The Discovery of France; A Historical Geography

The Discovery of France; A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War by Graham Robb. W.W. Norton, 2008, paper.


Graham Robb argues that in the year of revolution, 1789, France, the most populous country in Europe, was a “terra incognito.” Few Parisians knew anything about the France outside of the Paris basin. Until the advent of the bicycle, the known universe for most provincials was a radius of fifteen miles from their home.


The French language was still not understood by the southern half of France where the Occitan languages dominated the countryside. There were and remain to this day important regional languages — Breton, Catalan, Flemish, Provençal — that have survived French nation-building and high-speed travel.


The provinces were thinly inhabited except for parts of the Rhone valley, the Rhineland, Flanders, and the English Channel coast. Robb speaks of these sparse, insular rural populations as tribes and clans, with their own patois. These “tribes” often claimed to have had their own “histories.” Many liked to think that their village and its population had a Roman ancestory, the result of the Roman conquest of Gaul. Or they were Normans, remnants of Viking invaders. Villagers were self-sufficient, poor, and living on the brink of hard times at best. The “painted peasantry” of the artists’ shows none of their infirmities.


Bourgeoisie observers of the country and its inhabitants engaged in what Robb calls “moral mapping.” They commented on the stupidity and impudence of the peasantry. Their dumb silence, was of course, partly because they could not understand urban French speakers. Frenchmen became smarter the closer their domicile was to the urban, educated elites.


Much of this isolation of rural France was the result of the time it took to travel distances. That would change only with the introduction of faster modes of transportation, first the bicycle, some water transport, a better roads, and finally the railroads. Napoleon began working on a road network that benefited travelers who could afford to take the public stage coaches. Most Frenchmen could not afford speed.


Having described how few Frenchmen traveled and hence knew anything about the world beyond their village or town, Robb then enumerates various populations of migrants and commuters. The most celebrated is the transhumant migrations of sheep and goats and their herders to summer pastures in  the mountains of eastern and southern France. Apprentice craftsmen acquiring local techniques of working with local materials by taking the Tour de France (as it was then called). There was a substantial movement of children to urban areas to become chimney sweeps, peddlers, beggars, and petty thieves. They would go back to spend time in their villages often returning to the cities with hand crafted goods from the rural areas to peddle.


There was also a substantial number of pilgrims discovering France. The great pilgrimage to the burial site and shrine of the apostle St. James at Santiago de Compostela in Spain originated in southwestern France. It generated something like a tourist industry to accommodate those ambulatory pilgrims. Another well-known example was the huge pilgrim travel associated with a visit to Lourdes and the site of Bernadette Soubirous’s visions.


There were also numerous local and roadside shrines all over provincial France that were sites of pilgrimage. Many were old Druid sites, sacred stones and other natural objects, attesting to the survival of pagan spirituality. The Catholic Church worked to suppress these shrines. By 1914 many of the stone shrines had been crushed and used to build roads.


Despite the slow pace of travel prior to the railroads, Robb claims that rumor could travel nine miles per hour. The most famous example is the ‘great fear’ that spread through the provinces in July and early August of 1789, the result of rumor that foreign troops and numerous bandits financed by vengeful aristocrats had

invaded the country. Graham Robb has little to say about the role of the telegraph and the revolution that it brought to the speed of communication in the nineteenth century.


Robb’s The Discovery of France is historical geography at its best. A cyclist, he invites the traveler/tourist to return to a slower speed to rediscover for themselves France in all of its diversity.


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