PUI DU FOU: THEME PARKS AND HISTORY

Now the summer has come, what could be do to keep contact with History? Because summer is an invitation to mind changing, laziness, joie de vivre, traveling. But it is not written anywhere that means forgetting. Or putting aside. At least no History. It is all right to forget and put aside work and bills and even relations. But no History; anyway, it will keep on happening while we try to forget it, so why the effort? Moreover with this temperatures.

No, what we can do is to embed History in our holiday time. Which could be so easy, given some spare time and not necessarily a big budget. We can even do more or less the exact same thing that everyone else is doing, like going to a theme park. Ah, yes, there are parks not that far away from you where talking rodents or crafty fairies are not the main characters, and there are places where you can also enjoy the day even if you are a worrisome roller-coaster hater. Not that many, but still they exist.

The point is that, when thinking about History oriented theme parks, I have remembered some very revealing pages from J. Barnes “England, England”. This being a novel about a History theme park gone quite out-of-the-way, it seems an appropriate reading at this moment, though some of the opinions there expressed could be highly controversial. Basically, the sense that the average citizen is dumbfounded by the differences between what he thinks about historical facts and the real facts, and on the wrong side besides, being prone to think that popular or modern representations of historical facts are actually more credible than the real thing.

Among the cast we have this cynic (to say the least) Historian, Dr.Max, a TV hardened expert in public History, a man who despises almost everyone else lack of knowledge. A man who thinks people would readily believe anything given that the fact could match their expectations. Expectations usually based on myth, legend, tale or even movie. This is not the place to make an extensive reading of the book, but try to find it and do not miss the passage in which a well-educated man, a man of a position, with a degree, is questioned about 1066. Laughable stock, that. The man thinks Harold was a Norman (as a cousin to William), misses the Hardrada expedition and, of course, he is quite sure about the wound in the eye. After all, the wound IS at the Bayeux Tapestry, isn’t it?

Or that other passage in which Dr. Max discusses gender, race and disability issues among Robin Hood and his Merry Fellows, feeling that, from a modern-day point of view, some of the depicted traits of the characters could well be political correctness-ridden. And adding that it would be very plausible that the real characters would had very little in common with the depictions of them that our societies have created. I mean, Little John could have been actually little, Will Scarlett could have had some skin sickness, Robin could have been not such a good thief and so on. But what would we do if these characters were represented as they really were? Or as we would like them to be according to our XXI century taste?

In the end I guess the question here is: are, or should be, amusement parks good historical sources, or they must be just places for entertainment with some historical background just to create a fashionable environment? (Well, that is in what relates to this article; if you want to know what happened to Dr. Max and England, England, I guess you should read the book).

If you are searching for a place like the above said, I think you should go to France. To a region called La Vendee, close to the Atlantic coast, home to the conservative counter-revolution that shook the French Revolution and, also, to Le Grand Parc du Puy du Fou. Which is, of course, a theme park based in historical events.

Obviously, though, it is not a big lecture on History. It is an amusement park, goes with the name, must be entertaining. But to be true, we must concede there is some History going on there.

The park is organized around four areas or villages: year 1000 stronghold, medieval town, XVIII century village and 1900 borough. Each one has nicely done representations of buildings and crafts as they are thought to be in the age. The older sections allow to visit the inside of buildings and get in touch with what could have been life conditions at the time. The newer are more shopping oriented (this is a running business after all). You could learn something from the visit albeit, of course, as you must pay to enter, the management has taken away all the foul smells, dirt and illness. These would have been some extremely clean and hygienic Middle Ages houses and barns. But that is, again, one of the nuisances of theme parks: they must be comfortable and have a user-friendly environment, so, unfortunately the can only give you some visual grasp of what life in, for instance, Middle Ages, would have been. But, the again, this grasp is well done, with reasonable accuracy, no major mistakes and, above all, the aim to be educational. Given the age of some of the visitors, that is going a step beyond the current Prime Minister.

Pui du Fou, village on the year 1000.
Pui du Fou, village on the year 1000.

Then come the shows. Shows, as they are, are not exactly a part of a big-span educational program. But they could be. It is the same point as in “England, England”: should we bear the public to teach them History or should we diminish History to make it acceptable to the masses? There must be, probably, a middle way. And Gran Parc du Put du Fou has made some length on it.

Shows have a historical focus. They try to tell stories about some historical events, though, given the environment and circumstances, and just in the mentioned book, sometimes they choose the myth or legend path instead of the real thing. Which, for me at least, is just as good while they keep close to reality what must be kept. Musketeers show, for example, is no History. Is a History-related show based on what movies and literature have moved us to believe was the life of musketeers: adventure, brawling, love, amazing horse-riding. Quite amazing in this particular case. Anyway, if it moves the kids among the public to know more about the age of musketeers, it is worth the while, even if the misery and boredom of soldiering in the XVII is left apart. Even if the cruelty of war is not there to be shown.

Then, in the other hand, shows about Roman and Dark Ages give us some more historical accuracy and  background, depicting the struggle of Christianity under pagan Roman rule and its ultimate triumph (with, of course, a race in the circus and some lions involved). Some useful fact about political entanglement of the Christian elites is offered, albeit in a very schematic way. Ground is open to entertainment more than education, but both can live together. In the Dark Ages section, Vikings will attack a coastal hamlet. There will be room for miracles and bloodshed (overwhelming fx in this one; that Drakkar coming from below the water…), yes, but also for some nice representation of commoners life at the age, like a wedding.

Pui du Fou- Viking show: here is the village community marching after the show is over. You can just see the scenery being pulled up again to get ready for the next day.
Pui du Fou- Viking show: here is the village community marching after the show is over. You can just see the scenery being pulled up again to get ready for the next day.

The other medieval show, which focuses on Joan of Arc, is pure entertainment with just the slightest concession to real History in the form of wardrobe and atrezzo. Spectacular and lavish, but not really History; more on the side of Myth (and Magic), thus compelling the audience which is far more interested in the evolutions of daring riders than in getting to know who killed who during the Hundred Years war. Ad there are still some minor shows and exhibitions, about the story of the Vendeé war; about the story of the place itself, Puy du Fou and its castle;even La Fontaine characters. All, as before, more on the side of Myth and legend, which is understandable being so more appealing to great public, but always with strong historical backgrounds and a respectful, yet quite simple approach to real historical fact.

Pui du Fou: Joan d'Arc and the walls of the castle.
Pui du Fou: Joan d’Arc and the walls of the castle.

On top of all that, you have two night shows. On of them, albeit brilliant ans enjoyable has nothing to do with our errand. The other one, however, has everything to do with us. The Cinescenie, as it is called, is overwhelming when it comes to figures: one hour and forty minutes show; over 10 million spectators through the years; 1200 actors and dancers; a stage of over 56 acres…and a separate sold ticket. This IS a running business, remember?

This notwithstanding, this is serious stuff. A show which intends to portray the whole History of the Vendeé region from first settlers onwards, with details about how commoners lived their lives, how war and Revolution affected them, up to WWI must be taken seriously, even if some accuracy is lost amidst all the fireworks and stunts. In the best French tradition, as we shall see at Castillon in the course of this series, people proud of their History (even if they have, as everywhere else, a tendency to embellish it, or to substitute here and there fact with legend and hearsay) is set on show it out to fellow countrymen and foreigners alike, teaching something on the way, bringing the past close to our modern eyes, particularly to those of kids, which in turn, hopefully, will develop a strong sense of History awareness and liking. That is the strength of Puy du Fou and other similar places (and not so similar: museums, exhibitions and the likes): the built-in capacity of attracting new recruits to the always ongoing war to not forget our deeds of the past so we can understand them and, maybe, not do the same thing again.

So this is a highly advisable way to keep in touch with History while you relax during your holidays. And, of course, those friends of yours always picking on you and your weird hobbies (like reading, researching and visiting desolated ruins in far away places) would be frustrated when they know that you have been to a theme park. Just like everyone else.

Pui du Fou: the Roman Arena.
Pui du Fou: the Roman Arena.

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