The Discovery of France by Graham Robb

My first book of the year, and I won’t be surprised if it’s the most fascinating one I read all year.

The book has two parts. In the first, Robb examines the character of the various regions of pre-industrial western Europe that would eventually compose themselves into what we now call France. In the ages before the Revolution, the typical paysan‘s world was limitted to his own pays, or more-or-less the area from which the bells of his village church could be heard. Each pays, socially and economically seperated from its neighbors, could develop its own customs, its own dialect, and its own identity. Furthermore, isolated as they were, and with population and resources spread out practically to the point of invisibility, the rural population was largely ignored by contemporary powers-that-be and the history-writers who followed.

In the second part of the book, we see how these disunited pays were joined together to form what we now know as France. Robb shows how this process was not easy and not uniform, with endless variation in the speed and degree of acceptance of French identity in the different regions. Only the increasing availability of transportation by trains and bicycles, and the explicitly nationalistic propaganda emanating from the central government (the better to encourage sacrifice for the national interest in the event of war) were able to complete the process of unifying the country.

Interesting threads of the narrative and digressions include the status of the cagots, a persecuted minority now largely forgotten; the role of tourism in developing commerce between the French center and the regions; and of course the importance of the bicycle in speeding communication and the Tour de France in creating a national spectacle. Early in the book is a look at the distribution of the dialects (patois) of France and the corresponding variations in agriculture and customs of their speakers.

A few minor quibbles: Robb begins the book with a prologue in which he says that much of the book was informed by his experience touring the country by bicycle, but until the next to last chapter he makes only oblique references to this experience — I had expected cycling to be something of a unifying theme for the book.

Also, in several places there are explicit references to other parts of the book using phrases like “throughout the remainder of this part of the book” and explicit cross-references to other chapters that are jarring in their pedantic directness amid the otherwise smooth narrative tone.

Regardless of any minor defects, this is a fantastic book, and well worth your time. Even for readers who aren’t especially interested in French history, this is an interesting case study in the variations of culture in pre-industrial Europe, and the tremendous portion of human activity usually neglected by what we call “history”.


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