Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Good Queen Berta in Switzerland

Queen Berta of Burgundy, formerly Princess of Swabia, Queen of Upper Burgundy, Queen of Italy, and Empress of Rome, was buried in Payerne, a small town in today's Republic and Canton of Jura, Switzerland. She was first revered as a saint there, but her story started to grow as time went by. Soon she was known as Good Queen Berta. Still later, she acquired the name Queen Berta the Spinner. Even later, she would become godmother to a newly established republican state. And her story lives on today.

The convent in Payerne was founded by Queen Berta in the 9th century; and it was the place of her choice where she was buried. After her death, the convent was richly endowed by her children, Empress Adelaide of the Holy Roman Empire, King Conrad of Burgundy and Duke Rudolf of Burgundy. The local people revered Good Queen Berta as a saint, praying to her for good harvests and the safety of their homes and families. The day of her death on January 2nd became the day of her memory. A memorial service for her and her husband King Rudolf of Burgundy (and at one point Emperor of Rome) was read every year in Koniz near Bern in Switzerland until the Reformation in the 16th century.

In legend, she is depicted as a Fairy Queen roaming her country on a white charger looking after the welfare of farmers and of women and children. It is said that she was a prolific spinner, and the spindle became her sign and attribute. She endows thrifty girls with dowries and punishes the lazy. She acquired the attributes of the German goddess Freya in her guise as protector of the hearth (under which incarnation Freya is known by the name of Perchta, or Berta, Bertha, Berthe).

Through her spinning she also acquired the attributes of the Queen of Fairies said to spin the destiny of humans. Her memory grew over time and the story of another Berta, Queen of France, was integrated into hers. Her memorial day became a holiday not only in the parts of Switzerland that had belonged to the Kingdom of Burgundy where she had been Queen, but also in the rest of Switzerland which had been part of the Duchy of Swabia where she was born a princess. Berta’s Day is still a public holiday in many parts of Switzerland today. The saying goes: ‘The mice will get what you work for on Berta’s Day.’

When the Reformation swept over Switzerland in the 16th century, her memory was too big to be ignored by the newly established creed. Her popular sainthood was put aside, but her memory and story remained firmly anchored in people's mind. The convent she founded in Payerne was secularized and her church was converted into a warehouse. Ironically, this preserved the building better than being converted into a protestant church. Protestant churches were usually stripped of their adornments and painted white all over. No one bothered with a warehouse.

When in 1803 under Napoleon's rule the new Republic of Vaud declared itself independent of the Republic Bern, the founders expressly named Good Queen Berta as legitimating this move. Accordingly, her name was mentioned in the constitution of the new Republic immediately after God. Her grave was searched for and rediscovered in her convent church and she was re-interred in a new grave with great pomp and circumstance in the protestant minster of Payerne.

Today, you still find Queen Berta in the most unlikely places. She often is named as an honorary member or even honorary president of historic societies, farming associations, sports clubs, and many others beside. The city of Bern bestows the Queen Berta Order of Merit to inhabitants or organizations in town every year for outstanding service to the community.

When I was a child, the Good Queen was a living part of our family. Whenever I questioned my grand-mother’s decisions, she would be introduced into the discussion. For instance, I never saw the sense in drying dishes; they would dry by themselves after all. But grand-mother insisted, and usually said: ‘The Good Queen Berta would have done it that way, and so shall we.’ This ended any discussion, as I knew for a fact that the Good Queen was sitting in heaven besides mother Mary and Jesus watching over Jesus drying the dishes for mother Mary. If Jesus could do it, so could I.

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