marycatelli (marycatelli) wrote,

The Discovery of France

The Discovery of France by Graham Robb

Did you know that in nineteenth century France, most Frenchmen did not speak French?

That Fenimore Cooper visited France and found the roads full as bad as the worst in the United States?  (Which meant those on the frontier, for the US)  He shrewdly observed that the corvee -- enforced labor on the roads -- was generally enforced only when the local noble came by.

That at the time of the Reign of Terror most French peasants didn't even know that the king had been executed?

A fascinating book, if horrifying in places.  The picture of peasants that it paints is one of dull, narrow-minded, lumpish, churlish clods.  Many of them spent the winter months in a kind of torpor.  Food was scarce, after all.  Many "peasant crafts" were practiced by very few -- if they weren't made up after the fact.

In places, its polemic effect -- arguing against the common views that France was, after all, a nation -- seems to overstrain it.  The things he's describing he has evidence for, but I'm not sure it bears all the weight he gives it.  On the other hand, that might just be that it's unfamiliar to me.  And he does have a certain tendency to describe any behavior not explicitly Christian as pagan -- some of the instances he gives are clearly superstitious but not pagan, and others are just behaving badly.

The first attempt to map France started in the reign of Louis XIV.  It succeeded by seventy years later -- during Napoleon's time -- despite one cartographer being murdered by locals and another being so crippled that he had to retire on a pension.

Some of the pictures it paints of the countryside would not be pleasant to run across in a novel.  Peasants like this would be No Fun At All.  (That's a technical term, there.)  I mean, they described brides as foreign, meaning not from outside France, or even outside their province but outside their pays.  But some of it would leaven some world-building.

And he's got some fascinating facts.  Like the War of the Demoiselles.    French peasants disguising themselves as the -- ehem -- Good Folk and attacking the enforcers of new forest laws.  All those wonderful little quirks of history that are so useful to steal.

Tags: history reviews: 15th-18th centuries, history reviews: 19th century-wwi, history reviews: across eras, secondary source, world-building: food, world-building: social classes, world-building: social structure

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