Like so many of the lovely things in life (the little black dress, confetti, macarons, ballet, and so much more …), the carousel originated in Paris.
Rewind to the jousting tournaments of medieval times, knight games that were in part inspired by the myth of Sir Lancelot — that passionate lover, brave fighter and all-round dreamboat, who captured French society’s imagination as the epitome of chivalry, the knightly code that encompassed courage and courtesy. Lancelot wannabes would compete at tournaments in all their finery to thrill the maidens.
The popularity of jousting — where two knights on horseback would charge at one another at full speed, and try to unhorse the other with his lance — continued into the Renaissance era, even though it could be a brutal affair. The death knell came when King Henri II was killed during one match (I’ll spare you the gory details); his devastated wife Catherine de Medici banned the sport.
By the 17th century, jousting tournaments had been replaced by a less violent, more elaborate version of an equine extravaganza known as un carrousel. Almost an equestrian ballet, a carousel was an intricately coordinated pageant of a parade, with horses and their riders elaborately dressed. One of the most famous carousels of the time was that of 1662, a celebration Sun King, Louis XIV’s first son. It was held just to the west of the Louvre (the royal palace at the time), which is why this pubic square there is now called the Place du Carrousel.
Le Grand Carrousel de 1662, Henri de Gissey
Carousel games included ring tilting, where players would ride their horses, lance in hand, towards a ring, which was usually hanging from a pole by a ribbon. The aim was to spear the highest number of rings. In order to hone their ring-spearing skills, noblemen practised on a device that consisted of rudimentarily carved wooden horses suspended from beams radiating out from a central pole; to the side, rings hung off another pole, waiting to be speared. Oui: the earliest prototype of today’s merry-go-round.
Some of the oldest carousels in Paris are actually close in resemblance to their 17th-century ancestors. The one in the Jardin du Luxembourg has a troop of creaky horses, along with some random wooden wildlife, cranking around under their bottle-green circus-tent top. The riders on the outer circle of animals take a small spear from the operator, who then stands by holding a ring dispenser — the kids have to aim their stick and try to detach as many rings as possible as they go around. It’s a childhood ritual of which many Parisians have fond memories.
Over time, of course, most merry-go-rounds have forgotten their initial purpose, and are little more than a whirl of sparkling lights and pretty music. Some might say, as far as rides go, they’re actually as dull as you can get. But once you know the real tale, you have to admit the carousel has had one incredible ride through history.