The Accidental Donkeys of Le Plessis-Robinson

I have been researching the curious tale of the *chutes des ânes* during the Belle Epoque in the early years of the twentieth century, in Le Plessis-Robinson, a Paris suburb. It is a remarkable story and this is a very appropriate day of the calendar to celebrate it.

As a donkey keeper and retired Geography teacher, I spend many hours researching cultural traditions around the world involving donkeys. Friends find this curious but I tell them it keeps me mentally alert and gives me something to talk about at dinner parties – although I have not been invited to a dinner party for quite a long time now – and I have not found any history more strange than the accident-prone donkey riders of Le Plessis-Robinson, circa 1900-1914.

A ‘plessis’ is a village enclosed by a fence made of twigs. ‘Robinson’ was added to the name due to the tree-house wine bars in the main street: ‘Robinson’ from the tree-house in The Swiss Family Robinson which was a popular book of the period. These wine bars or ‘guinguettes’ in the main street – the Promenade à Robinson – were a series of interconnected drinking houses built in the trees. On a clear day, the tree-house wine bars of this suburb to the south west of Paris could be seen from the Eiffel Tower and many day trippers travelled there on a Sunday because the alcohol tax was lower in the suburbs.

Citizens in Promenade à Robinson riding home after drinking in the tree-house wine bars. See example of a tree-house *guinguette* in the top right of picture.

In 1900 the Belle Epoque in central Paris was famous for new art movements, but Le Plessis-Robinson became famous for the tradition of postcards showing the *chutes des ânes* or falls from donkeys. Everyone in France became familiar with these postcards, popular with day trippers who sent them to friends and relatives; but few observers knew exactly how this tradition began. Even the eminent psychoanalyst Carl Jung visited Le Plessis-Robinson while researching for Volume 9 (Part 1) of his Collected Works, but he dismissed the phenomenon as “group hysteria originating in a misinterpreted archetype of the collective unconscious.” He was unsuccessfully sued for slander by the Town Council.

“Group hysteria caused by a misinterpreted archetype”: the verdict of psychoanalyst Carl Jung

In fact my research shows that the *chutes des ânes* can be explained by three main factors:

  1. Lower alcohol taxes in the suburbs meant cheap wine was available, but the exit from the tree-houses was hazardous;
  2. Drinkers rode home on donkeys along the Promenade à Robinson and mishaps were frequent;
  3. Finally, lightweight portable cameras meant falling off donkeys became a suitable subject for street photographers.

Due to the slow shutter speeds on cameras of the period, the only way to successfully capture the image of a rider falling from a donkey was to stage the scene and ask everyone to remain still. Riders and photographers spent hours contriving artistic poses and everyone had to keep still, including bystanders; so the citizens spent many hours motionless in the main street. As these postcards from Le Plessis-Robinson gained popularity, the Town Council began to monopolise the market and regulate the kind of poses that were allowed in *chutes des ânes* postcards. In many we see a Town Hall referee raising his arms to declare a particular pose null and void. Arguments about censorship led to one mayor of Le Plessis-Robinson being charged with autocratic excesses in 1906 and replaced – in a highly charged municipal election – by a mayor who then allowed women to fall off donkeys for the first time! This was a victory for emancipation but also led to greater variety of fashion in the donkey-falling postcards.

One of the very last *chute d’un âne* images from Le Plessis-Robinson is the highly stylised postcard “Mauvais cavalier – Quelle chute!!!” (see photo below) in which a bridegroom falls from a donkey, meanwhile the bride begins to launch herself from her donkey in a rare side-saddle fall. The Town Council umpire has already raised his arms and declared, “Non! This is not permitted under the revised 1913 rules!” It was thought newly-weds falling from donkeys would bring marriage into disrepute, but the onlookers cried out indignantly with their objections to the disqualification and it went on to become the bestselling *chute* postcard of all time, encouraging young couples from more fashionable parts of Paris to hold their weddings in Le Plessis-Robinson and emulate the scene by falling from donkeys.

As the bridegroom falls from his donkey, note the classic ‘contraposto’ positioning of left hand on ground while left knee is bent and left foot poised in mid-air. The right foot is still caught on the donkey saddle.

There remains some uncertainty about the role of the Catholic Church in these proceedings, but parish archives from 1911 suggest that Monsieur le Curé of the church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste (founded 1112, rebuilt 1737) was recalled by the Bishop of Nanterre after a man playing Jesus in false beard and white robes, who was riding a donkey in the Palm Sunday procession, dived from his mount onto the ground – which was strewn with palm fronds – and the crowds shouted, “Hosanna au chute du Fils de Dieu!” The bishop was unimpressed by the curé’s explanation: “It was a parable of the Incarnation, God descending to earth.” The hapless priest was hastily packed off to a remote mission in the Congo.

In the spring of 1914 the Town Council met to decide the future of the *chutes des ânes* and on the first day of April they voted to permanently end the practice, as World War 1 was due to start in August and following that conflagration, there would only be a short period before World War 2. Falling off donkeys would not help the national war effort.

As time went on, much of the local history was lost when the Germans occupied Paris in 1940 and dynamited the tree-house wine bars on the Promenade à Robinson after the Gestapo saw the framed pictures of people falling off donkeys and condemned the municipality as a hotbed of deviance and surrealism.

Today the municipal website proclaims the town’s *jumelage* with Woking in England, but Woking Borough Council’s website doesn’t mention being twinned with Le Plessis-Robinson and there is no local tradition of falling from donkeys.

Was the twinning of these towns based on a misunderstanding? Some researchers point to the notorious typographic error in the “Woking in History” article (see the Woking News & Mail of February 29th 1993.) A simple typographer’s confusion may have led to Woking twinning with Le Plessis-Robinson. (Since Brexit, none of that matters as the people of Woking no longer recognise the existence of France, so the reference to twinning of towns has been removed from the Woking website.)

Was this the confusion that led to the town-twinning with Le Plessis-Robinson?
Not a “Woking donkey in 1909” but a “Working donkey in 1909,” in Calcutta.

Today this extraordinary history is commemorated with an annual special meal held in the wine bars of Le Plessis-Robinson (sadly no longer in tree-houses) consisting of the local delicacy of poisson d’Avril which is a freshwater cod caught by men in traditional Belle Epoque straw boater hats, skimming along the river Seine in flat-bottomed punts and stunning the fish with their punt poles. Once they have caught sufficient fish, they practise their *chutes des bateaux* and fall into the river Seine. There are no longer any donkeys to fall from in Le Plessis-Robinson, but the folk-memory continues: the citizens of Le Plessis-Robinson eat their poisson d’Avril with burnt pommes frites, which the children jubilantly call *caca d’âne* (‘donkey gifts’) and this tradition is always celebrated on April 1st.

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