“The Discovery of France” by Graham Robb


Lately my interest in France has been piqued for a few reasons.  First of all, I saw Les Miserables over Christmas; my wife asked me if I knew about the historical events in the story.  I mumbled something about the French Revolution… actually, I was off by 40+ years!  I realized my grasp of French history was pretty lacking.  I only have a vague outline of bourgeoisie, guillotines, and Napoleon; then the Nazis invaded sometime after that.

A couple of weeks later I heard an NPR story about a Breton singer, who does Celtic music.  Which isn’t too surprising, since Brittany is one of the six Celtic nations.  Wait, what?  I really never knew that!

Anyway, “The Discovery of France” discussion dovetails quite nicely from that last anecdote.  The main idea is that France is a very diverse nation, and was not truly unified until shockingly late — it took the inventions of the bicycle and railroad in the mid-late 1800’s to really homogenize society and create a nation.  Previously, what we think of as “French” was generally just describing Paris and nearby environs.  A crazy thought is that most of Europe was probably similar – a small percentage of the population (in the cities) were the movers and shakers of history; the sparsely populated but almost infinitely numerous and diverse villages and regions were almost unaware or at least indifferent to the affairs of the “Parisiens.”  At least until the taxman or army recruiter came to town.  (Or surveyors working for the Cassini map-making expedition – Robb’s opening anecdote is of a surveyor who was killed by natives of a particular village who were convinced his hieroglyphical scribblings, odd instruments and generally poking around were signs of devilish purposes.)

Languages and customs varied wildly even a few day’s journey in any direction.  However, Robb does make a few generalizations.  The life of most of the peasant population was pretty static for several centuries, and somewhat grim by today’s standards.  Winter was almost a time of hibernation.  Very little work was done, but not (solely) out of laziness – calories were scarce and needed to be stretched as far as possible.  Living on the verge of starvation kind of tends to limit your extracurricular activities.  Not to mention creativity and entrepreneurship.

Travel in the interior of France was a hazardous endeavour.  Road upkeep was generally a civic duty for peasants, who could be punished if they didn’t participate.  Forced, non-professional labor somehow resulted in a remarkably unsafe and ill-maintained road system.  Robb quotes from a gem of a French-German phrase book in a few places when discussing what travel was like through the interior, when people rarely did so and never for sport or vacation:

  • “Postilion; stop, the brakes must be attached.”
  • “I believe that the wheels are on fire.  Look and see.”
  • “Postilion, a man has just climbed onto the back of the coach.  Make him get down.”
  • “There is a large lump on his head.  Should we not apply a coin to the lump in order to flatten it?”

What do you think?

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