Book of

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography, by Graham Robb

I lived in France for two years as a child. I’ve traveled through it a lot. I’ve read many books about European history and culture, most of which are at least partly about France. I would have said that France is one of the countries least in need of discovery, but Graham Robb shows me how very, very wrong I was.

Robb’s research uses 19th-century and earlier travelogues to guide his bicycle trips through the provinces. In the process, he realizes that “France”, the unified nation at the head of Europe, is itself a very recent construct. Only a hundred years ago, most French citizens did not speak French as a native language. There were the well-defined non-French languages like Breton and Provençal, but even more there were the many speakers of “patois”. These are the non-Parisian dialects that have been treated as debased forms of “true” French, but were in fact just as ancient and well-established in their regions as Parisian French is in the capital.

As is my habit, I’ll make a list of things I learned or that struck me, not in any particular order:

1. France (used to?) have a class of untouchables, the Cagots. In some parts of south-western France, churches would have a special side-door and baptismal font for the cagots, lest they touch the other parishoners.

There are a variety of theories about the origin of the Cagots, how they got their untouchable status, but what is really stunning to me is they’ve been outcasts for at least 500 years, maybe a millennium, for no particular reason. They don’t seem to be an ethnic or language group, they don’t practice any of the smellier trades (leathermaking, etc.), they don’t seem to be physically different from their neighbors. Indeed, in many areas cagots had to wear a duck or goose’s food on their clothes (probably the origin of the expression “a base canard”), because otherwise no-one could tell them apart. Yet their oppressive discrimination persisted for *centuries*, it didn’t fade on its own even though there was nothing holding it up from generation to generation — nothing except habit.

I’d like to believe that racism, etc., will fade on its own over time, but this really changed my mind. *Centuries* of discrimination, based on nothing.

2. When I was little girl in France, sets of dolls (paper or otherwise) showing the traditional costumes of the various provinces were very popular. It turns out that these costumes really reflect what was in fashion at the time ethnographers came through to record — and thereby fossilize — the “traditional garb”, which was really derived from lower-class Parisian fashions with a time-lag of years or decades.

3. Some isolated areas of France practiced head-flattening into the 19th century.

4.The tourist guides, of which the Guide Michelin is the descendant, stuck to known or beaten paths for centuries. Thus, something like the Grand Canyon du Verdon could remain essentially undiscovered until the 20th century, even though it’s in a region that has been heavily settled for more than 2000 years.

5. Of course, since this is France, it’s also about food. Now the main thing IMHO that makes French food so special, and that Americans have only really learned in the past 40 years, is local ingredients: local wine, local vegetables, local meat, local butter. French food is local for two reasons: because each little region was largely self-sufficient, and because each region *could* be self-sufficient.

Because peasants could mostly feed themselves, transportation could be poor; because the roads were awful (the corvée was stunningly inefficient), peasants *had* to feed themselves, and were often right up against it by the end of winter. English visitors and ambitious Frenchmen were disgusted by how unindustrious French peasants were during the winter darkness — many spent as much time as possible rolled up in bed asleep — but semi-hibernation might have been the only way to stretch their food and fuel to spring. France, like China, was much closer to a Malthusian limit than England.

Robb writes about the non-human population, too: the millions of horses and donkeys, dogs and sheep, that shared the landscape — and occasionally the houses — with the people. He writes about movements of people: migrations to Paris and back, transhumance from summer to winter fields. And he writes about how it changed, and how late: many of these patterns persisted until World War I, though Robb argues that the bicycle was just as important.

One area that Robb determinedly overlooks is the sexual geography of France. He quotes from a variety of pre-Revolutionary travel guides, and notices how systematically they’ll note whether the women in a particular region are “pretty” or “friendly”. He doesn’t realize (or doesn’t say) why this information was so significant: because sex tourism was an recognized motive or at least benefit for travel.

Robb writes about the mass migration of apprentices from the provinces to Paris, boys and girls travelling in semi-organized swarms — but doesn’t notice that his list of trades they practiced in the city seems male-focused. What were all those girls traveling to Paris to *do*? Did they work and marry in the city, did they move back to their villages, or did they become part of the city’s very public and busy sex trade? Robb never mentions any of these issues, which is a very mealy-mouthed, unFrench way to behave, though it leaves a good jumping-off-point for some future PhD.

Altogether, this is an astonishing book for the way it rips off the drape of uniformity from what should have been a familiar, well-traveled landscape. If France needed so much discovery, so much more will everyplace else.

actual post date: Dec. 21, 2009

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