Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Village of the Years 1500-1900 (Poul-Fetan)

Imagine five families in the 16th century, who build a little village. And it's in this lovely part of Brittany (which had just been joined to France in 1532), and it's green and lush and fertile, and the generations stay and all is well. This steady cycle continues until the late 19th-century, a really long time for a small village tucked up into unexpected hills of Brittany, to survive. But it's the big push to modernization, industrialization, and urbanization that provokes its demise: one by one, the inhabitants start leaving for the big city (Lorient, or Vannes mostly) until there is no one left. The little village falls into ruin, forgotten within the gently rolling wooded hills. Then, in 1979, citizens of the very nearby town of Quistinic decided to save this village, and they set about putting together an enormous reconstruction and pedagolical project.

The result is Poul-Fetan, a place where you can walk amongst thatch-roof houses and see the sights, hear the sounds, and smell the smells of 19th century rural life. A really interesting set of decisions was made around this beautiful place. Despite the success of Le Retour de Martin Guerre, it was decided that the village was not to be 16th century, but rather 19th. It was a good decision: there's more to reconstruct, more access to actual artefacts, more of a sense of possibility in seeing the exhibits within each of the houses.

But as you walk through the village, you can imagine the 16th century easily enough - in the thatched roofs, in the low doorways, in the fields all around. The things that stay. It's the first time I've been in a space in which the Middle Ages established the structure and you actually get to see how it was built upon, how those Middle Ages were lived with for hundreds of years after their passing. So the 19th century I was looking at was not only indebted to the Middle Ages, it lived with them.

Labor, especially women's labor, didn't change a great deal during those intervening centuries. I always think of those 1950s commercials showing women smiling next to their washing machines. Spend a little time watching washerwomen, and you understand why. Big sheet laundries were done twice a year (spring and fall) and took three days. We were presented with a snippet of those three days - two women kneeling on "cushions" of hay and soaking, soaping, soaking again and beating the sheets. The "animation" lasted about half an hour, and they both spoke in character the entire time, trading stories about mothers-in-law and a wedding in Lorient and more. On a sunny spring day, it looked lovely - simple and pure. It took a wry Mac response to bring me back to reality: absolutely nothing was simple in those days - even getting a cup of water was a great, big deal. Physical simplicity was certainly unachievable. But what about social simplicity? Five families living in a village - sounds simple, right?

What surprised me so much was the amount of hierarchy in a village such as this. You think "five families," you think "practically communal living." And yet, there was one family that had a bigger house than everyone else; and one family who owned the workhorse in town; and one family who had rights to the one oven in town. I marvel to think of this micro-organization: this tiny village of five families - how did they come to agree? did they like each other? where did they get their sense of hierarchy?

Children were welcome at the dinner table, for example, only when they were eight (8) years old. Only the father (the "maturin" - a word I'd never heard before, but one that I like: the "mature" man is the leader of the family); only the father got to use a knife. Here, you're seeing one of the two 19th-century ladies stoking her fire (which had to be on all day because everything took longer). Behind her is what's called a "lit-coffre" - the bed is hidden within what looks like a large wardrobe. At night, they closed the doors! For heat? for intimacy? There was a children's bed (which you see here and an adult bed on the same wall).

The interior kitchen/bedroom immediately conjured up a 19th-century painting of a domestic interior for Mac. I think of the French government swooping in and modernizing so much of Brittany. This little girl seems caught up in daydreaming. She doesn't yet know the posh interiors that Whistler is painting. Not being a romantic about the Middle Ages, and not romanticizing their grinding longue durée as well (when will these Middle Ages? they must have wondered down by the laundry pool in the 19th century), I am nonetheless torn between being stunned at the poverty I see in a painting such as this, and the beauty and immediacy that is there, too.

Not much time to think about all this, since the wheel must be turned to grind the grains. Just kidding - the big horse you saw earlier would have done the pulling: the guys in charge of this "animation" put the kids to work for a lark. Iris and the little boy next to her have happy, contented smiles on their faces; Oliver's face (I don't know if you can see it) is hilarious: he is giving it his all with great gusto - it looks as though he might be shouting encouragement to the others: "Pull! Pull like you've never pulled before!!!"

The kids all got to say hello to the workhorse - 17 years old he is, and he's the one to pull the plow for all of the fields at Poul-Fetan. For him, it's still the 16th century, or the 19th - it doesn't really matter. Here's Iris, calm in his presence.

Here she is spinning in the wool house. She absolutely loved watching this machine in action - I think she found the transformation from lump of shorn wool to tight little yarn most satisfying.

The dyeing display I found especially intriguing - it really looks like a pharmacy or a kitchen, a reminder of how interconnected the natural resources were. I keep trying to think of exactly how this differs from Conner Prairie, aside from the obvious difference of medieval roots. Conner Prairie was also built around a 19th-century site, and it, too, has people in period costume walking about. I'm having a hard time characterizing the differences - perhaps before the industrial revolution, the 19th century wasn't so different in France as it was in America.

Lest you think it was all work and no play, rest assured, there were games a-plenty in 19th-century Brittany. In this one, you did the tour of Brittany by walking on 172 stumps that wove their way through the different regions of Brittany. Not in those shoes, though (dang).

And they've set up a wee tavern in one of the houses, too. I finally had my Breizh Cola (sweeet), the girls had their diabolos (Sprite with grenadine syrup) and Oliver and Mac their usuals (glass of milk and coffee, respectively). The thing is, the kids loved everything about this place: they could understand the machines they saw, immediately get a scope of the place (i.e. not fear getting lost), love the animals (pigs,the horse, cows, sheep), and definitely play the games. One of the hardest things about teaching history, at least pre-industrial history, is how often those period are infantilized: seen as simple and straight-forward. It's maddening because, I firmly believe, the human condition has always been complex. We mistake industrial simplicity with philosophical simplicity: if they were washing sheets all day, they didn't have time to think complex thoughts. I would actually think that the tedium of the labor would provoke lots of escapes into thought. That's certainly what listening to the washer-women made me think. But I wouldn't know, my life is physically so easy, I literally can't fathom the kind of physical effort it took to just get through a day. So yes, the kids loved Poul-Fetan, not because it, too, is child-like, but perhaps because they can still understand the physical effort it took to get through a day. No, they don't work, but moving through the world can still be a challenge!

Ok, it's getting late, and I'm not really making any sense. Here's a last just beautiful shot, where you can start to see the slope of the land down to the right. Lush, green, fertile, possible.

The kids each got a new friend at the little gift shop - I love Oliver's mushroom; big-hearted Iris got a fawn, and Eleanor got a pig she named "Wildhood" - and then renamed "Patrick." They played with those guys right until bedtime - and probably into the night!

On our way home, we stopped in Quistinic, the little town that saved the village of Poul-Fetan from oblivion, and Mac took this picture of the WWI monument (there really is one in every town, no matter how small - ever a reminder of a devastation that still marks the landscape). Mac's work with memorials is really happening, and he is revealing some fascinating new insights into the presentation and reception of Dix's war paintings. No picnic. We tried our "hour and a half each" in the morning this morning, and it worked! I refined the paper some more, and, so exciting, saved it as a file entitled "Force Chapter" - yea!

Last picture is this lovely little shot that Oliver took of me and Mac at a restaurant in Plöermel (went shoe shopping for the kids this morning!) - the Café de la Tour - filled with Combat des Trente imagery. Reminder that we need to set up the battlefield once again! For now, peace and Poul-Fetan.

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