Apart from the empty streets below and the clearer-than-ever mountain ridges beyond, the view from Renato Haeusler’s “office” balcony is the same now as it was before the coronavirus quarantine lockdown gripped the world.
Most evenings at 21:45, as the sun sinks behind Lake Geneva, he climbs the 153 stone steps to his workplace, a box-sized chamber that takes on a dusky-pink glow on a late spring evening. Oak wood beams flank the space, and the Swiss city of Lausanne is visible through enormous arched windows. Witches’ hat spires, gabled houses and sumptuous mansions flood in. The glimmering lakefront magics away any Covid-19 gloom. Always, there is much to take in.
For 33 years, from 22:00 to 02:00, Haeusler has gazed out at this view from Lausanne Cathedral and wondered vaguely: Who is on the streets below? Where are they are going? And does anyone realise he is high above them, squirreled away inside the belfry?
“Je ne m’ennuie pas,” he said, pausing to soak up the utter stillness of the city. “I never get bored, and every night it is a pleasure to be up here. To see the moon in the lake. The twinkling lights of the houses. Sometimes, France in the distance. I like it so much you can’t imagine.”
Haeusler, 61, is one of the world’s last Night Watchmen and probably the closest thing we have in the modern age to a real-life character from The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.
Dressed in a tunic and wide-brimmed black felt hat and gripping a flickering oil lantern, he is a dying breed, a portrait from another age and yet seemingly all the wiser for it.
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The rituals of Night Watchmen across Europe have changed little since they were first introduced. Hundreds of years ago, beginning as far back as the 9th Century, city mayors and civic leaders from London to Prague to Salzburg demanded greater levels of overnight protection. From policing dark streets to watching for fires, foes and extremities of wind and weather, such sharp-eyed night owls became medieval timekeepers and crime busters, rousing sleeping citizens in the event of emergencies.
Today, there are only a handful of cities that cling to such antiquated traditions. In fact, apart from the cathedral tower occupied in Lausanne, and others in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Dinkelsbühl and Nördlingen in Bavaria Germany, there are hardly any others left on the planet.
Horn blowers in Krakow, Poland, and in Ripon, England, meanwhile, maintain their own traditions by setting the night watch with ceremonial bugle blasts. Against a background of change, including mitigating factors such as the reformation of law enforcement, street lighting and CCTV, it is little wonder that the vocation has all but vanished.
This is the lookout! The bell has tolled 10!
A once-upon-a-time quality remains. The Night Watchmen exist in a bubble, or “out of time,” as Haeusler puts it. The last in a long line of watchmen, who have been manning this post since November 1405, he steadfastly maintains a longstanding medieval tradition – pure and simple –to safeguard the city’s cultural heritage. Ironically, he has not worn a watch for more than 40 years yet copes stoically with his decades-long nightly vigil.
“In real terms, what I do isn’t important,” he said. “But according to history and tradition, it has tangible value. I’m a witness to the past.”
It works like this. At 22:00 every evening, the first call is made.
“C’est le guet! Il a sonné dix.” (“This is the lookout! The bell has tolled 10!”).
The slightest of pauses and the Watchman’s voice drifts across the rooftops.
Then another call. “Il a sonné dix!”
Each time, the call is amplified through cupped hands, directed to the four points of the compass, then repeated each hour until the shift ends at 02:00. At no point does the Watchman ring the bells, like they used to do in medieval times.
Afterwards, because it is late and because Haeusler enjoys the privilege of being alone in the cathedral, he falls asleep in a poky bed stored in the chamber. His house is only 1km away by bicycle, and yet every night spent in the tower, boxed between the two enormous bells named Clémence and Marie-Madeleine, is one in which he can “reclaim the past for the present”. Without doubt, it’s a proud way of life and labour of love. “I’ll have to stop when I’m 65, but I’d prefer not to think about that,” he said. “It’ll be too painful. Too emotional.”
Much of the Night Watchmen mythology can be traced back to a story in the Old Testament. In the Book of Ezekiel (33:) Ezekiel is appointed a watchman for Israel by God, pronouncing that his duty is to blow the horn and sound the alarm to protect the people. As the Bible puts it, the role is a matter of life and death.
Other stories carry similar such meaningful resonance. In England, the home of the longest Night Watch ceremony in the world, dating to 866, one account from the “Summary of Rules in Ripon Town Book (1598)”, states that the watchman is “not to leave the town in his year of office except because of plague. Penalty £20.” It was lockdown, Middle Ages style.
“There hasn’t been a single night for more than 800 years that the Ripon Hornblowers haven’t set the watch,” said Mick Taylor, city historian and himself a three-time former mayor of the city. “There are no records of it ever stopping and the reality is this tradition will never die out – it’s bound up with the psyche of the city. And, truly, people love it. Some nights in summer we can have up to 70 tourists watching.”
Another Night Watchman adhering to tradition is Horst Lenner in Bavaria, Germany. Fulfilling a childhood ambition to become tower keeper of Nördlingen 10 years ago, the retired journalist maintains a half-hourly shout of “So G’sell so” (‘Hey, buddy, hey!’). It’s a plea that’s been called every night since 1440 from 22:00 until midnight. At the height of the Middle Ages, the guards of the city gates then answered each call to ensure the Night Watch knew they were awake.
Still today if someone answers, I have to reply
“Still today if someone answers, I have to reply,” said Lenner, who is kept company throughout his periods of social isolation by the tower cat Wendelstein. Of course, Lenner has moved beyond his first adolescent “Sword in the Stone” fantasies and he is now a representative of the city and extended arm to the tourist office. “It happens that I can call 40 times during a night, mostly on summer nights responding to tourists.”
In unprecedented days like these, one question lingers: Who do the last Night Watchmen watch when no one needs to be watched? To a remarkable extent, the cities of Lausanne, Ripon and Nördlingen have stuck to the past at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown. In Ripon, the hornblowers call their bugles from the front steps of their own houses as part of nightly vigils, while Lenner still climbs the 368 steps of Nördlingen tower to the narrow gallery 70m above the city to repeat his 22:00 cry. “The big difference is that in corona times no one answers below,” he said. “It is almost ghostly.”
The last three months has also seen Haeusler ascend Lausanne’s watchtower every evening – if only to make the first 22:00 announcement. The other difference, in a nod to medieval tradition, is he now also tolls Clémence for the first time in centuries — and for five minutes — to send a positive message to those living under lockdown in the city. “The ringing bell reminds everyone we’re bound together by shared history,” he said. “It lifts spirits and encourages people to carry on.”
Remarkably, in spite of Covid-19, the story of the Night Watchmen is alive and well. Which is fitting, because people are relying on wistful nostalgia and emotional touchstones now more so than ever. It is tradition at its most touching. And so, it goes on.
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