West Virginia University in Vendée, France
Le Puy du Fou
 
 

Le Puy du Fou is one of the most visited sites outside a major city in France.  Like the Futuroscope, it must be labeled a theme park.  Again like the Futuroscope, it is very different from the Disney approach (even though there seem to be striking similarities between this site and the one once projected for a "history" park near civil war battle fields in Virginia).  In fact this site is located on the lands of a manor that was nearly destroyed in the wars of the 1790's.  The manor that survives half burned to ground is now the theatre of one of the most impressive night-time sound and light (sons et lumières) shows in Europe.  This show, which re-enacts the battle and the climate of the Wars of Vendée, is the original attraction around which the current park was conceived.

Given its origins and focus, it is natural that, unlike the Futuroscope, the park of Le Puy du Fou is focused on the ways of life that characterized different moments in the past.  Quite different from Cinderella's castle in Orlando, Florida, the buildings and expositons here are constructed from the authentic materials used in the time represented.  Currently, the different areas of the park focus on ways of life from different periods, including the time of the year 1000, the high middle ages and renaissance, and also the eighteenth century.  In addition, expositions include a walk through a park explaining the plants, trees and ecology of Vendée (including a touching visit with the "last wolf" of the region), an undergound walk through the 1790's battles, and special shows demonstrating legends, events, and the common arts of the area.

In the summer of 1997, our visit to this park was took place on the worst day of our stay.  Since the park is located in the high hills of Vendée and since the sound and light show take place after dark (that is after 11:00 pm in June), we have decided not to include the evening historical re-enactment in our standard visit.  The park, however, is so rich that we found it to be an essential part of any visit to the Vendée region.  As you will see below, we were unable to put the camera down as we visited this important monument to the past.  Please forgive the quality of the photos, since this is the only day we experience in which the rain followed us from morn to eve.



 

The Location:
Located in the high hills of Vendée( "puy"means hill in old French), wind is a traditional source of energy for the area.  This old  windmill (7 Kb) is located on the highway near the entry to Le Puy du Fou. The walkways and trails through the park of Le Puy du Fou are lined by trees, water, and rich gardens, all perfectly integrated into the age represented or to the land upon which the park is laid out.  Here Valérie and the children look into the water (10 Kb), with the silhouette of the old castle on the skyline.    No burning asphalt here, since the trails from one area to the next (25 Kb) are earth and gravel paths through shaded alleys.

The birds:
In early Europe, hunting was one of the primary souces of food.  As agriculture developed and the possession of the land fell to the powerful and wealthy lords, is became more an amusement than a necessity.   Today we think of the weapons and the mounts the hunter used in pursuit of prey, but we forget that much hunting, even in very early Europe, was done from the air -- that's right, from the wings of a bird.  Le Puy du Fou has an staff of expert "fauconniers," that is handlers a falcons and other birds of prey train to hunt for their masters.  Here are a few scenes from the falconery exhibit at Le Puy.
   --   An exhibitor holds the bait (20 Kb) as the crowd watches the bird arriving form the right. 
   --   Here a great eagle (29 Kb) is launched to the chase.
   --   A number of eagles (7 Kb) come down from the sky.
 

The stones:
The materials used in the exhibits at Le Puy are authentic from the times they represent.  Here are a fiew photos of the walls that surround visitors and lend authenticity to the atmosphere:
  -- Some of the towers and walls from the middle ages (10 Kb)
  -- Looking back from the middle ages to the year 1000 (9 Kb)

 

In the beginning:
The end of the first millenium was a traumatic time for Europe.  Some thought the year 1000 would bring the end of the world.  It certainly was an end in one way, since the forest of Europe were in serious decline and the great buildings were soon to be constucted in stone.  Fortresses in isolated areas were nevertheless still built of wood.   Le Puy recreates this epoch in "le fort de l'an mil"(15 Kb).  Danger was never far off, and the tower of the fort (9 Kb) was surely, next to its walls, among its most important strategic features.

The Christian religion was only recently able to claim predominance among the people of the continent, but the barbarians were still arriving.  Previous invasions had thus far result in the conversion of the conqueror, but was the world about to change?  It seemed so, since the greatest conquerers of the age were now ravaging the coasts of France.  The arrival of the Vikings (10 Kb) was the greatest fear of any area of Europe within reach or a river or a shore.  The legend of Saint Philibert (19 Kb) is one of the  great stories of the past re-enacted at Le Puy.  Having evangelized the region of current Vendée generations earlier and been burried on the isle of Noirmoutier, St. Philibert had come to be a central figure of the Christian faith in these lands.   Not knowing that the pagan Vikings would soon adopt the religion and the language of the lands they were invading, the faithful of the region disinterred the saint's remains and moved them journey by journey toward the inland.  Each stop along the way considered itself a resting place of the venerable saint.  Today numerous churches and town along this trek are horored to be known as "Saint Philibert" (or a variant of same).

The horse:
In the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire, numerous barbarian tribes vied for dominance of a continent now thrown into confusion.  The Angle and the Saxons established their primace in the British Isles (at least until the Vikings -- see above -- arrived in 1066 under the now French-speaking and Christian William the Conquer).   The Goths, the Visigoths, the Vandals, and others staked their claim to other parts of the world now forsaken by the Romans.  It was the Franks who in the fourth and fifth centuries laid their claim to the land once called Gaul.  As this claim was solidified, they were in the process of perfecting the art of war that led them to their success.

Of course the secret to that success was their mastery of the horse.  The code of honor that would evolve from this mode of conquest would soon be know throughout Europe by the name of the animal:  "Chivalry" ("chevalerie" from the French word for horse).  The Age of Chivalry was thus soon to follow.  The art of horsemanship thus became the mark not only of the warriar but of the entire class that arose from and devoted itself to war, the nobility itself.  The exhibits of Le Puy give a dramitic new life to the world that gave birth to modern Europe.

    -- The honorable Frankish knight arrives (22 Kb)
    -- The evil dark knight makes his entry (21 Kb)
    -- Under the royal "Fleur de Lys" (21 Kb)
    -- The victory in the joust will decide all (20 Kb)

Note:  Did you know that the last French king to die in a joust was Henri II, the son of François Premier?  In a fight not intended to be to the death, Henri recieved the shards of a broken lance through his eye and into his brain.  This was a tragedy in many ways.  A just and wise king, there was some hope Henri would be able to resolve the growing conflict between the refomist Protestants and the established Catholics.  Henri's three sons would each reign briefly and sometimes disastrously.  His first son, François II would reign only a year before dying.  François's wife, Mary Tudor, was just as ill fated.   A widow of the king of France,  she returned to her native Scotland only to be beheaded by her arch-enemy, Elizabeth I of England.  Charles IX, Henri's second son, in an act of madness ordered the destruction of all Protestant influence in the kingdom, resulting in the 1572 Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre.  Henri III, the third son would be the last monarch of the Valois dynasty, would die as his brothers with no male heir.  Horror of horrors, the next legitimate pretender was himself a Protestant -- but not for long.  Henry IV, the Good King, would convert to the religion he had once abhorred, declaring "Paris is well worth a mass".
 

The humbler arts:
In the end as well as in the beginning, it is not the art of war but the art of life that would assure the survival and then the prosperity of the country.  In fact, without the peasants and artisans producing the necessities of life, the nobility itself would never have risen above the station of its most humble servants.  In a world of horses, and armor, the working of metal was, of course, vital.   But perhaps the greatest product of the blacksmith was the humble plough.  Here a smith at Le Puy stokes his fire (16 Kb).  The object of this demonstration is simply to make a nail, a small object that holds much of our world together.  Even a small piece of metal like this requires an  incredibly amount of heat and muscle (11 Kb).

In order to work the plough which would produce the food that would fuel all other activities in the world of the past (just as in ours today), the peasant needed to move about the fields and villages.  The secret to that mobility for him was not the horse, but the wooden shoe or the "sabot."   In a sense the maker of these wooden shoes fed the world in which he lived.

Note:  Did you know that the word "sabotage" comes from the French word for wooden shoe?  Quite appropriately as it turns out, since discontented workers in days past would throw the old shoes into the machines owned by their employers, thus "sabotaging" their means of production.

We've seen the mills that turned the wheat produced by the peasant into a workable flour.  The final step of the process was of course to make the flour edible.  In our world we know that the carburator allows the energy of the gasoline to be used by the engine.   Well the "carburator" of the western world was simply called a baker (or boulanger) (17 Kb).  Le Puy's exhibits, as one might expect, feature authentic recreations that include the most basic of historical products, bread itself, and the bread sold here is really, really good!.  On a wall behind the baker in the photo is a message that perhaps puts it all into perspective.  I have two versions of this photo, featuring a document entitle "Bread and Freedom" ("Le Pain et la Liberté"):  A smaller file of "Bread and Liberty" (29 Kb);   A high resolution file of "Bread and Liberty" (52 Kb).  If you can read French, you'll see hear an entire philosophy of bread.  If not, just look for the big bug sitting on the flyer.
 

Life was not all war and work:
Entertainment was also an essential means of encouraging not only leisure, but also a vital part of building the morale necessary to the incredible effort needed to accomplish the chorses of the world gone by.   Here we see a "funambule"  (20 Kb), a traditional acrobate who entertained noble and peasant alike.   Le Puy also has exhibits of medieval and renaissance music, as well as roaming junglers and magicians, as well as the impressive "montreurs d'ours", or "bear tamers." 
 

I can't really classify the scene here, but to me it says as much as any of the place and atmosphere of Le Puy du Fou.  So here's  a little water, a touch of garden, and a humble little house (19 Kb).