notice that after fulfilling his duties, the bell ringer leans out of a small window in the church tower, waving a mitten. Even more interesting is the fact that he is only waving one (the left-hand) mitten! Only after fulfilling his duties in full and also signaling the end of the fair 2 weeks later, again at noon, does he receive the second mitten.

You can learn more about the Herbstmesse and its traditions at https://www.herbstmesse.ch/en.