THE “BATAILLE DE REINES” - THE BATTLE OF COWS
The “bataille de reines” is without doubt one of the most important pieces of the Valle D’Aostan cultural mosaic.
The Historical Motives
Until towards the middle of the twentieth century, the Val d’Aostan economy was based essentially on agriculture and the rearing of livestock, in particular of the bovine kind, and exclusively for family use.
In Valle d’Aosta there are three main breeds of cow: the red piebald and the black piebald, with their spotted fur, and the chestnut with its more uniform chestnut-coloured fur. The red piebald is more adapted to the production of milk, though averse to movements over long distances, for which it is moved to middle-slope pastures. The other two breeds, more muscular, and thus more suitable for the production of meat, were reared also to increment milk production from which Fontina cheese was made during the summer period. In fact, thanks to their strength they were easily adapted to high mountain life as they could travel long distances, almost to the mountains’ summits, to browse on rare tufts of grass.
The behaviour of a herd’s males is typical in nature as they fight for supremacy and for the survival of their breeds coupling with the females. Domestic breeding changed the natural rules inasmuch as latter-day herds are constituted almost exclusively of females, and the eventual male - the bull - was always a very young specimen. This has allowed over time that the herds recomposed their hierarchies, choosing as leader the cow more similar to a male in stature, physical strength and authority.
In spring, the day of the “inarpa” (the climb to mountain pastures), the cattle, having spent the winter in different barns, are reunited in one single herd of over a hundred heads in order to begin their transfer onto the high mountain pastures. The coexistence of such a large number of heads of herd for the long summer period makes for furious horn-clashing battles in order to determine the hierarchy, with the “reina” (the queen) on its top. Whilst preparing themselves for battle the females will eye each other with great scrutiny, moo menacingly and carve holes into the ground with hooves and horns so as to frighten off their adversaries.
The “bataille de reines” in our times
These authentic natural conflicts brought about the birth of the “Association régionale des amis des batailles de reines” (Friends of batailles de reines regional association) whose job it is to organise and regulate the contest for the amusement of the audience. The preliminary heats take place in twenty different municipalities, eight heats in spring (from March until May), six in the summer (in June and August), and six in the autumn (in September and October); the contest ends with the regional final in the Croix-Noire locality, in Saint-Christophe. In Fénis the event is held in the Tzanti de Bouva locality on Easter Monday on even-numbered years or otherwise in the Quart municipality.
In each contest the bovines are divided into the three following categories.*
* Weights may be subject to variation
** There are specimens weighting more than 800 kg!
The cattle are then numbered on their flanks and sorted into pairs according to each category, and the encounters proceed following the direct elimination principle until the final contest.
In the summer and autumn contests and in the finals it is required that all contestants are pregnant, whilst for the spring eliminations it is enough that they have given birth no later than November of the previous year.
The cattle can be enlisted in all the contests; in this way the chance that prestigious cattle do not reach the final following an encounter with a rival of equal share, can be avoided. The previous year’s three queens have the right to enter the final contest, in order to defend their titles, without fighting in preliminary heats, and according to statute, also the first six or twelve winners from the single elimination rounds are admitted to the regional final.
The arena is delimited by crush barriers on the inside of which are left small mounds of earth in order to make everything as similar as possible to the bovines’ natural environment, so that they might make preliminary psychological preparations for the contest. At times the encounters are long and extenuating for well-matched contestants , whilst they are extremely brief if one contestant shows a marked superiority over its rival. It may also happens that a cow refuses to fight and abandons her place, much to the disappointment of its owner and the audience. In every elimination round the first four cows classified are awarded cowbells of sizes which reflect their final place. On the collar of each of these, the year and the place of encounter are recorded, whilst only the “reina” receives the typical “bosquet”, a fir tree branch decorated with red ribbons and flowers.