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History of the Basel Autumn Fair

Fun with a long tradition: the history of Switzerland's amusement fair stretches way back to the Middle Ages.

Basler Herbstmesse Rhein Panorama

The Council of Basel from 1431 to 1448 brought enormous economic and population growth to the city. When it ended, Basel found itself facing a crisis in 1449. An annual fair was planned, the aim being to kick-start the economy. As a Free City of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, Basel needed the blessing of the emperor to hold such a fair. Pope Pius II, kindly disposed towards Basel, was meant to send the German Emperor Friedrich III a letter of recommendation.

Although this letter was written, it was lost in transit, which meant a new initiative was required, several decades later, this time on the part of Basel's mayor, Hans von Bärenfels. His endeavours finally met with success, and Basel received a deed of authorization bearing the emperor’s seal on 11 July 1471. This deed guaranteed the city of Basel the right to hold a fair “for all time”.

Basel made full use of its right from that time on, each year staging a lively, fun-filled fair, where merchants hawked their wares, people ate and drank to their hearts content, and jugglers and singers showed off their talents. Over the centuries, the attractions have developed from simple mazes, “spinning barrel” rides and ghost trains to today's freefall tower. The fair's iconic attraction – the Big Wheel at Münsterplatz – stood a proud 20-metres high in the 1970s. Today, it's three times as high, at 60 metres. And for centuries, “Mässmogge” and “Maagemòrsèlle” have been delighting those with a sweet tooth – young and old alike – at Petersplatz. 

For those who like to be really in the know, here is an anecdote about Basel’s Autumn Fair to be squirrelled away for future use: Each year, the opening of the Basel Autumn fair is signalled by the ringing of the bells of the Church of Saint Martin at exactly 12 o'clock, watched by hundreds of spectators. For many years, it has been Franz Baur who has been keeping this cherished tradition alive and ringing the bells. In return, he receives – like those who have rung the bells before him – a new pair of gloves. But not both gloves together: He receives one glove before he rings the bell, and the other once the bells marking the end of the fair have been rung. Then, and only then, can Franz Bauer enjoy his reward – a touch of caution on the part of the fair’s traditionally Protestant Commissioners. That, too, is a typical Basel idiosyncrasy.

Want to find out more about Basel's history.

More detailed information on the city's exciting history can be found here.