Snowmen: The Brussels “Miracle of 1511”

Starting with Gene Autry’s recording of the song “Frosty the Snowman” in 1950, Frosty developed into a pervasive symbol of snowmen in America. Snowmen, though, have a much longer and more noteworthy history.

According to Bob Eckstein, author of The History of the Snowman, the first image of a snowman appears in marginalia in a 1380 manuscript now in the Royal Library of the Netherlands. He says early European snowmen were much more political, “a way for people to say something against their church, or maybe their local politician.” A primary example is the Miracle of 1511 in Brussels.

West-central Europe struggled during the winter of 1510–11, with snow and below-freezing temperatures beginning in mid-November. In some areas, temperatures never got above freezing until a brief mid-February warm-up. Residents of Brussels would even call it the Winter of Death. Starting in January, though, snowmen flourished throughout the city, built by and expressing the views of all levels of its society.

Then part of the Duchy of Brabant in the Habsburg Netherlands, Brussels was governed by aristocrats. One member of each of seven noble families made up the upper council of the city. The city’s many guilds also helped govern but non-bourgeois residents had no political rights. There also was a large wealth gap between the aristocracy and commoners, many of whom lived in considerable poverty.

Snowmen began appearing in the city in January 1511. No one knows if this was a city-organized festival or started by artists hired by the aristocracy. The Miracle of 1511 name and most information about it come from Dutch poet Jan Smeken’s work, “The Miracle of Real or Imaginary Ice and Snow.”

The subjects were wide-ranging. They included representations of Biblical, classical, and mythological figures and creatures from folklore and mythology. And many of the more than 100 snow figures were scatological or pornographic. Smeken’s poem wasn’t illustrated and no contemporary paintings or drawings exist. Smeken, though, didn’t just describe the snow figures. His poem imbues them with human characteristics.

Those who have studied the event suggest the first snowmen dealt with the city’s patricians’ interests. For example, Philip of Burgundy helped build a snowman outside his residence of an artistically proportioned Hercules, who the Burgundians claimed as an ancestor. According to Eckstein, a snow figure of a virgin with a unicorn in her lap erected in front of the ducal palace was “a political cartoon.” He and other authors consider it a comment on the duke, who would become Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, living in Austria with his aunt instead of Brussels.

Soon, all the city’s socioeconomic classes were building snow figures, sometimes as social commentary. A representation of a castle showing a man hiding near a defecating man was mocking a castle commander who fled when it was under attack, according to Herman Pleij, professor emeritus of Medieval Dutch literature at the University of Amsterdam. Pleij also says some snow figures ridiculed rural life. He points specifically to a cow Smeken said delivered “turds, farts and stinking” and a drunk drowning in his own excrement.

Smeken also describes a snow nun seducing a snowman and a snow couple having sex in front of the city fountain. The city’s red-light district had plenty of sexually-oriented figures. According to Smeken, one depicted:
“a huge plump woman, completely naked, her buttocks like a barrel and her breasts finely formed. A dog was ensconced between her legs, her pudenda covered by a rose[.]”

Smeken’s poem shows the intricacy and artistry of the work that went into many of the snow sculptures. Even if the city didn’t sponsor the event, when some of the figures were vandalized it announced that vandals would be severely punished.

A mid-February thaw brought snowman-building to a halt. The Winter of Death wasn’t through exacting a toll, though. Massive flooding resulted when the large amounts of snow it brought melted in the spring. People took refuge in attics. Mills, bridges, and houses were damaged or destroyed.

Yet, it’s the snowmen, not the destruction, that’s remembered. The number and variety of figures and topics caused what happened in Brussels to be considered more than a simple snow festival. “This highly differentiated background among the snowmen is what makes the Brussels snow festival such a wonderful event,” Pleij wrote in his book The Snowmen of 1511. “During one party, a cultural meeting takes place between all manifesting classes, groups and sections within the city.” Eckstein goes further, saying the Miracle of 1511 “literally changed the society of Brussels, giving the public a voice, shifting the balance of power back to the public, and changing the class system within Brussels forever.”

The display of frozen politicians was the town’s de facto op-ed page.

Bob Eckstein, The History of the Snowman

(Originally posted at History of Yesterday)

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